Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

The White House wants to focus on China, but Russia continues to be a distraction

Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with President Biden prior to the U.S.-Russia summit at the Villa La Grange, in Geneva on June 16.
Brendan Smialowski
AFP via Getty Images
Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with President Biden prior to the U.S.-Russia summit at the Villa La Grange, in Geneva on June 16.

President Biden came into office wanting to focus on what he sees as one of the biggest threats to the U.S. middle class: the rising power of China.

But as Biden attempted to take on China, Russia kept intruding and pulling his attention away. He spent much of his first year in office trying to achieve what Western leaders call "stable and predictable relations" with Moscow.

"The entire premise of the sort of mantra of 'stable and predictable relations' is that Russia gets off the top of the agenda," said Samuel Charap, who was a top Russia adviser in the Obama administration. "It doesn't cause the U.S. problems and stops taking senior decision-makers' time. And that hasn't worked out."

For Biden, China presents both economic and military threats. He has said that the United States is in danger of falling behind and must do more to compete with China.

"If we don't get moving, they're going to eat our lunch," he told senators early this year when pushing his infrastructure plan.

Russia, on the other hand, is largely seen by experts as a declining power. Nonetheless, it has remained in the spotlight this year, first by being linked to a series of cyberattacks and now by building up a military presence along the Ukraine border.

"We constantly misjudge and underestimate Russia," said Andrea Kendall-Taylor, who advised the Biden team just before it took over the White House. "Even though Russia has genuine challenges that it faces economically, demographically, et cetera, we often overstate those weaknesses and we understate its strength."

She argues that the administration needs to look at Russia more as a "persistent power."

In June, Biden met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Geneva to try to ease some of the tensions and establish some guardrails against malign behavior.

But six months later, Putin appears to be testing the U.S. again with a military buildup around Ukraine, which led to another high-stakes meeting.

"I've made it absolutely clear to President Putin — this is the last thing I'll say — that if he moves on Ukraine, the economic consequences for his economy are going to be devastating," Biden told reporters a few days after that meeting.

All the while, China builds itself into a superpower

Other presidents have also tried to shift to China.

George W. Bush wanted to get tougher on Beijing. Barack Obama had what was known as the "pivot to Asia."

"Let there be no doubt: In the Asia-Pacific in the 21st century, the United States of America is all in," Obama said in 2011.

And Donald Trump fixated his foreign policy on China.

But all three were also pulled away by other major issues, including Afghanistan and Iraq.

"The United States invasion of Iraq in 2003 was a geopolitical gift to China," said Kishore Mahbubani, who was Singapore's ambassador to the United Nations at the time.

Mahbubani, a fellow at the National University of Singapore, sees a pattern where the U.S. gets distracted by tensions elsewhere while China builds itself into an economic and military superpower.

"If your main competitor is China, then don't provoke Russia. That's the obvious thing to do, said Mahbubani, who wrote the book Has China Won?

The Biden administration dismisses the idea that it is being forced to ignore China while it tackles the latest from Russia. They say the president must deal with both issues — and that Biden is doing that.

"National security challenges and crises are inevitable in every administration," said Emily Horne, National Security Council spokesperson. "It's how you deal with them that matters."

Dealing with the China challenge

Secretary of State Antony Blinken told a recent Wall Street Journal event this month that the United States has more capacity to take on those challenges now that it is no longer fighting a war in Afghanistan.

"It's also true that in ending America's longest war and making sure that we're not sending a third generation of Americans back to fight and die in Afghanistan, that frees up a tremendous amount of resources and focus for other challenges," he said.

Biden's team is using those resources, in part, to push ahead on China policy.

Both Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin have been traveling through Asia, warning of the economic and military threat China poses.

White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan takes questions at the White House on Dec. 7 in Washington, D.C.
Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images
Getty Images
White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan takes questions at the White House on Dec. 7 in Washington, D.C.

Just last week, White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan pointed to the administration's success in persuading allies to counter Beijing's influence, including issuing a strong G-7 statement in June that condemned forced labor in Xinjiang.

"A year ago, the EU was finalizing a wide-ranging investment agreement with China and reticent to speak out on dangerous Chinese economic and human rights abuses," Sullivan said at an event hosted by the Council on Foreign Relations. "Today, that deal is on ice."

And in November, Biden met virtually with China's leader, Xi Jinping. They spent more than three hours talking through tensions.

But Charap, the former Obama administration adviser, says the reality is there is only so much time that the president and his senior officials can devote to one issue or another.

That challenge will only get worse if Russia invades Ukraine, he said.

"If we end up with a war in Europe, say goodbye to the pivot to the China priority," he said. "Presumably, that would create more of an incentive to resolve this diplomatically, but I haven't quite seen that manifest itself yet."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Franco Ordoñez
Franco Ordoñez is a White House Correspondent for NPR's Washington Desk. Before he came to NPR in 2019, Ordoñez covered the White House for McClatchy. He has also written about diplomatic affairs, foreign policy and immigration, and has been a correspondent in Cuba, Colombia, Mexico and Haiti.