Washington Free Beacon

Xi Gains Ground as Biden Stumbles

Associate Director, Center for the Future of Liberal Society
Xi Gains Ground as Biden Stumbles
President Joe Biden greets Chinese President Xi Jinping before a meeting during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Leaders' week in Woodside, California, on November 15, 2023. (Photo by Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images)

Is Xi Jinping becoming a better diplomat than Joe Biden? Not so long ago, the question would have seemed absurd. But a closer look at Xi’s recent maneuvers and our own president’s stumbles suggest a shift is underway. With the struggle for global leadership between the United States and China shaping up to be a close-run thing, Biden’s mistakes will end up proving costly.

Diplomacy was supposed to be Biden’s forte. After six terms in the Senate, including two stints chairing the Foreign Relations Committee, and another eight years in the Naval Observatory, he boasted an enviable range of foreign contacts when he entered the Oval Office. And he pledged to put them to good use, promising in his Inaugural Address, "we will repair our alliances and engage with the world once again." Two weeks later, he told the State Department, "the message I want the world to hear today: America is back. America is back. Diplomacy is back at the center of our foreign policy." "Leading with diplomacy," he said, "means standing shoulder-to-shoulder with our allies and key partners once again."

Biden might need to reread that sentence. On Wednesday, he told CNN that if the Israeli military enters Hamas’s refuge in Rafah, "we’re not going to supply the weapons and artillery shells" to his embattled ally. Rumors that Biden would cut Israel off had been circulating for some time, but the National Security Council reportedly tried to keep Biden’s decision out of the news, at least until Holocaust Remembrance Day had passed. The contrast would have been too striking.

Such mixed signals would sound all too familiar for Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky. In the lead up to Russia’s 2022 invasion, Zelensky and his team repeatedly asked the Biden administration for weapons to defend themselves, at one point reminding them that Donald Trump had actually armed Ukraine. Since the war started, Biden has been quicker to praise Ukraine than to help it, delaying arms deliveries and wringing his hands theatrically about the Russian reaction to each shipment. In February, he sent Vice President Kamala Harris to chastise Zelensky for attacking Russia’s oil industry. Evidently, keeping gas prices low in an election year is more important than starving Russia’s war machine of funds.

China is more sensitive to the oil and food price shocks from Vladimir Putin’s war than the United States is, but even so Beijing is aiding Russia’s war effort considerably. Shortly after Putin’s attack, Biden warned Xi not to aid Russia. But Secretary of State Antony Blinken admitted two weeks ago that China is "overwhelmingly the number-one supplier to Russia" of the tools and equipment Putin needs to build up his war economy. The "no limits" partnership Xi and Putin announced weeks before the Russian invasion has deepened as the war has dragged on.

Casual observers often believe, mistakenly, that the core of diplomacy is maintaining bonhomie whenever possible and smoothing over disagreements with carefully chosen words. But "being diplomatic" is only part of the story. Diplomacy is largely about sending messages to friends, allies, and partners.

The messages Biden and Xi are sending now could not be more different. Biden is showing his allies and partners that if they are attacked, he will stand with them—but there’s a limit. The lefty tendency to finger wag and lecture does not rest, even amid a war. And the consequences for American allies of ignoring Washington’s sermons can be deadly. Xi, by contrast, backs his allies even when the consequences are sometimes painful.

Xi’s seizure of power in China was a masterstroke, but like many dictators, he discovered that his methods to gain and maintain power at home work less well abroad. During his first official visit to India, Chinese troops started a new faceoff on the border with India. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who had been eager for Chinese infrastructure development, quickly realized that China was a threat and significantly enhanced his defense partnership with the United States. Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte practically fell on his knees begging Xi for investment, telling a Chinese audience, "I’ve realigned myself in your ideological flow." Xi contemptuously brushed him aside and continued pressing China’s claims to Philippine territory. American diplomats have capitalized on Xi’s mistakes, developing a much closer relationship with India and making the Philippines a key security partner.

But Xi is making up for his early mistakes. Asian leaders pointedly contrast the amount of attention Americans lavish on European countries like France and Germany with the shoddier treatment they receive in Washington, to say nothing of the red carpet Beijing rolls out for them. For the first time ever, Southeast Asians told pollsters that if they "were forced to align" with China or the United States, they would choose China.

Biden, meanwhile, is not improving with age: At a recent fundraiser, he told his prospective donors that India and Japan are "xenophobic" and compared them to China and Russia. His administration’s determination to export a woke agenda is even more controversial abroad than it is at home. China’s and Russia’s supposed defense of traditional values fools few people in Europe and the United States, but their culture war counteroffensive is working: Except for in Latin America, the global south is becoming more sympathetic to Russia and China.

Biden wants to have it both ways in Israel and Ukraine—trying to stay close enough to the embattled democracies to keep them moving while avoiding the awkwardness of a full embrace. During the Yom Kippur War, Richard Nixon realized that was precisely the wrong way to help an ally. When his cabinet officials dithered about resupplying Israel for fear of angering the Arabs, then proposed sending only three planes, the president told them, "we are going to get blamed just as much for three as for 300. … Get them in the air, now." Nixon’s decisiveness impressed the Arabs his advisers worried about offending: Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Fahd told his officers, "This is why we need to maintain close relations with the U.S. They are the only ones capable of saving us in this manner should we ever be at risk." Countries on the front line might disapprove of some Israeli actions in Gaza or grumble about an oil price spike from a Ukrainian attack, but they care much more about American support when they are in danger.

Xi is by no means a diplomatic mastermind, and despite his inroads into Europe and the global south he is not close to matching the American network of alliances. But if the value of those alliances continues decreasing, they may not matter as much. Xi at least seems to be learning from some of his mistakes. It’s not clear if we are.

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