Why China Waited So Long to Congratulate Biden—And Russia Still Hasn't | Opinion

It is no surprise Beijing waited so long before congratulating President-elect Joe Biden on his election victory—or that Moscow has yet to do the same. Although they have refused to explain the delay, it appears to reflect wishful thinking rooted in serious geopolitical concerns.

The Trump administration deserves credit for formally shifting U.S. strategy toward great power competition, but Chinese and Russian leaders know a Biden administration is likely to take a far more collectively oriented, multilateral approach toward that competitive strategy that leverages allies rather than disparaging or weakening them. Pushing back against Russian and Chinese efforts to undermine the liberal international order—with allies by Washington's side—could dramatically alter the trajectory of the great power competition underway.

The Trump administration's 2017 National Security Strategy was a marked change from the approach of previous administrations, but it also reflected what had become an emerging consensus in the national security community and on both sides of the political aisle. Obsession with counterterrorism necessarily gave way to a focus on managing and countering efforts by authoritarian regimes in Moscow and Beijing to undermine the international order, shatter Western solidarity and shape the world in their image.

The problem with the Trump administration's strategy was its implementation.

The Trump administration has had a complex, inconsistent relationship with Moscow, to say the least. Early in President Donald Trump's term, it became clear the United States had a bifurcated policy toward Russia, with the executive agencies of the U.S. government pursuing one set of largely consistent, strategically competitive policies, and the White House frequently doing and saying something very different.

The administration took a similarly bifurcated approach to European allies, declaring NATO "an invaluable advantage" while simultaneously threatening to withdraw from the alliance or to defend only those allies that met alliance-wide defense spending goals.

With regard to China, the Trump administration has sought to push back its predatory economic statecraft more aggressively than any previous administration, including through tariffs, even as Trump occasionally lauded Xi Jinping.

Meanwhile, though, instead of unifying and bolstering Indo-Pacific allies in defense of common interests, the Trump administration imposed tariffs on them as well, threatened to withdraw U.S. troops from South Korea unless Seoul paid roughly 400 percent more to cover their costs and withdrew from a Pacific trade pact implicitly aimed against China.

Assuming the incoming Biden administration maintains the national security focus on great power competition—and there's plenty of reason to think it will—it seems highly likely the new president will seek a more multilateral approach to both Beijing and Moscow. This is particularly true in terms of economic policy, where a Biden administration could try to quickly resolve any outstanding transatlantic or transpacific trade disputes in the name of pursuing a rising tide that will lift all boats, American as well as allied. Subsequently, a Biden administration could focus on expanding and building upon existing trade and investment agreements among allies. This might include even joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which might be easier for Biden to pull off with a Republican-led Senate more amenable to free-trade.

Strengthening and reinvigorating the economies of the liberal democracies, coordinating strict requirements for and oversight of Chinese investment in the West, and working with key allies to reduce dependence on Russian fossil fuels are necessary first steps in 2021. Given the depth and breadth of the pandemic-induced recession, getting economic affairs in order must be the primary line of effort, and a multilateral approach will facilitate success more easily.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin speaks at the Foreign Ministry briefing in Beijing on November 9. On Friday, China finally congratulated President-elect Joe Biden. Russia has yet to do so. Greg Baker/AFP/Getty

Beyond the economic realm, Beijing and Moscow should also expect a more multilateral approach from Washington in terms of defense and security issues. In Europe, this might first consist of a rejuvenated restatement of the U.S. commitment to NATO's mutual defense clause, an immediate reversal of the short-sighted plan to cut U.S. troop presence in Germany, and more robust efforts to expose and counter Russia's hybrid war against the West. Meanwhile, Beijing should expect to see more persistent high-level attention devoted to getting Japan, Australia and India on the same page with Washington in counterbalancing China's regional bullying, as well as more intensified American efforts to spur greater cooperation between Seoul and Tokyo.

In defense, security and economic policy areas, a more multilateral approach leverages America's comparative advantage—its allies and partners. Russia and China lack anything remotely similar, and so it's no surprise they've each sought to foment division, undermine solidarity and peel away members of the Western community. A more multilateral approach to great power competition is likely to level the playing field, something neither Russia nor China cares to see happen.

John R. Deni is a research professor at the U.S. Army War College's Strategic Studies Institute and the author of NATO and Article 5.

The views expressed is this article are the author's own.