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Biden is tougher on China and nicer to Russia than Trump

White House will focus on increasingly contentious relationship with Beijing

| U.S.
Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin attend a meeting at Villa La Grange in Geneva on June 16: when Putin sat down with Biden in Geneva, Biden kept things cordial.   © Reuters

Ian Bremmer is the president of Eurasia Group and GZERO Media and author of "Us vs. Them: The Failure of Globalism."

The conventional wisdom in the United States was that President Donald Trump was extremely tough on China but suspiciously soft on Russia. Critics charged that his tariff war with China was aggressive to the point of self-defeating. Some also claimed that Trump lived in Russian President Vladimir Putin's pocket, for reasons unknown.

Then, when Joe Biden was elected president, these same pundits predicted the new man would reverse that approach. Biden, they argued, would ease up on China to boost the chances of productive engagement while hammering Putin for allowing his government to hack U.S. elections and Russian criminals to hold U.S. companies for ransom.

But when we look at the policy choices made by each administration rather than the political rhetoric and angry tweets of the men themselves, we discover that this analysis is exactly backward. Biden has proved much tougher on China than Trump did, and he has been nicer to Putin and Russia.

Examine the evidence. After inviting Chinese President Xi Jinping to Mar-a-Lago for a meal and a chat, he followed the counsel of aides to become more aggressive toward the rising power. But his interest was confined to two areas.

Trump, obsessed with the U.S. trade deficit with China and the political opportunities it created for him, launched a trade war. He also supported aggressive administration action on China's tech development, and the national security threats it posed, mainly with restrictions on Huawei Technologies, China's technology national champion.

Trump and his team had little to say about human rights violations against Muslims living in China's Xinjiang region -- a few small-scale sanctions and export controls notwithstanding -- or about democracy in Hong Kong. And he made little effort to rally Asian and European allies as part of a coordinated strategy to contain China's increasingly aggressive behavior beyond its borders.

President Biden, on the other hand, sees China as the world's single most dangerous comprehensive threat to democracy, individual liberty and U.S. national security.

His administration has not backed off Trump's trade war. Sanctions and tariffs remain in place to increase U.S. bargaining leverage with China in other areas, and they have added export controls to up the ante. While Trump's first meeting with Xi was literally a dinner party in sunny south Florida, the Biden team met with fellow members of the China-resistant Quad countries comprising Japan, India and Australia before a working-level meeting with Chinese officials in frosty Alaska.

The new president has also worked hard to try to align the U.S. approach to the 2022 Beijing Olympic Winter Games with the EU, U.K., Australia and Canada.

While Trump complained that China had stolen U.S. manufacturing jobs, Biden has launched a Buy American program that is designed to incentivize U.S. companies to bring those jobs back. And while Trump blamed China for what he called the "China virus," Biden has backed a formal investigation into the so-called lab-leak theory of the pandemic's origins. Anyone expecting that Biden would pursue a deeper engagement with China has been disappointed. The era of engagement is over, Biden's senior Asia adviser said recently.

The Trump and Biden Russia policies have likewise confounded expectations. Trump has said many complimentary things about Vladimir Putin, but his administration and members of his Republican Party in Congress took a consistently firm approach toward aggressive Russian behavior. Sanctions were tightened during the Trump years. The former president opposed Russia's strategically important Nord Stream 2, an undersea gas pipeline project designed to bring more Russian gas exports into Germany. His administration approved the sale of anti-tank missiles to Ukraine, fully aware that their primary potential target would be Russian tanks.

Pipes for the Nord Stream 2 are loaded onto a ship at the port of Mukran, Germany, on June 1.   © dpa/AP

Trump also increased the U.S. troop presence in Eastern Europe, mainly as a favor to Poland's Trump-loving, Putin-hating President Andrzej Duda. It was Trump who pulled the U.S. from the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty, or INF, with Russia and refused to extend the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or START, agreement.

Joe Biden has called Vladimir Putin a "killer," but he has treated Russia with much more restraint than the Trump team did. Intent on creating a more stable and predictable relationship with Russia in order to focus U.S. foreign policy on challenges from China, Biden quickly extended the START pact and waived sanctions on the Russian company building the Nord Stream pipeline. When Putin sat down with Biden in Geneva, at Biden's invitation, Biden kept things cordial despite the Russian ransomware attack on a U.S. oil pipeline and Russia's support for a decision by Belarus to essentially hijack on European plane to arrest one dissident.

There are three lessons in all this. First, rhetoric is one thing, and actions are another. We should make note when the former becomes a substitute for the latter. Second, presidents and their administrations do not always align. Trump wanted better relations with Russia, but virtually no one on his team agreed with him.

Finally, changes in foreign policy often reflect changes in the world. It is much clearer today than it was four years ago that Xi Jinping intends to pursue a more assertive nationalist policy. China's progress on tech development, its assault on Hong Kong democracy, new evidence of repression in Xinjiang, and its military pressure on Taiwan all demand a more forceful response from Washington and its allies.

For now, expect the Biden administration to try to keep Russia off the front page to focus on an increasingly contentious relationship with China.

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