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Analyzing the Biden administration's year in foreign policy toward China and Russia


Remember way back, lo those many months ago, when brand-new President Joe Biden delivered his first major foreign policy speech. He said this...


PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: America is back. America is back. Diplomacy is back at the center of our foreign policy.

KELLY: Biden went on in that speech to name two other world powers - China and Russia.


BIDEN: American leadership must meet this new moment in advancing authoritarianism, including a growing ambitions of China to rival the United States and the determination of Russia to damage and disrupt our democracy.

KELLY: Well, since becoming president, Biden has spoken with China's Xi Jinping twice and with Russia's Vladimir Putin several times. But how has he done so far in meeting the goals he laid out in that speech? To round up the year in foreign policy, specifically U.S. policy in these two hugely important and hugely challenging relationships, we're joined by three of my colleagues from the International Desk - diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen, China affairs correspondent John Ruwitch and NPR's Charles Maynes in Moscow. Welcome to you all.




KELLY: I want to start by playing a little word game - one word to describe the U.S. relationship with China. John Ruwitch, go.

RUWITCH: The word I think would be precarious because relations have deteriorated a lot and maybe set for more.

KELLY: Precarious suggests they haven't quite gone off the cliff, though, so there's some hope there. Charles, how about the state of relations with Russia?

MAYNES: Maybe try here grievance-riddled in the sense that their relations are completely hostage to slights and insults of the past.

KELLY: So grievance-riddled, precarious. Michele Kelemen, that is not, I imagine, where the Biden administration were hoping things would land at the end of 2021. Do you think it's accurate?

KELEMEN: It is, and it's exactly not what the U.S. wanted. It wanted - the words they were using - stable and predictable relationship with Russia, and they wanted a big focus on China, cooperate where they can, compete and show that democracies deliver and confront China when necessary. There's really not much in the way of cooperation these days.

KELLY: Yeah. John Ruwitch, let me flip that back to you because I can't see that there's a radically different strategy than we saw under the Trump administration. And I want to add to that one of the goals has been this whole pivot to Asia. That is where U.S. foreign policy is headed. Is that happening? How is that being received in Beijing?

RUWITCH: The Chinese response to this is really a mix of kind of incredulousness and indignance. They're incredulous because you really get the sense reading state media and looking at Chinese speeches that they think the U.S. is a fading power and fading fast. Meanwhile, the Chinese Communist Party just celebrated its 100th anniversary with this great fanfare, and they're projecting more confidence than ever. Exhibit A is the pandemic, right? We have 800,000 deaths here. China has a few thousand, which is like a rounding error. So they're putting up resistance to those three C's that Michelle just mentioned. And for Beijing, it's pretty clear. They think the U.S. is out to contain them.

KELLY: Charles, if the Biden administration - or part of the grand plan and the pivot to Asia meant downgrading the amount of time and energy that was being spent on Russia, I don't think we're there. There are tensions, as you know, everything from cyberattacks to this military buildup on the border with Ukraine and then this latest twist - news today, Russia has just released a list of demands regarding security guarantees for Europe. What's up?

MAYNES: Well, this is really about Russia showing it can't be ignored. And this time, Putin seems to want something much bigger. He's kind of upping the stakes. And what he's trying to do here is really turn the clock back 25 years and rewrite the story of post-Cold War Europe. And he's using Ukraine as a hostage to do it. And these latest demands that you mention, they not only say that former Soviet republics like Ukraine or Georgia can't be part of NATO and that essentially NATO's troop levels should be scaled back to where it was before it expanded to Eastern Europe back in the late '90s.

KELLY: Michele, what is the reaction from the White House to this list of demands from Russia?

KELEMEN: A top administration official said, look, Russia knows that the proposals that it is making are nonstarters, but there are some things the U.S. is willing to talk about. And the U.S. and NATO have a long laundry list, too, about concerns about Russia's behavior. They want to see Russia de-escalate first and then talk about these broader issues. But they say, look, no dialogue about European security without Europe's involvement, no dialogue about Ukraine's future without Ukraine. And they're warning that if Moscow re-invades Ukraine, there are going to be some very serious consequences.

KELLY: Worth just remembering the obvious switches that the U.S. relationship with Russia, U.S. relationship with China does not exist in isolation. What is the relationship between Moscow and Beijing? We hear that Russia and China are moving closer. John Ruwitch, fact-check that for me.

RUWITCH: Yeah, it's a shift that's been in the works for a few years now. The context is really interesting to me. 2021 was the 50th anniversary of pingpong diplomacy, which is when the U.S. pingpong team went to China, which opened the door for China and U.S. to normalize to counterbalance their common foe, the Soviet Union. The script is totally flipped now. China and Russia increasingly see converging interests, which are underpinned to a certain extent by this common hostility towards the West or this view that the U.S. is out to get them. And they've taken steps to back that up.

KELLY: I want to look ahead to two likely flashpoints in the coming year. We've been talking about Ukraine. Let's add in Taiwan. A lot of things that are not the same about the Ukraine-Russia situation and the Taiwan-China situation, but in both cases, you have an authoritarian power that is saber-rattling about attacking a small democracy. And in both cases, you have the U.S. essentially warning, hey, buddy, you know, don't even think about going there. What are you each watching for - Charles with Ukraine?

MAYNES: Well, I think anyone who says they know what will happen is probably lying because we're essentially at this moment where Putin has put out a dare. But what we're seeing here is these two kind of worldviews clashing. You know, Putin is talking about old Russian spheres of influence over whole regions. Biden and his allies in Europe are saying the world no longer works that way. You know, you can't just tell Ukraine it can't be part of an alliance. You know, these new Russian demands seem so unrealistic that they're either maximalist kind of a wish list while Russia actually gets down to negotiating what it really wants and thinks it can achieve or it's intentionally sabotaging diplomacy saying, you know, look, diplomacy failed, we had no choice but to go to war.

KELLY: John, any of that sound familiar as you watch Taiwan and China?

RUWITCH: These aren't independent of each other, right? And they're all very aware of the U.S. position in this. And if you look back to history, the Communist Party of China has been known to make an opportunistic move or two on the chessboard of geopolitics, right? So almost 60 years ago, at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis in October of 1962, China attacked India over a territorial dispute. The world is a very different place. I'm not saying that history will repeat itself. Also Xi Jinping has explicitly said they want to reunify with Taiwan. The priority is on doing it peacefully. But if there is an invasion of Ukraine, it wouldn't surprise me at all if there were people somewhere in the Chinese Communist Party who see that as an opportunity.

KELLY: Michele Kelemen, I'm going to give you last word. A particular date, event, place, something you are watching as you watch how U.S. foreign policy may play out in 2022?

KELEMEN: Well, I don't know that there's a particular date, but I think the Biden administration managing tensions in these areas is going to be a very difficult balancing act. And it's hard for the U.S. to, you know, persuade countries to play by the international rules when China and Russia want to rewrite them. So very different world views playing out in a lot of different places.

KELLY: NPR's Michele Kelemen, Charles Maynes and John Ruwitch wrapping up a year in U.S. policy towards China and Russia. Thanks to all three of you.

KELEMEN: Thank you.

RUWITCH: Thank you.

MAYNES: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
John Ruwitch is a correspondent with NPR's international desk. He covers Chinese affairs.
Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.