Why Biden’s “America is Back” for Beijing is “Cold War is Back”


While campaigning for the US presidential election Joe Biden referred to China’s top leader Xi Jinping as a “thug.” Now, barely two months into the White House, President Biden has called the Russian President as a “killer.” It can’t only be the Trump effect. Surely, there is much more to it. “Old wine in new bottle?” is how scholars in Beijing are crudely caricaturing Biden, the “Cold Warrior.” Or, the “old Biden” is anachronistic and his vocabulary is shrinking, many others are saying.

Is Biden pretending Russia and China are military threats to the US? Critics (in the US) of Moscow and Beijing like the US Air Force General Glen VanHerck, the head of Northern Command, in written testimony on March 16 to the Senate Armed Services Committee said: “Russia remains top threat to US homeland.” The four-star general who is directly in charge of the military command dedicated to defending the US from attack singled out Russia while acknowledging at the same China as the “biggest emerging threat.”  Mainstream media, just like a large number of security affairs think tanks, too is consumed by the propaganda that that “old dread of nuclear disaster just like the country that precluded it” has all but disappeared but the actual threat of nuclear catastrophe is much more real than we realize. 

On the other hand, there are usual cynics who are relentlessly campaigning that someone needs to say “China and Russia are not our enemies.” Dean Lindorff, for example, founding member of online newspaper collective This Cant Be Happening says, “Somehow, the opinion-makers in the media, the bloated military brass with all their ribbons and stars and with little to do but worry about how to keep their massively overbuilt operation afloat with ever more taxpayer money, and the members of the Congress who like to gin up fears among the voters so they’ll keep voting for them have gotten everyone thinking that Russia is still hell bent on world communist takeover and that China is trying to replace the US as global hegemon.” (Emphasis added)

At another level, more often than not it is the Pentagon, the US media and the Congress which together in tandem create panic environment resembling a threat from the “fabricated enemy.” Recall Time magazine report a little over two years ago, entitled “Here’s Why Russian Bombers Are in Venezuela. And Why the US Is So Angry About.” In December 2018, the US press was filled with alarms that the Russian jet was “capable of carrying nuclear weapons.” However, the truth was that Russia had “flown one of its aging long-range bombers over the pole and loaded with some supplies to donate to Venezuela.” On the contrary, it is the US who has been sending nuclear capable bombers, both B-52 Stratofortresses and the much more ominous B-2 Stealth bombers, halfway around the world, to actively bomb other countries, Dave Lindorff wrote in the article cited above. No wonder, Lindorff’s website has been declared a threat by the Department of Homeland Security – the only news organization in the US labeled as such.

But why are PRC strategic affairs analysts and China-US affairs commentators calling the return of Biden this time round as the US president, the return of the Cold War in Sino-US relations?

As soon as the presidential campaign trail concluded in November last year, a Chinese commentator wrote: “Besides entertaining the Chinese people, the theatrics of the two presidential candidates also helped us better understand that the so-called presidential democracy and the US Congress are nothing but a play-ground for [the US] capital.” Explaining further sharpening domestic contradictions the US capital has been encountering following declining manufacturing industry at home since the end of Cold War, the left-leaning commentator opined: “Biden’s is only the victory of anti-Trump alliance. After he takes office, Biden will prove to be incapable of resolving contradictions arising out of varying interest groups. It is but natural he will use more subtle and fierce means to shift these contradictions – for example, foreign wars.”

But this above only reflects the position of China’s ideologically oriented large majority of anti-US imperialism leftist intelligentsia. Who have been vehemently and rabidly “attacking”  the so-called “pro-US” elite both inside the party-state and among elite scholars, researchers in China’s key universities and think tanks – especially since the Trump-led “all out US political war against China” in mid-2018. The “pro-US” elite may not be as large in numbers but they certainly hold more weight in the decision making. In other words, they also adhere by the pro-reform, pro-market regime. Take for example Zhang Yiwei, a senior researcher with the Beijing-based “liberal” Charhar Institute and who also holds concurrent senior researcher position at the Chongyang Financial Research Institute at the prestigious Renmin University in the Chinese capital. Unlike the leftists, who saw the roots of the ongoing worsening of the US-China conflict in the ideologically opposed social systems, Zhang Jingwei et al analyzed itfrom the lens of individuals and anti-China mentality of top members of the Trump team.

In a widely circulated signed article on November 19 last year, within hours of Biden being declared as the president-elect, Zhang Jingwei wrote: “The China-US relationship depends on the Biden team.” While citing the example of the Phase One Trade Deal signed between Washington and Beijing in January 2020, Zhang did not think, if reelected, Trump would have pushed the bilateral relationship into New Cold War. But he also did not rule out Biden actually succumbing to domestic political dynamics and financial pressures to lead the US-China relations in the direction of a New Cold War. Zhang pointed out, Biden’s China policy will be hampered by Trump and his supporters. Biden victory will turn Trump and his followers into firmly, and even violently, opposing every policy decision of the new administration – be it foreign affairs or domestic policies. “Just like Trump had to adopt tougher measures against Russia in order to get rid of the ‘Russia Gate’ impact, Biden too will have to go out of his way to prove his administration is more anti-China than the previous administration in order to get rid of the ‘China Gate’ scandal involving his son and himself,” Zhang wrote.

Secondly, discounting the opinion of the most Chinese leftists, Zhang upheld that President Trump was not against China. “Had there been no coronavirus, Trump would not have unleashed all-front new Cold war against China,” according to Zhang. What made it further worse was the Trump administration was filled with anti-China hawks – from former chief strategist Bannon to Vice President Pence, Zhang emphasized. “And then there was Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Bannon, Pence and Pompeo became the chief architects of the US anti-China policy. On the other hand, the situation will become worse if Biden cabinet is filled with anti-China elements in the Democratic Party,” Zhang wrote in worrying tone.

Third, Zhang also cautioned China’s decision makers and wrote, “Compared with Mike Pompeo and others like him, the anti-China elements in the Democrat Party are better skilled to manipulate ideology and exploit anti-China resonance at a global scale.” Yet Zhang Jingwei got it completely wrong when he pre-empted the president-elect’s China policy and hoped “the Sino-US relations during Biden tenure may see the uplifting of the current New Cold War deadlock.”

In contrast, as I sign off, news is coming in “Top American Chinese diplomats clash publicly at start of first talks of Biden Presidency.” In a preview of the high-level Anchorage “adventure,” I did write last Monday for Modern Diplomacy “US, China Officials to Fly All the Way to Anchorage, to Disagree.” 

To conclude, no matter the outcome of two-day Alaska tete a tete, “the world’s most consequential relationship will only get more systematically stressed.” In the words of China’s English language Caixin Daily, which many media observers at home and in the global press reckon is communist China’s most “liberal” and “independent” newspaper, the “frosty ties” between the world’s top two economies trapped in Thucydides Trap are here to stay, and for long time. “No matter whether Democrats or Republicans win the US presidential election in 2024 or 2028, we are going to see at least 10 years of frosty ties between Beijing and Washington,” Caixin Daily commented.

The Alaska fiasco should leave no one in doubt Beijing’s firm resolve to expect the “old Cold Warrior” Joe Biden to continue to strive hard to push US-China ties further into what you might call a New Cold War or Biden Cold War!

Hemant Adlakha
Hemant Adlakha
Hemant Adlakha is professor of Chinese, Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. He is also vice chairperson and an Honorary Fellow, Institute of Chinese Studies (ICS), Delhi.


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