Joe Biden to stress US refocus on ‘rules-based’ global issues in speech to United Nations

·5-min read

In a speech to the United Nations on Tuesday, US President Joe Biden will emphasise that America is focused on issues that signal its return to the global stage and that effectively counter China, senior officials say, now that it can shift gears after its withdrawal from Afghanistan.

These include a rules-based approach to trade, technology, “non-corrupted” infrastructure and vigorous competition with “great powers”, they said. But they added that the administration was also open to meeting with Chinese counterparts on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly this week in New York.

“I believe that the Chinese are going to be mostly attending virtually,” said Erica Barks-Ruggles, senior bureau official with the State Department’s Bureau of International Organization Affairs. “I do not have a virtual [bilateral meeting] on the schedule at this point. That doesn’t mean it might not pop up.”

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US officials also disagreed with UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres’s warning on Monday that Washington and Beijing risked a “new Cold War” given their many areas of potential confrontation, according to Associated Press.

“President Biden will communicate tomorrow [that] he does not believe in the notion of the new Cold War with the world divided into blocs,” said a senior US official, briefing reporters on background. “He believes in vigorous, intensive, principled competition that does not tip over into conflict. And if you look at the readout of his call with President Xi Jinping several days ago, you will see exactly that message.”

Even as the administration promotes its reliance on partner nations to safeguard democracy and counter China’s growing heft, it finds itself facing increasing criticism from friendly foreign capitals.

These include the chaotic handling of its withdrawal from Afghanistan, which left allies scrambling to evacuate their citizens and armed forces.

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Weeks later, the Biden administration agreed to sell nuclear-powered submarines to Australia as part of a trilateral security partnership with Britain. The move shocked long-time ally France, which was left out of the alliance and will see its US$66 billion diesel submarine deal with Canberra scrapped.

The recent moves led some critics to charge that the administration’s foreign policy steps are not terribly different from those of former president Donald Trump.

But the senior official speaking on background sought to play down any lack of multilateral coordination, pointing to recent and planned climate and Covid-19 summits, trade and technology ministerial meetings and work with fellow Quad nations of Japan, Australia and India aimed at countering China’s growing footprint in the Pacific.

“The president feels very good about the path forward and how American foreign policy can play a vital role in rallying the world, and especially in rallying democracies to solve the great challenges of our time,” the official said.

“I believe we can find a productive pathway forward out of and be in a position with France over time,” he added, “where our two countries are working very closely together on all significant issues.” Biden has requested a virtual meeting with an irate President Emmanuel Macron, who has recalled the French ambassador to Washington.

“Re-establishing alliances doesn’t mean that you won’t have disagreements,” said White House press secretary Jen Psaki. “The United States is not turning inward.”

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Beyond losing the huge submarine deal, Paris has expressed a feeling of betrayal that London, Washington and Canberra worked behind its back to forge their new security partnership, called Aukus. Australia has countered that the French technology was outdated and that its own national interest was paramount.

The Biden administration has made pivoting to the Indo-Pacific region a central priority to check Beijing’s expanding clout in the South China Sea and counter its use of economic and military leverage over neighbouring states. Asian defence analysts say diesel engines allow China to more easily track the undersea vessels than their quieter nuclear counterparts.

The senior administration official added that many of the usual safeguards against a foreign country acquiring cutting-edge US nuclear technology – to ensure it does not get diverted for nuclear weapons – would not apply in Australia’s case given its “model” record of nuclear non-proliferation. But these eased requirements would not set an example or apply to other allies.

Antonio Guterres, secretary general of the United Nations, speaks in New York on Monday. Photo: AFP
Antonio Guterres, secretary general of the United Nations, speaks in New York on Monday. Photo: AFP

“This is not a broad precedent that opens the doors, but rather a very narrow use case involving the combination of a unique set of circumstances,” he said. “We don’t have the intention of extending it to other countries.”

The administration’s effort to focus on multilateralism this week at the UN is sound, even if its diplomacy has been a bit clumsy of late, said Nicholas Cull, a public diplomacy professor at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. “The problems in the world right now are too big for any one country to fix,” he said.

At the same time, the administration needs to counter the narrative that its foreign policy is overly one-sided.

“The unilateral aspects of the withdrawal from Afghanistan didn’t do his multilateral credentials any good. Those who wish to show that alliances are not important, not worth the paper they’re written on, must be dining out,” Cull said. “That said, people don’t have an interest in seeing Xi Jinping take over, and there’s deep concern in China over aspects of his international image.”

Biden is also expected to announce a major initiative this week that will greatly expand shipments of vaccines to developing countries aimed in part at countering China’s aggressive “vaccine diplomacy” campaign.

Additional reporting by Robert Delaney

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