Giorgio Spagnol
Date de publication: 


Donald Trump’s presidency became known for its “America First” ideology in the face of an increasingly belligerent China, with focus on the Indo-Pacific rising consistently in the eyes of world leaders.

What will Biden’s presidency mean for this highly contested region and how will China react to the same? And how will US’s China policies, largely built on bipartisan fears, proceed in coming four years?

How will Russia position itself in the duel between the United States and China? Will it be possible to measure, in this strategic triangle, the temperature of the three leading powers, establishing the distance between the holder and the challenger of world primacy?

And, last but not least, how about the worldwide images of violent rioters storming the US Capitol , breaching police barricades and seeking to force Congress to undo President Donald Trump’s election loss?

Biden’s Win and China

It would be wishful thinking that there would be any dramatic improvement in relations between Washington and Beijing as, after all, a US presidential election can hardly alter the now established bipartisan consensus that China is a strategic competitor, or even an adversary, of the US.

Moreover, the pressure on China from a Biden Administration can be expected to be more persistent because the new president will have to blend cohesion with consistency when it comes to policymaking and at the same time coordinate the administration's approach to China with the country's allies.

The main focus of Biden’s presidency, in his words, will be on “immediate steps to renew US democracy and alliances, protect the United States’ economic future, and once more have America lead the world.”

On an international stage, the goal for Biden can be gauged as repositioning the US as a global leader across the globe and especially in regions (such as Asia and the Indo-Pacific) where US presence has waned over the years. Beijing must now pursue an accountable policy towards the US amidst its wolf-warrior diplomacy and growing revisionist tendencies.

China and US in the Indo-Pacific

The economic, geopolitical, and security connections between the Western Pacific and the Indian Ocean regions have created a strategic system with the Indian Ocean replacing the Atlantic as the globe's busiest and most strategically significant trade corridor, carrying 2/3 of global oil shipments and 1/3 of bulk cargo.

Around 80% of China's oil imports are shipped from the Middle East and/or Africa through the Indian Ocean. This is making the Indo-Pacific the world's economic and strategic centre of gravity. China's interests, capabilities, and vulnerabilities extend across the Indian Ocean and this is why China has established in 2017 a huge military naval base in Djibouti, in the Horn of Africa.

As for the China Sea, current areas of contention include not only China's territorial claims on Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea and other islands: Beijing has also an airstrip, structures, and buildings on the Chinese-built, man-made Subi reef in the Spratly chain of islands in the South China Sea and other artificial islands are being built.

This is why, as a response to China’s assertiveness, the US eventually decided to support the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, also known as “the Quad”, a strategic platform that unites the US, Japan, Australia, and India.

The Indo-Pacific has long been part of the US Pacific Command's (PACOM) area of operations and the United States: its partners and allies have a long record of basing, surveillance, and patrolling in many parts of the Indian Ocean while the territorial disputes in the South China Sea are being closely watched to see how China behaves when it does not get its way with trading nations which have stakes in Southeast Asia shipping lanes.

For as long as the region experiences armed tension, uncertainty and risk at sea - such as over contested islands in the East and South China seas - China will need to come to terms with the fact that the US alliances and partnerships will strengthen in ways that the participants see as defensive.

The likely way ahead

The Communist Party of China (CCP) and President Xi are playing the “long game” by “extending China's global reach, promoting its own political model, and investing in the technologies of the future.” China recognizes that Biden’s primary focus is to rebuild economic and political ties which Trump has cancelled. Under such circumstances, China would itself want to use this change in leadership as an opportunity to put bilateral talks and dialogue back on track.

There is little doubt that Biden will forgo US unilateralism. Not only because it has done substantial damage to US global standing, but also because a multilateral approach is essential if the U.S. is to restore and maintain a solid alliance system under its leadership.

During Trump's tenure, China's leadership has repeatedly emphasized its adherence to multilateralism in foreign affairs. Now it is time to see whether the "multilateralism" Beijing has advocated is merely rhetoric or a substantial policy upon which China can initiate a new approach toward a new administration in Washington that also champions multilateralism in global affairs.

As for the global economy, it is facing a substantial risk of a major financial meltdown -- or a least a global recession -- caused largely by the unprecedented quantitative easing triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic that has pumped trillions of dollars into the market to prevent an economic collapse.

Here, Beijing and Washington can find solid common ground in maintaining global financial stability. And not just because China has the world's largest foreign reserves and is the second-largest holder of US Treasury bills. A financial meltdown would be catastrophic for both China - the largest trading power in the world - and the US, for which financial stability is critical to economic prosperity.

Last but not the least, it is in the interests of both China and the US to build up a proper mechanism for crisis management, which barely exists nowadays, to deal with sensitive issues such as the Indo-Pacific, South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait so as to prevent lingering tensions from escalating into dangerous conflicts.

Biden’s Win and Russia

U.S. relations with Russia could crumble under Biden. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Ryabkov has recently accused the incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden of "Russophobia” and says he expects relations with the United States to go "from bad to worse."

Relations between Moscow and Washington have deteriorated in recent years over issues including Russia's seizure of Ukraine’s Crimea region in 2014, its role in wars in eastern Ukraine, Syria and Libya, its election meddling in the United States , and a series of major cyberattacks blamed on the Russians.

Biden, who will be inaugurated on January 20, 2021, is expected to take a tougher stance toward the Kremlin on its human rights record and foreign policies compared with outgoing President Donald Trump, who has been criticized by some for being too soft on Russia.

How about Russia?

Russia, although unable to act as a great global power, is the quantity that, by throwing its weight on one or the other side of the scales, can be decisive in the match between the United States and China.

Trump did maintain: “We never win a war. And we don’t fight to win.” The US are experiencing an era of “unwinnable conflicts” for America.

The US blames China and Russia for that. The Chinese, once again considered “red”, are described at best as thieves of technologies and at worst as well-poisoners. The Russians instead, who remain “red” even when dressed in black, play a dirty game, the “hybrid war”.

After the duopoly (1945-91), with the hyper-dominating United States allowing the Soviet Union to do half of its job as the global police force, power can now be competed for and without a safety net.

Now the two main challengers do not understand one another. The American and Chinese narratives are self-referential. The first rule in any competition is that there must be an exchange of words, meaning that he who knows his opponent best, wins, not because he is a friend but precisely because he is the enemy.

This concept is clear to the more worldly and astute Number Three, Russia, obliged to be so by its own structural inferiority, balanced by the formidable nuclear arsenal, compensated for by its pride in never having been a modern day colony, always a coloniser. This is what raises its rank and role in the three-sided match.

Russia characteristics 

Russia exists and resisted as an empire for at least six centuries. It is a powerful state armed to the teeth, led by an unopposed charismatic leader, but well-aware that it cannot rush into military adventures against neighbours such as the US or NATO.

Russia is a “separate civilisation” as established by Putin. It is trinitarian in numerology: a third Rome, the third pole (Orthodox) of the Christian world , the third geopolitical continent on the planet in terms of importance alongside North America and China

The confusion surrounding the world’s Number One makes Russians feel uncertain regards to what the Americans really want from them. Anyway, they envisage that US wants to destroy Russia, a state bordering with the United States to the north-west (via NATO) and north-east (the Bering Strait), with China to the east and the south, with Japan (Kuril) to the north-east, while to the south it borders with Middle Eastern chaos and suffers Islamist infiltrations.

Space, culture, and imperial ambition allow Moscow to have a Russian elite with geopolitical ambitions : nevertheless it is difficult for Russians and Americans to understand one another.

Russia and the new geopolitical map

As already stressed, due to its geographical position, Russia is a central element of security in Eurasia being its territory contiguous with all major crisis zones in the world.

As Russia's emblem, the double-headed eagle, suggests, Russians seek to remain a power pole according to a multilateral Eurasian strategy. Their goal is to remain a vital state in the space previously occupied by the former USSR.

At global level, also Russia is actively promoting a multipolar world in the context of globalization, which is becoming a conflict over allocation of geopolitical spaces, so as to have a say in its priority areas of interest.

In this regard, Russia secured a 25 year agreement with the Sudanese Government to build a naval base at Port Sudan last November giving Russia a “gateway” into the Red Sea and geopolitical implications on a regional and global scale.

From Port Sudan, Russia is able to exert leverage on numerous states. The US has a base in the Indian Ocean at Diego Garcia, that has been used to strike targets across the Middle East, which could now be threatened from Port Sudan.

China-Russia strategic ties

China and Russia sent recently strong messages through moves such as having joint aerial strategic patrols and criticizing US unilateralism together.

Russia has publicly abandoned the Europe-focused liberalising projects of the 1990s for its own cultural special path of a uniquely Russian civilisation centred on an all-powerful state.

It is worth mentioning that, at a time when Russia and China are being targeted by the US with punitive measures, in two separate events Russia and China have publicly heralded a new age of diplomacy between the two countries: with the Vostok 2018 Exercise and the Joint Sea 2019 Exercise, Russia and China signalled to the West that they are working closer together to counterbalance the US “imperialism”.

In particular, Vostok 2018, a massive Russian-Chinese military exercise, involved more than 300,000 troops, 1,000 planes and several warships, while Joint Sea 2019 involved numerous submarines, ships, airplanes, helicopters and marines from both countries.

What if China and US were to go to war?

In such event Russia would likely do everything possible to stay out of it. Putin of course has drawn closer to Beijing than ever before in the empire’s history: however, he has no intention whatsoever of sacrificing Russia in the name of Beijing. In any case, a NATO-Russia clash in Europe as an appendix of a China-USA conflict in Asia would be terrifying.

A war alliance with Beijing is therefore unlikely, but it is also certain that the Chinese do not wish to undermine their only partner. By insisting too much, China would lose an ideal ally, weak enough not to be able to try blackmail, but strong enough to worry America.

What binds these powers together, however, is their agreement that the status quo must be revised. Russia wants to reassemble as much of the Soviet Union as it can. China has no intention of contenting itself with a secondary role in global affairs, nor will it accept the current degree of U.S. influence in Asia and the territorial status quo there.

Leaders in both countries also agree that US power is the chief obstacle to achieving their revisionist goals. Their hostility toward Washington and its order is both offensive and defensive: not only do they hope that the decline of US power will make it easier to reorder their regions, but they also worry that Washington might try to overthrow them should discord within their countries start.

This is why they take into due account the motto “divide et impera” (divide and rule) which came out of practical needs: Rome, materially, couldn't face its enemy when united and the US is already trying to separate Russia and China.

A split America

Global leaders watched live as a mob stormed the US Capitol, and many saw it as a warning to global democracies, placing the blame squarely on President Trump.

If this can happen in the US, it can happen anywhere. Even if it is a US national issue, it shakes all democracies.

But how about China and Russia? Were Xi and Putin watching TV, munching popcorn and wondering: "Is this the nation we need to be afraid of? Is this the nation that wants to be the example of democracy and wants to export its democracy all over the world?”

Biden will surely have a hard time convincing China and Russia that this was an isolated event and that American democracy is stronger than ever. He will have even a harder time convincing them that such a split America is cohesive and united and ready to face any possible external threat.


Biden's likely goal is to strike the beginnings of a balancing strategy with China before the two nations move beyond what strategic circles are calling the ‘new cold war’ and into proper direct conflict, bringing into reality the “Thucydides Trap”. Overall, the presidency of Biden holds a continuation of transactional approaches of the US but also signals a break away from isolationism amidst “America First” that Trump built over the past four years.

How the relationship between the two powers unfolds under the new leadership in the US is to be seen: it requires anyway delicate balancing and dialogue. In this context Biden will try to create discord between China and Russia so as to avoid a strong anti-US military alliance which would be extremely dangerous for America.

As far as US allies are concerned, there is surely a willingness from Biden to bring them to the table and try to work out solutions, preferably with the US leading. However, it will be up to Biden’s foreign policy team to navigate tensions between America’s allies and China but also between America’s allies themselves. Biden will try to create the impression of a return to normal, but pre-2016 normality is no longer feasible.

US allies have lost considerable trust in the US during the Trump years and mending those ties will require time. America must try to improve relationships wherever it can, and most importantly, lead by example, preferably by attempting to fix its own domestic problems, in order to restore credibility and trust with its allies.

After the Capitol riot it won't be an easy task for Biden to convince China and Russia on one side and America's allies on the other side that America is still powerful, reliable, cohesive, united and evenly entitled and capable of leading the world.

As such, we can only hope that US-China competition will be in steadier hands. After all, what really endangers world peace and stability, as well as the future of US-China relations, is not a "strategic competition" between the two great powers, but the uncertainty resulting from a competition in which neither power follows the time-honoured rules of game, but behaves arbitrarily only in terms of its own narrowly defined self-interest.