Biden seizes the chance to take his next steps in the geopolitical chess game with China and Russia


Posted by Kevin Liptak, CNN

President Joe Biden has this week faced escalating tensions with China and Russia, testing his ability to manage antagonistic leaders, and forcing other countries to choose either side.

It was only in the past two days that Biden’s White House announced that American diplomats would be boycotting the 2022 Winter Olympics in China, and the president made a secure video call with Vladimir Putin making it clear that the US is ready to impose economic fines in case Moscow escalates military action in Ukraine.

“A nation cannot force another nation to change its border; a nation cannot tell another to change its policy; and nations cannot tell others who to work with, ”Biden told the Russian head of state, according to an official familiar with the conversation.

Two days later, Biden will convene a democracy summit, intended as a show of power against authoritarian regimes, hoping to argue for democracy while urging his allies to take a tougher stance on countries like Russia and China.

The week’s events exposed competing countercurrents in Biden’s foreign policy – isolating anti-democratic regimes while trying to engage their leaders. It’s a balancing act that crystallizes the competition that Biden defines as the rest of the 21st century – democracy vs. autocracy – while also showing some echoes of the previous one.

When the White House announced this week that American officials would not be attending the upcoming Beijing Winter Olympics, officials were reluctant to label the decision a “boycott” and were careful not to draw parallels with Jimmy Carter’s move in 1980, who even prevented American athletes from participating in the Olympics Moscow Games at the height of the Cold War.

A comparison with this long stretch of icy superpower competition is undesirable in the Biden government, which downplays these similarities with the current global threats. Biden himself told the United Nations earlier this year that he did not want to divide the world into “rigid blocks”, despite repeatedly describing an existential struggle between democracies and autocracies.

Talks with leaders like Putin and China’s Xi Jinping, while trying to convince allies to form a common front against them, has proven to be a permanent element of Biden-era foreign policy as it seeks to stem deteriorating relations with Russia and to save China from falling into open conflict.

The White House insists that Thursday’s Democracy Summit is not meant to be a challenge to any single country or leader, though some seem to interpret it that way.

But the list of invitees – including Taiwan – has already sparked anger in China who insisted that it was also a democracy.

“We see much more than just a government in the goals of the summit,” said a senior administrator on Tuesday while previewing the gathering. “The summit really aims to bring a diverse group of attendees together to create a common ground for democratic renewal and we think it’s a strong story to tell.”

The meeting was originally conceived as a candidate in hopes of refuting then-President Donald Trump’s embrace to global strong men. They explained that the invitation list – which includes some countries with poor human rights records like Pakistan – was designed to highlight democracy at all levels of society, not just national governments.

During the summit, Biden will not shy away from recognizing the recent struggles in the United States to maintain its own democracy, according to officials involved in planning the event, who cited Biden’s previous criticism of Trump’s false claims of widespread electoral fraud as something, that he could repeat in his two appearances at the virtual meeting.

“The President has made it absolutely clear that protecting the constitutional rights of Americans and the integrity of our elections from the systematic attacks involving people – especially Republican lawmakers – across the country is a must, and that this historic threat has strong voices requires. “Legislation on rights. And that’s what you’ll hear from the president again this week, ”said one official.

Democracy vs. Autocracy

The proof that democracy can do more than autocracy was the basis of Biden’s entire foreign policy and the driving theme of his two trips abroad so far.

Yet bitter domestic policies and persistent inequality have given countries like Russia and China an opportunity to criticize American-style democracy as flawed and seek to undermine Biden as he works to rally the world against authoritarianism. China’s State Council released a paper over the weekend entitled “China: Democracy That Works,” despite the country not holding elections for its leaders and banning opposition parties.

Putin, meanwhile, has claimed that the arrests of rioters involved in the Sept.

Presidents Putin and Xi are both men with whom Biden has a long history, although both have shown a steady tendency towards authoritarianism since Biden’s meeting as Vice-President.

When he began a two-hour and one-minute phone call with Putin on Tuesday to warn of dire economic consequences should he press ahead with the invasion of Ukraine, Biden made it clear that he would like to see the Russian leader again soon.

“I hope that we will meet in person next time,” Biden told Putin as the talks began.

From then on, the conversation got more serious, said officials, who said Biden had put more matter-of-factly into what could happen should Putin decide to press ahead with an invasion, including possible sanctions against members of Putin’s close circle and sending additional U.S. troops to the NATO member states.

“It was a useful meeting,” Biden’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan said afterwards, saying that Biden had warned Putin that he was ready to take steps the US would have previously avoided if he chose to invade.

“We are now ready for things that we did not do in 2014,” Biden told Putin, according to Sullivan.

It was a remarkable message, given Biden’s own recommendations when he was Vice-President of then-President Barack Obama, that the US is increasing lethal aid to Ukraine and inflicting severe economic pain on Russia – moves that have met with opposition from other government officials.

Rally the free world

Now Biden says he is ready to go further. If passed, top Russian oligarchs are likely to face sanctions, restrict travel options, and potentially cut off access to American banking and credit card systems. Officials have also considered decoupling Russia from the international SWIFT payments system on which Russia remains heavily dependent, a “nuclear” option that would cause serious economic damage.

Biden spent the evening before his phone call trying to convince European leaders to join him in threatening devastating economic sanctions against Russia should Putin decide to invade Ukraine, despite fears that the Russian president might stop gas supplies Scarce Europe in colder weather.

In recent weeks, US and foreign officials have also debated the possibility of a collective diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Olympics, though as of Wednesday only Australia had joined the US to announce such a boycott.

Just three weeks ago, Biden called a long virtual summit with Xi designed to add a sense of predictability to an otherwise divided Washington-Beijing relationship. Officials said the Olympics issue did not come up.

As Biden’s presidency began, there were signs that diplomacy with Russia and China would be a rocky endeavor. Within a week in March, Biden fueled Putin’s anger by calling him a “killer” in an interview while in Alaska some of his top diplomats openly fought with their Chinese counterparts while the cameras were rolling.

Since then, Biden and his team have tried to move relations with Russia and China to more predictable terrain, including by organizing summits between Biden and their leaders.

The difficulties of the approach also become clear.

Six months after his closely watched personal summit with Putin in Geneva – the success of which was only apparent in six months – he is working to fend off a possible Russian invasion of Ukraine.

The CNN Wire
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CNN’s Kaitlan Collins contributed to this report.


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