LAST Wednesday night, in his first speech to a joint session of Congress marking 100 days in office, US President Joe Biden declared with justification, “America is ready for take-off. We are working again. Dreaming again. Discovering again. Leading the world again.”
I have welcomed the return of the United States to leadership of the free world after the destructive tenure of Donald Trump that frayed western alliances and made room for the spread of Chinese and Russian authoritarianism. Last week Biden held a successful virtual climate summit attended by 40 invited world leaders, including Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin who joined the US and its allies in setting new targets for reducing carbon emissions. Now, five more summits are ahead, with America a main architect of developments. It’s a revitalised free world with Russia and China subjects of significant attention.
On Biden’s suggestion, he and Putin will summit next month. There have been tensions between Moscow and Washington. Russia recalled its ambassador after Biden agreed Putin is a “killer”. The US later applied strong anti-Russian measures over “Moscow’s election interference, cyber espionage, transnational corruption, targeting dissidents abroad, and violation of other countries’ sovereignty”. Diplomats were expelled, sanctions imposed and US financial institutions banned from investing in new Russian government bonds, the US now empowered to sanction “any part of the Russian economy”.
Biden also dispatched two American warships to the Black Sea after Moscow’s massive build-up of forces along the Ukrainian border. Putin subsequently withdrew his troops and agreed to meet with Biden whose toughness obviously worked.
The US President is also heading to Europe for summits in June with the G7 and then with NATO and the European Union, underscoring his commitment to multilateralism and “collective defence”. NATO will seek strengthened unity against further Russian aggression towards Ukraine which, according to the Financial Times, the Kremlin views as “a Slavic brother state and strategic buffer zone” and is “determined to prevent its integration into the west”. The Times thinks NATO should be prepared “to supply military aid to Ukraine if it is attacked” and be “ready to strengthen their own forces in south-east Europe as a deterrent”. Putin must be kept in check.
And at their summit in Britain, also next month, the G7 countries—US, UK, Japan, France, Germany, Italy and Canada—will reaffirm positions already taken on China’s persecution of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang, its erosion of democracy in Hong Kong, and particularly China’s aggressions towards Taiwan which Beijing claims as sovereign territory; and which nationalist ideologue Xi Jinping would want to seize to achieve reunification and “crown his legacy”. But Biden has maintained a strong military presence in the South China Sea and at their recent meeting, he and Japan’s prime minister stated bluntly they want “peace and stability of the Taiwan Strait” and would “oppose coercion or force” in the region.
The Economist magazine now terms Taiwan “the most dangerous place on earth”. Also, China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is causing concerns in the West, Beijing using “debt trap diplomacy” to establish “strategic or military footholds and to expand its global military power”. Biden wants an infrastructure vehicle to rival the BRI, and the G7 could agree on such a plan. Leaders from India, Australia and South Korea will also attend.
Indeed, amidst “apocalyptic” Covid scenes in India, the EU and New Delhi recently started discussions to develop an alternative to the BRI for infrastructure projects in Europe, Africa and Asia, offering “less onerous debt terms” than the BRI. This could be unveiled at a virtual India/EU summit this month that will also focus on an India/EU Free Trade Agreement. In 2019, Europe established a similar partnership with Japan.
A network of integrated bilateral and multilateral agreements is clearly emerging among the EU, US and Indo-Pacific countries that would also strengthen global supply chains. Most significantly, Europe could emerge as an even more significant global player. The EU is the world’s largest economy, largest trading block, largest trader of manufactured goods and services and the main trading partner for 80 countries. It advocates a rules-based global order based on strong, fair and open trade while “ensuring the highest standards of climate, environmental and labour protections”. It can now become a potent influence for the attainment of these governance goals, strengthening the alliance of global democracies.
Indeed the EU has already signalled that democratic values, including freedom of religion and recognition of human rights, are more important than capitalising on business opportunities with China. It terminally jeopardised a trade and investment deal with Beijing when it joined Washington in freezing assets and imposing travel bans on Chinese officials allegedly involved in the persecution of Uyghurs. Australia is also standing up against “Beijing’s trade bullying”, notwithstanding billions lost in trade. Last week it destroyed two investment deals between the state of Victoria and the Chinese government, saying the agreements are “inconsistent with Australia’s foreign policy and adverse to our foreign relations”.
Impressive! In the midst of a devastating pandemic, a revitalised free world augurs well for human civilisation.