U.S. relations with its two biggest geo-political rivals are facing severe tests as President Joe Biden tries to assert America’s place in the world and distinguish himself from his predecessor.
Airing myriad complaints, the Biden administration took an extraordinarily tough line with China and Russia this past week. Public spats between the countries erupted as Biden characterized Russian President Vladimir Putin as a “killer” and his top national security aides excoriated China for a litany of issues.
Moscow and Beijing both fired back, setting the stage for months, if not more, of escalating tensions that are unlikely to be resolved without intense discussions at the leadership level and major concessions from all sides.
Biden himself kicked off the latest round of recrimination in a television interview in which he sought to draw clear differences between his Russia policies and those of former President Donald Trump. who was accused of being soft on Putin. Just 24 hours later, Biden’s top diplomat and national security adviser blasted Chinese officials in face-to-face talks.
Although Biden’s strong comments about Putin reflected a shift from Trump’s often conciliatory approach to the Kremlin, the harsh criticism directed at China by Secretary of State Antony Blinken and national security adviser Jake Sullivan in many ways mirrored the previous administration’s hard line toward Beijing.
The contrasting styles suggested that Biden is intent on reversing years of perceived U.S. weakness toward Russia while rejecting Trump’s 2020 campaign allegations that he’s not tough enough on China.
In taking a strong line on Russia, Biden has said the days of the U.S. “rolling over” to Putin are done. And, in the interview with ABC broadcast on Wednesday, Biden replied “I do” when asked if he thought Putin was a “killer.” Russia responded by recalling its ambassador in Washington for consultations.