President Joe Biden’s words about China at the Geneva summit shows him to be woefully misinformed about the "world correlation of forces" (to borrow from an old Soviet term). He appears to be stuck in a decades-old paradigm of Sino-Russian hostility, which President Richard Nixon was able to leverage into key arms control agreements with Moscow during the early 70s.
In my first piece on the strategic backdrop for the summit, I noted that the triangular relationship had drastically changed in recent decades and that, although the triangle may still be equilateral, it is now essentially a matter of two sides against one – with Washington odd man out.
This is basic: How could any U.S. statesman be unaware? How is it that foreign policy "experts" could be telling Biden that the US can still try to play Russia and China off against each other amid the radically changed "correlation of forces" today?
Reviewing what Biden said about China, one is tempted to despair. Here’s the president at his solo, post-summit press conference:
"Without quoting him [Putin] – which I don’t think is appropriate – let me ask a rhetorical question: You got a multi-thousand-mile border with China. China is … seeking to be the most powerful economy in the world and the largest and the most powerful military in the world.
Plane-side just before departing Geneva, Biden added:
"… let me choose my words. Russia is in a very, very difficult spot right now. They are being squeezed by China. …"
How to Explain the Blather
It may be that Biden’s blather is properly attributed to his sophomore (now rising-junior) advisers, who fit the label used, back in the day, by China and Russia to excoriate each other as "great-power chauvinists" with the benighted view that the US is "exceptional" – "indispensable" – even. It may even be the case that Biden’s advisers are being influenced by similarly inexperienced pundits like those of the Washington Post.
The day after the date for the Geneva summit was announced, the Post asked "Why does everyone assume that Russia and China are friends?":
On Monday, China’s top diplomat, Yang Jiechi, arrived in Moscow, aiming to enhance a relationship that the Chinese Foreign Ministry this week said "has grown as solid as a rock through thick and thin." This month, Russian President Vladimir Putin described ties between the two countries as being at the "best level in history." He may have been reflecting on that moment in June 2019 when Chinese President Xi Jinping referred to him as "my best friend."
As tensions rise between China and the United States, many commentators are taking this rhetoric at face value and warning about a growing kinship between the United States’ top two rivals. But it’s not so simple. To begin with, Moscow has more to fear from Beijing than Washington.
Or perhaps Biden’s team has indeed briefed him on the new realities, but the president’s long-term memory remains dominant. Recall that during the 70s, as Biden entered politics, the Russians and Chinese had been shooting at each other across that "multi-thousand-mile border," China was claiming 1.5 million square kilometers of Siberia that had been seized and "occupied" by a handful of Cossacks and certified by centuries-old "unequal treaties" (that were, indeed, unequal). During the 70s and early 80s, it did seem as though the mutual hostility would last forever. (Full disclosure: I was CIA’s principal analyst on Sino-Soviet relations during the 60s and early 70s, and I shared that view. For commentary on how and why this all changed, please see "US-Russia Ties, from Heyday to MayDay" and "Russia-China Tandem Shifts Global Power."
So, it seems equally possible that Biden’s advisers have clued him in, and his memory remains in a kind of time-warp. Which is the more likely explanation for Biden’s benighted words on China? It doesn’t matter all that much – at least compared to what I believe to be the expected reaction on the part of Biden’s Russian interlocutors..
What does matter is the impression President Putin got of a president highly experienced in foreign affairs, but bereft of accurate knowledge on some fundamental current realities (and the China issue is only one such questionable tack). While top Chinese officials had the opportunity to brief the Putin team on the indignities they suffered at the hands of Secretary of State Blinken and national security adviser Jake Sullivan in Anchorage on March 18, it seems likely, nevertheless, that Biden’s comments on China left Putin shaking his head in disbelief. This cannot be a good thing.
Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, a publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington. His 27-year career as a CIA analyst includes serving as Chief of the Soviet Foreign Policy Branch and preparer/briefer of the President’s Daily Brief. He is co-founder of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS).