U.S. foreign policy under President Biden has been defined by the combination of the failure to advance U.S. national interests and support for the progress of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The administration continues to act as though the threat from the PRC is not an urgent or an existential one where every moment matters. As such, the PRC’s comprehensive national power has continued to grow, as does its global influence. This matters because no matter who is president in January 2025, the U.S. has lost precious time in its confrontation with China.
U.S. foreign policy under Biden has suffered in four major areas.
First, in Europe, the Biden administration’s continued support for the attritional war in Ukraine serves to drain U.S. defense resources with no end to the conflict in sight. The administration will likely make a push to end the war in 2024 due to the U.S. presidential election cycle. This will be true whether Biden is the candidate for reelection or has been replaced by another. This continues while simmering unrest in Kosovo threatens to destabilize the western Balkans with inattention from the administration. Moreover, our British allies have been poorly treated by this administration due to the president’s apparent hostility stemming from his Irish ancestry. However, the greatest failure of the Biden administration in Europe is that it has not pressed Europe to decouple its economy from China. While there is clear evidence that Europe is looking to the U.S. for leadership on this matter, unfortunately, the U.S. has abandoned the Trump administration’s effort to decouple its economy from the PRC.
Second, in Asia, Biden’s failure is profound. Taiwan remains inadequately armed and supported by the U.S., while the PRC’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) continues planning and preparations for its invasion of the island. Every day counts to bolster Taiwan’s ability to deter an attack with conventional weapons. The time lost will impose a terrific cost when the PLA does attack – and attack it will. Senior U.S. officers have warned of a Chinese attack. In March 2021, Admiral Philip Davidson, then commander of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, stated that China would attack Taiwan before 2027. In October 2022, Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Michael Gilday warned that rather than a 2027 window for Chinese aggression, it may come in a 2023 window. The former commander of U.S. Strategic Command, Admiral Charles Richard, warned many times against the impending threat from China. Most recently, U.S. Air Force General Mike Minihan explained in a leaked January 2023 memo that PRC would attack in 2025. The halting measures Biden has taken are insufficient for a conventional deterrent.
Third, the Middle East, South America, the Caribbean, Africa and the Pacific remain arenas of China’s expansion. Iran retains warmed relations with China while the UAE and Saudi Arabia build an increasingly close relationship with Beijing. The Venezuelan government and the new one in Brazil are proudly pro-China. China’s intelligence collection facility in Cuba appears to be expanding and will no doubt soon be expanded to permit a greater number of People’s Liberation Army forces. In Africa, the Chinese military presence continues to grow, with a base in Djibouti and a new one likely in one of the many West African nations that Beijing has cultivated around the Gulf of Guinea. China’s relationships with Angola and, increasingly, Nigeria are alarming. In the Pacific, the familiar pattern of economic investment becoming political influence is witnessed from the Solomon Islands to Kiribati. Biden’s cancellation of his visit to Papua New Guinea and of his visit to Australia to address the parliament is a stain that will not soon be forgotten.
Fourth, on the strategic front, China and Russia possess a “no limits” partnership while moving closer with cooperation on conventional and strategic cooperation. The seeds of this nascent entente already are producing poisonous fruit for the United States as it introduces the most complicated strategic environment Washington has faced since the death of the Soviet Union. The PRC’s rapid expansion of its nuclear arsenal has been termed “breathtaking” by a former U.S. Strategic Command commander, Admiral Charles Richard, who in 2021 cautioned that “we are witnessing a strategic breakout by China.” The admiral warned that it is “inconsistent with a minimum deterrence posture” because “China has correctly figured out that you can’t coerce a peer – in other words, us – from a minimum deterrent posture.”
The explosive growth and modernization of its nuclear and conventional forces can fairly be described as breathtaking – frankly, the word breathtaking may not be strong enough. A major consequence of this is that “the breathtaking growth and strategic nuclear capability enables China to change their posture and their strategy” as they desire. It is challenging enough to face China’s expanding arsenal. When it is twinned with Russia, the U.S. faces the possibility of nuclear coercion due to the overwhelming imbalance.
Time is precious in all matters, only more so in international politics. The Trump administration had momentum and was on the right track – it identified China as the enemy and was acting accordingly, in conjunction with allies and partners. That momentum is gone, and the opportunity cost is considerable. It will not be long before we reflect on Biden’s presidency as wasted years. Actions that might have been taken to destabilize the PRC regime and its global influence were not taken. The Biden administration will bequeath to its successor a far worse world for U.S. interests than it inherited.
James Fanell is a government fellow at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy, a retired captain in the U.S. Navy and a former director of intelligence and information operations for the U.S. Pacific Fleet. Bradley A. Thayer is Director of China Policy at the Center for Security Policy. He is the co-author with Lianchao Han of Understanding the China Threat.