The Foreign Policy Challenges Awaiting President-Elect Biden

A Look Ahead at US Relations with Iran, China and Russia in 2021 

President-elect Joe Biden’s foreign policy “to do” list only looking more difficult as he approaches inauguration day – even as the US faces new, substantive challenges, including COVID-19. After four years of ‘America First,’ we take a look at Biden’s suite of challenges on the global stage as he prepares to take over as commander in chief on January 20.
 
IRAN
 
Joe Biden campaigned on a pledge to return to the 2015 nuclear deal that President Donald Trump left two years ago, provided that “Iran returns to strict compliance” and agrees to “follow-on negotiations” that would extend the life of the deal and cover other malign Iranian activities. The president-elect repeated that pledge in a recent interview with the New York Times’ Tom Friedman, while acknowledging that “it’s going to be hard.”
 
Iran recently breached a major restriction in the deal by feeding uranium into its newest-generation centrifuges. These devices can produce the enriched fuel needed for nuclear weapons more quickly, shrinking the so-called breakout time Tehran needs to build a nuclear weapon.
 
The assassination of Iran’s top nuclear scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, on 27 November, which is likely to have been carried out by Israel, has also made Biden's job harder. Iran upped the stakes further in response to the assassination by passing Its passing a law in parliament directing the country to resume enriching uranium immediately to 20 percent. That’s the level Iran achieved before the 2015 deal was struck. The law also directs that all international nuclear inspectors be expelled from Iran if the United States does not lift oil and banking sanctions by the start of February. That move would kill what little is left of the 2015 deal.
 
Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif proposed last month that Iran and the United States return simultaneously to the terms of the 2015 deal. In making the offer, Zarif pointedly did not propose to undertake the broader negotiations that Biden wants. But Biden’s top foreign policy aides have said that in order for the US to re-enter the nuclear agreement and provide sanctions relief, Iran must commit to follow-up negotiations on broader issues, including Iran’s ballistic missile programme and support for militant groups in the region. 
 
That will be difficult even for moderates to accept. Iranian officials have demanded that Iran be compensated for the harm the Trump sanctions have inflicted before it returns to the deal. But given the dire condition of its economy and the chokehold of American economic sanctions, Tehran might be persuaded to return to negotiations in exchange for relief outside of oil exports. 
 
Biden also doesn’t have time on his side. Iranian hardliners are jockeying to reassert their control over the presidency in next year’s elections which means the Biden administration has only a few months after it takes office on 20 January to reach an agreement to return to the joint comprehensive plan of action, under which Tehran had agreed to limit its nuclear programme in exchange for relief from international sanctions. 
 
CHINA
 
The last four years of mounting friction with Trump’s Washington has resulted in the remodelling of  the relationship, which is now defined by confrontations over economic practices, emerging technologies, and security. Both sides have slapped the other with trade tariffs, restricted access for tech companies, journalists and diplomats, shuttered consulates, and squared off militarily in the South China Sea. There is also growing bipartisan support for pursuing a tougher approach to China, and the Justice, State, and Defense departments are increasingly prioritising new initiatives to push back on Beijing. 
 
During his almost five decades in national politics, Biden has repeatedly brushed up against China. As a senator, he played a role in China becoming a member of the World Trade Organization in 2001. Biden met Xi Jinping, now the authoritarian Chinese leader, at least eight times over a short span nearly a decade ago, while both were serving in vice presidential roles. Biden says he wanted to measure Xi, build a relationship, and probe China’s intentions. But despite accusations from the Trump campaign that Biden was too close to China, there is evidence that his views have shifted in recent years. Now Biden calls Xi a “thug” and seems to have accepted the fundamental premise of Trump-era China policy: China is a formidable strategic competitor.
 
One of the main planks of President Trump's foreign policy platform has been his trade war with China. Since mid-2018, the Trump administration has placed tariffs on hundreds of billions of dollars of Chinese imports, in an attempt to drive down the US trade deficit with China and force Beijing to further open its economy.
 
Recent remarks from Biden suggest he would continue to take action against Beijing over its economic policies. But in an interview with NPR in August, he made it clear he believed that tariffs were as bad for the US as they were for China. "Manufacturing's gone in recession. Agriculture lost billions of dollars that taxpayers had to pay. We're going after China in the wrong way," he said. Instead Biden appears to favour building a global coalition to force China into liberalizing its economy. 
 
There are also signs that Biden may embrace aspects of Trump's tech war against China. Under Trump, the US has tried to push diplomatic partners to reject 5G technology made in China, cut off Beijing from vital US components and targeted popular apps run by Chinese companies. Biden might be hesitant to reverse course, given the challenges his administration inherits. Like their Republican counterparts, many Democrats recognize that Chinese tech firms pose not only economic competition for the US, but also nontrivial data privacy and national security concerns.
 
Another dimension that desperately needs more coordinated collective action is China's human rights record. As the prepares to take power in Washington, the Chinese government is systematically assaulting ethnic and religious minorities, including by arbitrarily detaining a million Uighurs and effacing Uighur and Tibetan culture. The outgoing administration of U.S. President Donald Trump has been frank about the abusive nature of Chinese Communist Party rule, and it has gone so far as to impose sanctions on Chinese government officials, agencies, and companies credibly alleged to have committed serious human rights violations. The Biden administration has a formidable task ahead of it, but it should start by making human rights a priority in its China policy, reviving its alliances, and strengthening human rights institutions. 
 
RUSSIA
 
This week details emerged of an unprecedented cyber-attack against US government departments. Beginning in March, suspected Russian hackers penetrated Washington’s signature institutions. he massive and ongoing hack of US federal agencies poases an even tougher challenge for Biden, one he said he will impose "costs" for. The attack on government agencies and hundreds of Fortune 500 companies is just one of a series of aggressions attributed to Russia over the last four years that a Biden administration plans to extract a cost for.
 
A central conundrum for Biden’s presidency is how to contain such hyper-aggressive Russian behaviour.  The President-elect and his team are preparing a "cost imposition strategy" to respond to Russia -- not just for the hack, if Moscow is responsible, but for Russia's other disruptive actions also -- measures that will include but won't be limited to sanctions, according to sources close to Biden.
 
After taking office, the President-elect will also seek to determine the scope of Moscow's interference in the 2020 election as well as their actions on a number of other fronts, including Russia putting bounties on US soldiers in Afghanistan during the Trump administration. The Biden team expects more sanctions to be rolled out as part of the "cost imposition strategy," but sanctions will not be the only option for deterrence, a source CNN said. Experts point to cyber options as also being possible.