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HomeAsiaBiden’s Gambit on China: Coercive Diplomacy or Recognition Diplomacy?

Biden’s Gambit on China: Coercive Diplomacy or Recognition Diplomacy?

Image credit: U.S. Department of State

By Pouyan Kimiayjan

During the first US-China summit of the Biden presidency in Anchorage, Alaska, the two countries’ top diplomats engaged in a heated exchange in front of reporters. Secretary of State Anthony Blinkin kickstarted the summit by lambasting China for violating global norms amid allegations of cyber-attacks, economic coercion, and harsh treatment of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang. In response, China’s director of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission Office Yang Jiechi gave a lengthy address and accused the United States of interference in Chinese domestic affairs, while also criticizing America’s own human rights record (on which Beijing consequently published a report). The summit, originally intended to improve bilateral ties after years of strained relations under the Trump administration, not only failed to produce a real compromise between the two sides but it also effectively squandered any goodwill that might have been generated by the change in the U.S. presidential administration. Instead, the meeting put in motion a new round of U.S.-led sanctions on Chinese officials over Beijing’s alleged treatment of the Uyghurs, to which China responded by imposing its own sanctions on Western entities and individuals. 

In contrast to Joe Biden’s campaign promise to pursue prudent diplomacy in dealing with China and try to find common ground on areas of mutual interest—such as tackling the Covid-19 Pandemic, reviving the Iran Nuclear Deal, and rehabilitating bilateral trade—the Biden administration has instead continued to rely on the same tired playbook Washington has employed since the 1990s in the wake of the collapse of the USSR, consisting of confrontational rhetoric, aggressive posturing, and the unending spirals of sanctions meant to intimidate and coerce compliance. Adopting this ‘trifecta’ as the basis of America’s strategic approach to China promises to hamper any prospect for meaningful engagement, let alone cooperation, between the world’s two great superpowers – unless the Biden administration decides to retire this failed standard playbook of coercive diplomacy and begins to recognize China as a co-equal sovereign power it should no longer intimidate. 

Looking back, in a September 2019 Foreign Affairs piece, Jake Sullivan and Kurt Campbell, both of whom later joined the Biden administration’s foreign policy team in senior positions, argued that the United States must pursue ‘co-existence’ with China, with each country having “to live with the other as a major power.” Under such an arrangement, the authors contended that both powers can selectively compete and cooperate in accordance with their national interests. Following his rise to the presidency, Joe Biden struck a similar tone and labeled China as America’s “most serious competitor” ﹘ but did not go so far as to call it an adversary to be contained. Understandably, the shift in tone from the White House early on marked a stark contrast to the Trump administration’s cold war rhetoric on China, raising hopes for de-escalation and even a possible rapprochement between the two countries. 

However, the Biden team’s post-inauguration moves signaled a more confrontational approach towards China. On February 10th, President Biden announced that the Pentagon would review the United States strategy towards China, instead of tasking the State Department with crafting the new administration’s China policy. On March 12th, the U.S. President hosted a publicly telecast virtual ‘Quad’ Summit (a U.S.-led coalition in the Indo-Pacific region composed of India, Japan, Australia, and the United States that is short for Quadrilateral Security Dialogue) with leaders of other member states for the first time since the organization’s founding in an effort to tout America’s strong Indo-Pacific relationships and increase coordination among Quad members. Instead of strengthening its traditional bilateral alliances in the Asia Pacific, the White House is now actively investing in elevating the coalition as a counter-balance to China. In the joint statement that followed the Summit, the group pledged to “meet the challenges to the rules-based maritime order in the East and South China Seas,” indicating further strengthening of naval deployments in the region. Setting an even more bellicose tone, during Secretary of State Anthony Blinkin’s visit to Japan, the two countries named China a threat to the international order. As such, for the time being at least, there seems to be a stronger focus on the strategic competition aspect of the ‘coexistence’ scheme and less emphasis on cooperation.

In fact, President Biden’s China policy seems to hearken back to the Obama era, resembling a more hawkish version of President Obama’s ‘pivot to Asia’ strategy. In 2009, during a speech at Tokyo’s Suntory Hall, President Obama proclaimed himself “America’s first Pacific president” and asserted that the United States will prioritize its traditional alliances and utilize multilateral organizations to strengthen security and prosperity in the region. In this speech, made during his first stop in the Asia Pacific, Obama argued that the United States does not seek to “contain” China. In essence, the newly elected President was counter-balancing engagement with China vis-à-vis closer relations with Japan, hoping to secure a multilateral trade agreement that could serve as a buffer against China’s expanding economic presence in the region. 

While the Obama administration facilitated the signing of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) with U.S. partners in the Asia Pacific, the intentional exclusion of China from the agreement contributed to Beijing’s sense of strategic alienation. Although the TPP reflected a more healthy competitive strategy, the economic effort was coupled with a more assertive naval posture in the South China Sea. Alarmed by the pivot, Xi Jinping increased China’s military budget, reformed the Chinese army, ordered the building of strategic islands across the South China Sea, and increased the country’s naval assets. And thus, the groundwork was laid for further escalations under the Trump administration. 

Fast forward to 2021. Instead of recognizing the shortcomings of the pivot and spearheading a new approach based on constructive engagement, Biden has so far chosen to double down on Obama’s failed Pacific Pivot strategy, moving towards military cooperation via the Quad to balance what it deems as China’s hegemonic challenge in Asia. In recent years, Quad members have regularized their joint naval exercises and strengthened defense interoperability in regional waters, with a focus on the South China Sea as a strategic priority. According to precedent, the continuation of this strategy to further corner and isolate China will only further fuel Beijing’s ‘Malacca Dilemma’—a potential blockade of its energy trade lifeline in the narrow strait—and embolden more West-skeptic hardliners in Beijing. This blowback effect will likely have negative implications on the autonomy of Hong Kong and Taiwan in particular, as China will increase intervention and push to undermine what it perceives as a US-led encirclement.

On the other hand, members of the Quad also have diverging interests and different degrees of threat tolerance in the face of increasing pressure from Beijing. With the degree of U.S. commitment and long-term interest remaining unclear, Australia under Chinese economic pressure and forced into a corner, India’s weak military infrastructure and weariness toward increasing tensions in the Himalayas, and Japan careful not to escalate tensions amid its shaky relations with other regional players, including South Korea and Russia, it will be unlikely that the Quad Indo-Pacific bloc could settle on a coherent and sustainable China policy. 

Complicating the matter further, in the current political landscape, it is understandable for both sides to resort to increasingly hawkish rhetoric to score wins with their domestic audiences. Negative US public opinion polls on China deter Washington from overt outreach to Beijing, as more moderate voices in the Democrat party try not to appear weak and conciliatory in front of their Republican counterparts and at times oversell their own hawkishness. These internal dynamics help explain the tense atmosphere of the Alaska summit. During that meeting, U.S. State Secretary Blinkin intentionally allowed the media to listen in to his criticism of China’s human-rights record, a move designed to communicate his “toughness” to the American people and demonstrate that holding high-level talks would not translate to an appeasement of Beijing. 

However, the United States must avoid turning its over-the-top rhetoric into hawkish policies and needs to be careful not to contribute to the ongoing cycle of escalation. Instead, the Biden administration is better served by focusing on addressing areas of mutual concern and shared interest – turning the dial on the selective cooperation aspect of the “coexistence”. The recent announcement on the establishment of a US-China climate working group was a promising development, signaling that both sides have shown flexibility behind closed doors. In parallel, the administration can work towards re-joining the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). Subsequently, as a show of good faith and to engender mutual trust, the Biden team can signal its openness for China to join the trade pact, in exchange for Chinese compliance with the rules-based framework of the agreement. At last, the United States must refrain from portraying the Quad as an ‘Asian NATO’, a security architecture specifically devised for containing China. Limiting the number of Quad military exercises and utilizing the Indo-Pacific framework for cooperation on trade and health security among member countries can help de-escalate tensions in the South China Sea. For instance, the recent Quad-led effort toward boosting vaccine distribution in Asia was a more appropriate and in kind response to China’s noticeable increase in global vaccine exports as part of its “vaccine diplomacy”.

Coordinating the fight against the Covid-19 Pandemic, lowering the temperature on trade disputes, resolving Meng Wanzhou’s extradition case and securing the release of the Two Michaels, re-opening consulates, reviving academic exchanges, and re-issuing visas to Chinese journalists are among concrete measures toward advancing cooperation that warrant serious discussion in future bilateral meetings. These steps, taken in a mutually choreographed fashion, will provide diplomatic room and the necessary goodwill for further engagement on issues of mutual interest, balancing the reality of inevitable competition among the two superpowers in our multipolar century with the prospect of more cooperation.

Pouyan Kimiayjan is a Research Associate at the Institute for Peace & Diplomacy.


Panel 4: Pathways to Manage Non-Proliferation in the Middle East (4:30 PM - 5:45 PM ET)

The Western powers have failed to effectively manage the increasing threat of proliferation in the Middle East. While the international community is concerned with Iran’s nuclear program, Saudi Arabia has moved forward with developing its own nuclear program, and independent studies show that Israel has longed possessed dozens of nuclear warheads. The former is a member of the treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), while the latter has refused to sign the international agreement. 

On Middle East policy, the Biden campaign had staunchly criticized the Trump administration’s unilateral withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), more commonly known as the Iran Nuclear Deal and it has begun re-engaging Iran on the nuclear dossier since assuming office in January 2021. However, serious obstacles remain for responsible actors in expanding non-proliferation efforts toward a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East. 

This panel will discuss how Western powers and multilateral institutions, such as the IAEA, can play a more effective role in managing non-proliferation efforts in the Middle East.  


Peggy Mason: Canada’s former Ambassador to the UN for Disarmament

Mark Fitzpatrick: Associate Fellow & Former Executive Director, International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS)

Ali Vaez: Iran Project Director, International Crisis Group

Negar Mortazavi: Journalist and Political Analyst, Host of Iran Podcast

David Albright: Founder and President of the Institute for Science and International Security


Closing (5:45 PM – 6:00 PM ET)

Panel 3: Trade and Business Diplomacy in the Middle East (3:00 PM - 4:15 PM ET)

What is the current economic landscape in the Middle East? While global foreign direct investment is expected to fall drastically in the post-COVID era, the World Bank reported a 5% contraction in the economic output of the Middle East and North African (MENA) countries in 2020 due to the pandemic. While oil prices are expected to rebound with normalization in demand, political instability, regional and geopolitical tensions, domestic corruption, and a volatile regulatory and legal environment all threaten economic recovery in the Middle East. What is the prospect for economic growth and development in the region post-pandemic, and how could MENA nations promote sustainable growth and regional trade moving forward?

At the same time, Middle Eastern diaspora communities have become financially successful and can help promote trade between North America and the region. In this respect, the diaspora can become vital intermediaries for advancing U.S. and Canada’s business interests abroad. Promoting business diplomacy can both benefit the MENA region and be an effective and positive way to advance engagement and achieve foreign policy goals of the North Atlantic.

This panel will investigate the trade and investment opportunities in the Middle East, discuss how facilitating economic engagement with the region can benefit Canadian and American national interests, and explore relevant policy prescriptions.


Hon. Sergio Marchi: Canada’s Former Minister of International Trade

Scott Jolliffe: Chairperson, Canada Arab Business Council

Esfandyar Batmanghelidj: Founder and Publisher of Bourse & Bazaar

Nizar Ghanem: Director of Research and Co-founder at Triangle

Nicki Siamaki: Researcher at Control Risks

Panel 2: Arms Race and Terrorism in the Middle East (12:00 PM - 1:15 PM ET)

The Middle East continues to grapple with violence and instability, particularly in Yemen, Syria and Iraq. Fueled by government incompetence and foreign interventions, terrorist insurgencies have imposed severe humanitarian and economic costs on the region. Meanwhile, regional actors have engaged in an unprecedented pursuit of arms accumulation. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have imported billions of both Western and Russian-made weapons and funded militant groups across the region, intending to contain their regional adversaries, particularly Iran. Tehran has also provided sophisticated weaponry to various militia groups across the region to strengthen its geopolitical position against Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Israel. 

On the other hand, with international terrorist networks and intense regional rivalry in the Middle East, it is impractical to discuss peace and security without addressing terrorism and the arms race in the region. This panel will primarily discuss the implications of the ongoing arms race in the region and the role of Western powers and multilateral organizations in facilitating trust-building security arrangements among regional stakeholders to limit the proliferation of arms across the Middle East.



Luciano Zaccara: Assistant Professor, Qatar University

Dania Thafer: Executive Director, Gulf International Forum

Kayhan Barzegar: Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science and International Relations at the Science and Research Branch of Azad University

Barbara Slavin: Director of Iran Initiative, Atlantic Council

Sanam Shantyaei: Senior Journalist at France24 & host of Middle East Matters

Panel 1: Future of Diplomacy and Engagement in the Middle East (10:30 AM-11:45 AM ET)

The emerging regional order in West Asia will have wide-ranging implications for global security. The Biden administration has begun re-engaging Iran on the nuclear dossier, an initiative staunchly opposed by Israel, while also taking a harder line on Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen. Meanwhile, key regional actors, including Qatar, Iraq, and Oman, have engaged in backchannel efforts to bring Iran and Saudi Arabia to the negotiating table. From a broader geopolitical perspective, with the need to secure its energy imports, China is also expected to increase its footprint in the region and influence the mentioned challenges. 

In this evolving landscape, Western powers will be compelled to redefine their strategic priorities and adjust their policies with the new realities in the region. In this panel, we will discuss how the West, including the United States and its allies, can utilize multilateral diplomacy with its adversaries to prevent military escalation in the region. Most importantly, the panel will discuss if a multilateral security dialogue in the Persian Gulf region, proposed by some regional actors, can help reduce tensions among regional foes and produce sustainable peace and development for the region. 


Abdullah Baabood: Academic Researcher and Former Director of the Centre for Gulf Studies, Qatar University

Trita Parsi: Executive Vice-President, Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft

Ebtesam Al-Ketbi: President, Emirates Policy Centre​

Jon Allen: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Israel

Elizabeth Hagedorn: Washington correspondent for Al-Monitor

Panel 4: Humanitarian Diplomacy: An Underused Foreign Policy Tool in the Middle East (4:30 PM - 5:30 PM ET)

Military interventions, political and economic instabilities, and civil unrest in the Middle East have led to a global refugee crisis with an increasing wave of refugees and asylum seekers to Europe and Canada. Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic has, in myriad ways, exacerbated and contributed to the ongoing security threats and destabilization of the region.

While these challenges pose serious risks to Canadian security, Ottawa will also have the opportunity to limit such risks and prevent a spillover effect vis-à-vis effective humanitarian initiatives in the region. In this panel, we will primarily investigate Canada’s Middle East Strategy’s degree of success in providing humanitarian aid to the region. Secondly, the panel will discuss what programs and initiatives Canada can introduce to further build on the renewed strategy. and more specifically, how Canada can utilize its policy instruments to more effectively deal with the increasing influx of refugees from the Middle East. 



Erica Di Ruggiero: Director of Centre for Global Health, University of Toronto

Reyhana Patel: Head of Communications & Government Relations, Islamic Relief Canada

Amir Barmaki: Former Head of UN OCHA in Iran

Catherine Gribbin: Senior Legal Advisor for International and Humanitarian Law, Canadian Red Cross

Panel 3: A Review of Canada’s Middle East Engagement and Defense Strategy (3:00 PM - 4:15 PM ET)

In 2016, Canada launched an ambitious five-year “Middle East Engagement Strategy” (2016-2021), committing to investing CA$3.5 billion over five years to help establish the necessary conditions for security and stability, alleviate human suffering and enable stabilization programs in the region. In the latest development, during the meeting of the Global Coalition against ISIS, Minister of Foreign Affairs Marc Garneau announced more than $43.6 million in Peace and Stabilization Operations Program funding for 11 projects in Syria and Iraq.

With Canada’s Middle East Engagement Strategy expiring this year, it is time to examine and evaluate this massive investment in the Middle East region in the past five years. More importantly, the panel will discuss a principled and strategic roadmap for the future of Canada’s short-term and long-term engagement in the Middle East.


Ferry de Kerckhove: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Egypt

Dennis Horak: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Saudi Arabia

Chris Kilford: Former Canadian Defence Attaché in Turkey, member of the national board of the Canadian International Council (CIC)

David Dewitt: University Professor Emeritus, York University

Panel 2: The Great Power Competition in the Middle East (12:00 PM - 1:15 PM ET)

While the United States continues to pull back from certain regional conflicts, reflected by the Biden administration’s decision to halt American backing for Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen and the expected withdrawal from Afghanistan, US troops continue to be stationed across the region. Meanwhile, Russia and China have significantly maintained and even expanded their regional activities. On one hand, the Kremlin has maintained its military presence in Syria, and on the other hand, China has signed an unprecedented 25-year strategic agreement with Iran.

As the global power structure continues to shift, it is essential to analyze the future of the US regional presence under the Biden administration, explore the emerging global rivalry with Russia and China, and at last, investigate the implications of such competition for peace and security in the Middle East.


Dmitri Trenin: Director of Carnegie Moscow Center

Joost R. Hiltermann: Director of MENA Programme, International Crisis Group

Roxane Farmanfarmaian: Affiliated Lecturer in International Relations of the Middle East and North Africa, University of Cambridge

Andrew A. Michta: Dean of the College of International and Security Studies at Marshall Center

Kelley Vlahos: Senior Advisor, Quincy Institute

Panel 1: A New Middle East Security Architecture in the Making (10:30 AM -11:45 AM ET)

The security architecture of the Middle East has undergone rapid transformations in an exceptionally short period. Notable developments include the United States gradual withdrawal from the region, rapprochement between Israel and some GCC states through the Abraham Accords and the rise of Chinese and Russian regional engagement.

With these new trends in the Middle East, it is timely to investigate the security implications of the Biden administration’s Middle East policy. In this respect, we will discuss the Biden team’s new approach vis-à-vis Iran, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. The panel will also discuss the role of other major powers, including China and Russia in shaping this new security environment in the region, and how the Biden administration will respond to these powers’ increasing regional presence.



Sanam Vakil: Deputy Director of MENA Programme at Chatham House

Denise Natali: Acting Director, Institute for National Strategic Studies & Director of the Center for Strategic Research, National Defense University

Hassan Ahmadian: Professor of the Middle East and North Africa Studies, University of Tehran

Abdulaziz Sagar: Chairman, Gulf Research Center

Andrew Parasiliti: President, Al-Monitor