A big foreign policy test awaits Biden – but also Trump

Even as the US president prepares to meet Xi, will his likely 2024 challenger deal with the world any differently?

Former US president Donald Trump watches a video of President Joe Biden during a rally in Miami, Florida, last week. AFP
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At this week’s G20 summit in the Indonesian province of Bali, all eyes will be on the Joe Biden-Xi Jinping meeting and whether the US and Chinese presidents will begin a march towards reconciliation or confrontation.

The meeting will be a test especially for Mr Biden, in the wake of the midterm elections and their impact on his foreign policy. Meanwhile, according to insiders, former US president Donald Trump is set to deliver a major speech during which he could announce that he is running for president again.

There are no fundamental disagreements over the key features of America's policies towards China, Russia and Europe. Mr Trump will probably not object to the G7 members' efforts to isolate Russia at the G20 summit either. But with the start of the battle for the American presidency – and despite the fact that Republicans and Democrats usually fight on economic, social and ideological issues – battlelines will be drawn on some foreign policy issues. One such issue is Iran and whether Mr Biden will be able to resuscitate the nuclear talks.

It is not easy to predict what Mr Trump will say. His inner circle has kept the substance of his announcement under wraps. But he wants to deliver his "Make America Great Again" pledge on the world stage, and modernise this vision. According to insiders, this means adopting a policy of "maximum pragmatism" – essentially a selective foreign policy focused on a number of key nations.

On Russia, Mr Trump is unlikely to diverge from Mr Biden’s policy as long as the Ukraine war rages on. He is convinced that if he were the president in the days preceding the war, he could have convinced Moscow to back down. He blames Mr Biden for failing to spare the world the fallout of the conflict. And yet, regarding the current western policy on Russia, Mr Trump as things stand will not cross a major dividing line.

Chinese President Xi Jinping arrives at the G20 leaders summit in Osaka in 2019. AP Photo
The two men are not likely to have fundamental disagreements over the key features of America's policies towards China, Russia and Europe

On China, the answer depends on how the Taiwan question evolves. Here, too, there is no fundamental difference between Republicans and Democrats. Both oppose China’s Taiwan policy, and both fear Beijing could put the US in a predicament.

Mr Xi, now elected for a third term, feels increased confidence and enjoys the full support of both the politburo of the Chinese Communist Party and the People’s Liberation Army. Moreover, American preoccupation with the Ukraine war and the midterms might give Beijing room to take a more hardline position on Taiwan at the summit. It is possible that Mr Xi puts Mr Biden on the spot during their meeting, and even touts what China calls the "liberation" of Taiwan.

The Chinese president could demand that the US end its unofficial military presence in Taiwan. Such a crisis wouldn't be easy for Mr Biden to tackle, given the serious implications of either reconciling with China or confronting it. However, it isn't Mr Biden alone who would be in a quandary; Republicans and Democrats are on the same page on the issue.

Another issue at the G20 summit could arise from the much-expected divergence between the G7 and some G20 members over Russia's war against Ukraine. G7 leaders have reportedly decided to condemn Russia – something major states in the G20, particularly China, India and Indonesia, don’t want to do. These stances have both near- and long-term implications, and do not necessarily reflect support for the Kremlin as much as opposition to the West's approach towards Moscow.

Energy issues will be discussed as well, although they are unlikely to dominate the summit. Prices have started going down for several reasons, including decreased Chinese demand due to its zero-Covid policy and the restrictions on social activity there. In other words, China is not as thirsty for oil as it once was.

A media centre in Nusa Dua, Bali, is being prepped for the G20 summit. AP Photo

Regional crises could also be tackled at the summit, including the ongoing crisis on the Korean Peninsula. The issue of Tehran could be present somewhat too, but this will be modest because G20 leaders will not adopt a position on Iran’s domestic developments, though they might express a desire to revive the nuclear agreement.

Today, the chances of reviving the deal have dwindled. But there are questions about whether the Biden administration will send hints to Tehran suggesting the possibility of resuming negotiations if Tehran backs down. However, the regime’s involvement in the Ukraine war precludes this. Furthermore, the Republican Party, which is likely to win a slim majority in the US House of Representatives, will attempt to tie the Biden administration’s hands on Iran.

The Ukraine war currently dominates international and American policies.

US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan visited Kyiv last week to gauge President Volodymyr Zelenskyy's willingness to agree to a ceasefire with Russia and begin peace talks, yet stressed that this decision belongs to the Ukrainians alone. Mr Zelenskyy has stated his conditions for a ceasefire and negotiations thereafter – not between him and Russian President Vladimir Putin, but at a lower level. In reality, a ceasefire is beyond reach, in light of developments on the battlefield. Neither leader views peace talks as favourable. Right now, the Biden administration and the European governments see no way out of the conflict and aren't ready to apply pressure on Mr Zelenskyy to making concessions.

Whatever the final outcome of the midterms may be and who runs for office in 2024, the broad features of US foreign policy are unlikely to change except in limited ways.

Published: November 13, 2022, 2:00 PM