China and the Transnational Challenges – The Heart of the Biden Administration’s Foreign Policy


By Dr. Shay Har-Zvi​​ and Rotem Oreg | January, 2023

Photo: The White House


The Biden Administration’s foreign policy over the next two years will, to a large extent, be shaped by the principles published in the National Security Strategy (NSS), which lists the administration’s challenges and policies on a wide range of domestic as well as international topics. It will also be affected by the midterm elections for Congress, during which the Democrats triumphed almost unprecedentedly for a ruling party, showing that, despite the economic hardships, the American public has placed its trust in the way led by President Biden, founded on support for democratic processes and liberal values. The present paper aims to present the U.S. administration’s views and policies on key foreign policy issues, alongside some recommendations for the incoming Israeli government.



The global arena – China first


The United States has been facing two strategic challenges in recent years, as reflected in the NSS. The first is the great power competition over the establishment of new world order. The second is grappling with transnational challenges. President Biden addresses such challenges by embracing an approach that combines promoting his administration’s liberal values and views, and forging coalitions and partnerships with U.S. allies worldwide.


At the top of its list of priorities is the growing conflict with China and Russia. In the administration’s view, its competition against them reflects a value-based dispute between democratic and autocratic regimes that will shape the global arena in the near future. Be that as it may, whereas China is being perceived as the main threat reference and only country posing a true alternative due to its geopolitical aspirations and capabilities (technological, economic and military), Russia is emerging as an immediate threat to world order, albeit of lower intensity, that must be actively contained.


Thus, it would appear that, over the next two years, the administration will continue to make a considerable effort to limit China’s impact, and gain the upper hand in its competition against it over technological market supremacy. One manifestation of this effort can be found in the microchip war, and restrictions imposed by the U.S. administration over collaborations between U.S. and Chinese technological companies. At the same time, the U.S. administration will continue to promote defense alliances and military partnerships with countries in the Indo-Pacific sphere, primarily India, Australia, Japan (with the Quad having been reinstated last year), and South Korea. Vis-à-vis Russia, the United States will continue to provide extensive military and financial aid to Ukraine, as well as increasing the economic pressures on Moscow, while looking for ways to end the war. Doing so would allow it to direct its resources and attention to the Chinese challenge, help it cope with the economic crisis, and prevent escalation as well as extreme actions by Moscow.



Transnational challenges


The Biden Administration has highlighted the risks to stability and security posed by transnational challenges, primarily: protecting liberal values; the climate crisis; global pandemics; inflation; supply chain crises (that affect food and energy security); and terrorism. These challenges contribute to instability, fuel geopolitical crises, and, by their very nature, can't be resolved by any country single-handedly.


The U.S policy reflects an attempt to link the great power competition to transnational challenges. Thus, the essential transition to renewable energy, anchored in US$369bn investments promoted in legislation by the Biden Administration[1], is not just part of the effort to counter the climate crisis, but also aligns with the need to reduce American dependence on countries like Russia (and, perhaps, implicitly, Saudi Arabia as well). The global nature of challenges such as the climate and pandemics calls for a comprehensive solution that tallies well with Biden’s approach of forging partnerships, even with rival countries.


The Middle East: Regional alliances and curbing China and Iran


Despite its desire to minimize its involvement in the Middle East, as reflected by the brief and belated reference to this region in the NSS, in effect, the U.S. administration continues to focus special efforts in this area for several reasons. It recognizes the Middle East’s geopolitical and economic significance; strives to curb China’s involvement, and particularly its collaborations with the Gulf states; wishes to form an alternative to European dependence on Russian-imported oil and gas; and needs to address the growing threat posed by Iran.


U.S. strategy in the Middle East focuses on preventing escalation and securing freedom of maritime navigation. The main tools by which these goals may be attained, according to the U.S. administration, is forming coalitions and promoting regional integration, while exhibiting minimal willingness to use military force, and preferring diplomacy when seeking crisis resolution.


With respect to Israel, and as the new government is formed, the U.S. administration underscores the importance of the strategic alliance based on shared values between the two countries, while stating and cautioning that it will have to prove itself in policies and actions, particularly with regard to the Palestinian arena and its attitude toward minority groups.


As for Iran, the NSS reflects the U.S. policy de facto – attempts to deter Iran from destabilizing the region and continuing to support Russia, while using diplomatic means to stop it from obtaining nuclear weapons. Although the U.S. administration does emphasize its willingness to employ “other means” (which remain unspecified) should diplomacy fail, it seems that, as long as Iran will refrain from declaring the game over by breaking out to nuclear capabilities, it will keep preferring the diplomatic route to any other available option.


With regard to Saudi Arabia, it would appear that, despite internal criticism, the U.S. administration is still trying to examine ways by which to improve its rickety relations with the monarchy, as reflected by the statement issued by the White House whereby the Crown Prince is immune to legal actions. The reason for its conduct being that Saudi Arabia is a key player in most U.S. plans to attain its goals in this region, coupled with Washington’s concern over the implications of the deepening ties between Saudi Arabia and China on U.S. status.


The Palestinian issue ranks low on the U.S. administration’s list of priorities (as reflected both by the NSS and Biden’s visit to the region). The U.S. President repeatedly expresses his support of the two-state solution, but realizes that it cannot be realistically implemented at this point in time. Practically speaking, the U.S. administration wishes to avoid investing its resources in this issue, unless things will escalate on the ground, or Israel will make a drastic change in policy, forcing it to get dragged into increased involvement.



Recommendations for Israel


The Israeli policy vis-à-vis the U.S. administration must be based, first and foremost, on the understanding that there is no substitute for Israel’s strategic and value-based alliance with the United States. The special ties with the U.S. administration are crucial to Israel’s ability to maintain its status and power, and are essential for the IDF’s force buildup, as well as to its ability to counter the growing threat posed by Iran. Thus, in its conduct vis-à-vis the U.S. administration, Israel would do well to adopt the following two principles: seizing opportunities to demonstrate its valuableness and join forces against the Iranian threat as well as transnational challenges, while actively minimizing frictions, and avoiding destabilizing steps, or actions that could be viewed as contrary to shared Israeli-U.S. values.


Alongside its efforts to strengthen strategic, security, and military collaborations while maintaining a dialogue with both Democrats and Republicans so as to avoid being dragged into the internal U.S. political dispute, Israel should align its policy with current times, in which American interests lie primarily in three main areas: the great power competition, transnational challenges, and protecting democratic values.


With respect to the great power competition, Israel should adopt a very cautious policy on Chinese investments in national and technological infrastructures (such as cyber companies). As for Russia, Israel’s approach should be cautious in view of its strategic partnership with the United States on the one hand, and Russia’s potential ability to cause it damage on the other. On the practical level, Israel should keep expressing unequivocal moral support for Ukraine, and examine ways of increasing humanitarian and military aid (such as early warning systems), without crossing Russia’s red lines (air defense systems).


Israel has an opportunity to illustrate its valuableness to the U.S. administration by promoting regional and security collaborations with the Sunni countries in the region in alignment with the U.S. administration’s view that partnerships should be formed and regional alliances strengthened. At the same time, Israel must avoid taking destabilizing steps vis-à-vis the Palestinians that could lead to escalation and project negatively onto its relations with the U.S. administration. In this context, Israel should exhibit great sensitivity in its conduct in Jerusalem’s holy sites, carefully refraining from engaging in unilateral actions that could set the ground ablaze, and provoke a religious war.


As for the transnational challenges, Israel would do well to acknowledge that these issues are a top priority for the U.S. administration. Therefore, in order to bolster its valuableness to it, Israel should promote strategic dialogue and collaborations between the two countries on these topics, particularly with regard to combatting climate changes.


[1] In the form of a law formally known as the Inflation Reduction Act






Authored by Dr. Shay Har-Zvi, a senior researcher at the Institute for Policy and Strategy (IPS), Reichman University, and Rotem Oreg, researcher of U.S. politics and the director of the NGO Israeli-Democratic Alliance



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