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How will the U.S. Vice President, Kamala Harris, approach U.S.-China relations?

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Image credit: Gage Skidmore/ flickr

Over the past several months, countless scholars and policy analysts have put forward predictions and recommendations for how the Biden administration might approach relations with China. Will Washington send an olive branch to Beijing in the interest of containing the spread of COVID-19? Will the administration work with China to curb global carbon emissions? What steps will Biden take to forestall the descent into a new Cold War?

Often overlooked in this discussion is the role that the Vice President will play in the crafting of American foreign policy. Biden and his team are entering the White House amid severe domestic challenges — from COVID-19 and an economic recession to an accelerated decay in American democracy. While the President’s hands will be tied at home, the Vice President may assume a greater role in foreign affairs. During the Obama years, by comparison, the President faced off against a slow economic recovery and drawn-out political gridlock, so it was the Vice President that famously spent “more time” with China’s General Secretary Xi Jinping than any other world leader. Now, in 2021, it is worth considering how the new Vice President might approach relations with Beijing.

It goes without saying that the bilateral relationship with China will be one of the most significant foreign policy issues of the United States for the foreseeable future. By many accounts, the United States and China have entered a period of great power rivalry. Competition has intensified across all aspects of the relationship, from trade and technology to global governance and strategic domains. In many cases, China is narrowing the power gap with the U.S. The U.K.’s Center for Economics and Business Research, for example, predicts that China’s economy will overtake the U.S.’ in dollar terms by 2028, five years earlier than previously forecast. Going forward, the Vice President’s style of engagement with Chinese leaders will greatly affect whether or not the two countries’ are able to effectively manage intensified competition.

Harris’ record on China policy reveals her largely principled view of foreign affairs. As a Senator, Harris co-sponsored the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act and the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act, which permit the use of sanctions against Chinese officials responsible for human rights violations. In her own words, the Vice President claims, “We [the administration] will cooperate with China on global issues like climate change, but we won’t allow human rights abuses to go unchecked.” In this way, Harris’ worldview can be characterized as a continuation of the liberal tradition in American politics, one that seeks to promote democratic values abroad.

When asked to describe the most important foreign policy achievement of the United States since the end of World War II, Harris cited “the post-war community of international institutions.” In this spirit, the Vice President is expected to reaffirm America’s commitment to multilateralism in the form of institutions — like NATO and the WHO — and revitalize international agreements — like the JCPOA and the Paris Agreement.

Despite her predilection toward values-based foreign policy, Harris is far from insensitive to economic and strategic concerns. During the Vice Presidential debate with Mike Pence in October, the then-democratic nominee argued that the Trump administration had “lost” the trade war with China. Harris characterized the administration’s unilateral tariff policies as self-defeating, while voicing support for addressing China’s trade violations within international bodies like the WTO. In conversation with the Council on Foreign Relations in 2019, Harris similarly suggested that the U.S. “work with allies in Europe and Asia to confront China on its troubling trade practices.” Forming this kind of joint coalition could enable the new administration to strike a stronger bargain with Beijing and, ultimately, prove even tougher on China than the administration before it.

In this way, the Vice President’s liberalism cannot be separated from her strategic thinking. Harris recognizes that upholding American values and related institutions sustains U.S. credibility and attracts allies. As such, the Vice President has recommended forging stronger ties with neglected partners in Africa to preempt “illiberal countries” from laying the ground rules there.

The rub, of course, is that a principled foreign policy risks alienating so-called illiberal counterparts just as it may bring like-minded parties closer together. If the U.S. insists, for instance, that China alter its behavior with respect to core sovereignty interests — in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Xinjiang, or Tibet — cooperation in other areas may be hard to come by, even on issues where the U.S. and China largely agree.

Looking back, it is clear that relations between Washington and Beijing remained stable during the Obama years largely as a result of the circumscribed scope in which engagement was carried out. While climate change and the economy remained front-rank issues, human rights and strategic concerns were relegated to secondary importance. It is within this context that the U.S. effectively coordinated with China during the financial crisis and signed several joint resolutions on climate change. On the other hand, the administration was unable to restrain China’s militarization of the South China Sea or put an end to state-sponsored cyberattacks on U.S. personnel and organizations. What this means for the incoming administration is that joint talks will have to proceed along parallel tracks whereby mutual differences can coexist with concrete progress on other issues. This approach may be best summarized with the Chinese idiom, “harmony through difference” (和而不同).

Over the next four years, the Vice President is expected to bring noticeable changes to the U.S.-China relationship, but her leadership is unlikely to significantly alter its long-term trajectory. While the form of engagement may shift — from bilateralism to multilateralism — and the focus of negotiations could change — from the U.S. trade deficit to climate change or human rights — U.S. relations with China are likely to remain fraught for decades to come.

The views expressed in the attached article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or positions of the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center.

Nathaniel Sher is a Research Assistant at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center in Beijing. He writes about U.S.-China relations, tech policy, and global governance. Nathaniel received his MA in International Relations from the University of Chicago.

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Witnessing Social Racism And Domestic Terrorism In Democratic America

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With just less than two weeks away from President-elect taking the office, the United States of America witnessed the worst of the worst it could ever do, since its discovery. Anti-democracy moves and violence is what American leadership stood against around the world and in particular in recent times since the Arab Spring, but the same ‘Mini Arab Spring’ was faced by America itself. The brave soldiers of America who took arms and enjoyed Saddam’s palace could not protect its own legislative branch, details about which make the very beginning of the American Constitution. The savior of democracy is struggling democracy at home as white supremacists and Trump supporter militias stormed at the US Capitol. Before having a critical outlook through the lens of Johan Galtung’s triangle of violence, it is potent to dig into what exactly is causing this situation in America. This started as protests at the National Mall which soon after Trump’s incitement turned into riots at the Capitol Building by masses without masks, painted with Republican colors and wrapped in MAGA merchandise. This storm over Congress seats came after months long instigation of Donald Trump’s claims about rigging in elections and his refusal to accept the results and especially when on Wednesday the Congressmen gathered to count the electoral votes and officially declared Biden as the next President of America. Amidst this siege over Capitol, arrests and vandalism of state property; Joe Biden was officially validated as the 46th President of the United States of America.

Apart from what became highlight of that week about Capitol Hill being invaded by pro-Trump supporters, critically analyzing the situation, it is evident enough that MAGA riots and Black Life Matters riots were quite evidently, differently handled by the state forces. This discrepancy in response to BLM can be better explained through Galtung’s 3 sides of violence. Galtung’s triangle shapes around three joints of connections: direct, cultural and structural violence, while the former has its roots in the latter two. Structural violence is defined as the unequal access and advantages to one racial, political, ethnic or religious group than the other in social and political orientations of systems that govern the state. Structural violence or social racism is evident in the varying responses that despite warnings about possible attacks during the electoral vote counts, Police did not seek advance help to prevent it, rather National Guard was deployed an hour after the protestors had already breached the first barricade. While in the case of BLM, the aggression of the Police and National Guard was evident in their gestures. While the anti-racism protests in June last year faced militarized response, none was done with anti-democratic riots.

While social racism is evident in America, it is yet to be witnessed what is to come next. Speaker of the House of Senate, Nancy Pelosi has already indicated removing President Trump from his office through the 25th Constitutional Amendment. Along with this, Joe Biden’s remarks about the situation also have long-term repercussions as well as expectations. Repercussions might come in terms of him calling the protestors as “domestic terrorists”. The FBI defines domestic terrorism as: “Violent, criminal acts committed by individuals and/or groups to further ideological goals stemming from domestic influences, such as those of a political, religious, social, racial, or environmental nature.” America, since more than 2 decades is already fighting its war against terrorism in various segments of the world, the use of this word at home, although might bring support for Biden’s sympathies for BLM and democracy, yet it might have long-term impacts. Mentioning of expectations, Americans at home and abroad, both desire to see actual reforms followed by on ground implementations to counter structural violence. Along with this, Biden shall have to re-construct the de-constructed notion that political violence and threat to democracy is far away from America and is for third world countries. The states upon which America used to show serious concern and used to send arms for their national interests are showing their worry over the situation in America which is even termed as ‘coup’. Having pin-pointed all this, Biden’s era needs a lot of reconstruction before it opts to enter any third world country or show its presence in any new Spring for democracy outside America.

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Joe Biden and his first contradictory foreign policy moves

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Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson

Those who thought that the elderly American President, formerly Barack Obama’s vice-President, would step into the international limelight as the wise and moderate statesman he had been during the election campaign have had to revise their judgement.

Just a few weeks after taking office, Joe Biden abruptly brought the United States back onto the Middle East stage with a dual political-military move that has aroused considerable perplexity and protest in the United States and abroad.

As Pentagon spokesman John Kirby pointed out, the first surprise move decided directly by the President was to order an aerial bombardment against two bases of militiamen believed to be close to Hezbollah and Iran, located in Syria near the border with Iraq.

Between 22 and 27 people, whether militiamen or civilians, are reported to have died in the attack, which took place during the night of February 25.

The order to strike the pro-Iranian militias was motivated by Biden’s need to react to an attack in Erbil, in Iraqi Kurdistan, at the beginning of February against a U.S. army logistics base, which resulted in the death of a Filipino employee of the base.

Commenting on the incident, Pentagon spokesman Kirby said: “The airstrikes have destroyed warehouses and buildings used on the border by pro-Iranian militias Kathaib Hezbollah and Kataib Sayyid al Shuhaba and have conveyed the unambiguous message that President Biden will always act to protect American personnel. At the same time, the action is intended to deliberately pursue the goal of de-escalating tension in both eastern Syria and Iraq’.

Apart from the fact that it sounds ambiguous to justify a surprise attack on the territory of a (still) sovereign State like Syria with the need to “reduce tension” in the region, President Biden’s initiative has aroused not a few perplexities also in the United States, in addition to the obvious protests of the government in Damascus.

While many Republican Senators and Congressmen have approved of Biden’s actions because, as Republican Senator Pat Toomey has argued, “Biden has the right to respond with weapons to the recent attacks supported by Iran against American interests”, members of his own party have not hidden their criticism and perplexity because allegedly the President did not respect the exclusive prerogatives of Congress in terms of “war actions”.

Democratic Senator Tim Kane was very harsh and explicit: “an offensive military action without Congressional approval is unconstitutional”.

His colleague from the same party, Chris Murphy, told CNN that “military attacks require Congressional authorization. We must require that this Administration adheres to the same behavioural standards we have required from previous Administrations…

We require that there be always legal justification for every American military initiative, especially in a theatre like Syria, where Congress has not authorised any military initiative”.

With a view to underlining the inconsistency of the White House’s justification that the attacks were to ‘reduce tension’ in the region, Democratic Congressman Ro Khana publicly stepped up criticism by saying, “We need to get out of the Middle East. I spoke out against Trump’s endless war and I will not shut up now that we have a Democratic President”.

As we can see, the criticism levelled at President Biden has been harsh and very explicit, thus marking the premature end of the ‘honeymoon’ between the Presidency and Congress that, in the U.S. tradition, marks the first hundred days of each new Administration.

President Biden’s military show of strength appears to be marked not only by the doubts over constitutionality raised by leading members of his own party, but also by the contradictory nature of the motivations and justifications.

According to the White House, in view of reducing tension in Syria, bombers need to be sent, without prejudice to the need to “convey a threatening signal” to Iran, at the very moment when the President himself is declaring he wants to reopen the “nuclear deal” with Iran, i.e.  the dialogue on the nuclear issue abruptly interrupted by his predecessor.

In short, the new President’s opening moves in the Middle East region do not seem to differ too much from those of his predecessors who, like him, thought that military action – even bloody and brutal – could always be considered a useful option as a substitute for diplomacy.

This military action, however, seems scarcely justifiable in its motivations if it is true that President Biden intends to reduce the tension in relations with Iran, which have become increasingly tense due to initiatives such as those of his predecessor, Donald Trump, who at the beginning of last year ordered the assassination of the highest-ranking member of the Iranian military hierarchy, Qassem Suleimani, who was shot by a drone near Baghdad.

President Biden’s other move that, in a delicate and sensitive theatre such as the Near East, appears at least untimely, was to authorise CIA to declassify the report on the assassination of the Saudi journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, killed in 2018 on the premises of the Saudi Consulate in Turkey.

The CIA report bluntly accuses Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman of ordering the murder of the dissident journalist. Its publication, authorised by President Biden, has sparked a storm of controversy inside and outside the United States, thus seriously calling into question the strategic relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia, which over the years has been painstakingly built with the dual aim of counterbalancing Iran’s presence and influence in the Lebanon, Syria and Iraq, as well as controlling the extremist impulses of rich and dangerous regional partners such as Qatar.

Prince Bin Salman, now firmly established as sole heir to the Saudi throne, is a compulsory counterpart of the United States.

In vain (and recklessly), President Biden has publicly declared his preference for a direct dialogue with King Salman.

The 85-year-old King, however, is not only in poor health conditions, but has also clearly told the Americans that he has the utmost confidence in “his sole and legitimate heir” to whom he has already actually delegated the management of the Kingdom’s affairs.

President Biden’s Administration, and its new Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, have never made a secret of preferring another Crown Prince as a potential counterpart, namely Mohammed Bin Nayef, who is very close to CIA thanks to the good offices of the former Chief of the Saudi intelligence services, Saad Al Jabry. Nevertheless, in the complicated world of the Saudi Court, things do not always proceed in the simple and straightforward way preferred by the Americans.

Mohammed Bin Najef is currently in prison on corruption charges and is therefore definitely out of the race for the throne, while his CIA liaison, Al Jabry, has self-exiled to Canada to escape the ‘persecution’ he believes has been orchestrated by the Saudi courtiers.

If the United States wants to keep on playing a role in the Middle East and possibly exercising a stabilising function in a region which was greatly destabilised by George W. Bush’s unfortunate Iraqi adventure, which effectively handed Iraq over to the Shi’ites close to their Iranian “brothers” and gave Iran the keys to control the Persian Gulf, the President and his Secretary of State will have to rely on a good dose of political realism, leaving out of the dialogue with Saudi Arabia the ethical considerations which, although justified, do not seem appropriate, also because America has never seemed to have had many scruples when it comes to physically eliminating its ‘adversaries’ with very hasty methods, be they an Iranian general, two dozen unidentified Syrian militiamen or their relatives.

In short, the early stages of Biden’s Presidency do not look very promising. Allies and adversaries alike are waiting for the United States to get back on the field in the most sensitive areas with pragmatism and realism, two factors that seem rather lacking in Joe Biden’s preliminary foreign policy moves.

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Biden’s Syria strikes don’t make him a centrist Democrat – they make him a neocon

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Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz

Biden’s Syria strikes last week left many of his supporters, including me, surprised.

The Syria strikes don’t make Biden the centrist Democrat that we knew we were getting – they make him a neocon. 22 Syrians died as a result, as the US forces aimed at Iran-backed militias in Syria in an attempt to take down adversaries – not to disturb an imminent attack on civilians or to stop genocide, for example.

My own initial analysis of Biden’s foreign policy outlook pinned him as a classical Democrat, but his first moves put him further and well beyond the center to the right than what generally defines a classical foreign policy Democrat. 

Humanitarian reasons as a justification for the use of force is what separates hawkish centrist Democrats from the neocons on the right. And that’s not a small difference. For neocons, spreading democracy and regime change suffices. But that’s not the case for Democrats. The Biden Administration knows this very well. That’s why what counts as “humanitarian” in Syria is key for the Biden Administration and that’s why “humanitarian” is getting a very ugly, tortured reading in the first State Department statements. This week the State Department’s Spokesperson Ned Price tweeted that the State Department commemorates the one year anniversary of the death of 33 Turkish soldiers who “lost their lives protecting innocent Syrian civilians in Idlib from the brutality of the Assad regime and its Russian and Iranian backers”.

As a quick refresher, Turkey entered Kurdish northern Syria after Donald Trump gave Turkish leader Erdogan the green light to settle his score with the Kurds who were bravely fighting ISIS in Syria as American allies. That was back in late 2019. Then Erdogan overplayed his hand by entering a completely new Syrian province with no Kurds in order to expand Turkish presence in Syria. At the time, Erdogan turned to his party with the words: “we are now the hosts here”, indicating that Erdogan thought that he was running the show in the newly invaded Syrian province. Russian President Vladimir Putin then taught Erdogan a lesson by striking the Turkish base and killing 33 Turkish soldiers in a preview of what was in store for Turkey if Erdogan forgot who actually calls the shots in Syria. At no point in time, were the Turkish soldiers on a humanitarian mission, as represented by the US. Turkey clearly invaded Kurdish Syria to displace and settle score with the Kurds, flattening and erasing whole villages, and then continued south into uncharted, not Kurdish territories before it got a slap on the wrist by Putin. Erdogan then had to go to Moscow to give explanations and bow to Putin in an attempt to patch things up.

This is why the State Department’s reading of what happened is truly troubling. The State Department not only closed its eyes to Turkish human rights violations but now even tries to represent and commemorate them as humanitarian and good. That is ugly and dangerous. And it’s a blatant lie.

The Biden Administration’s first moves show that Biden is mostly likely forgetting who elected him and why. This is not what the progressive left that put him in office signed up for. One month in is too soon to be already disappointing fans and supporters.

The Biden Administration’s foreign policies will be similar to Trump’s policies but what’s more dangerous is that they will be couched in hypocritical, polished human rights and humanitarian rhetoric lauding big human rights abusers as well-intentioned humanitarians. I don’t know who I prefer then – the straight-forward Trump with whom what you get is what you see in foreign policy and who was easy to criticize because he stated his intentions clearly, or the professionally seasoned and refined Biden who is much better at dressing his true policies in hypocritical narratives that serve as a smokescreen for the slowly crystallizing idea that in foreign policy, Biden is just a more polished Trump.

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