In March 2021, during his first speech to the American public as Secretary of State, Antony Blinken set out a list of priorities regarding his foreign policy plan. Blinken asked what the Biden administration’s foreign policy would mean for Americans, as well as what could be done abroad to make America stronger.

These questions have long been the core of American foreign policy, but the plans of other nations cannot be ignored either. Russia continues to pile the pressure on its border with Ukraine, and China looks increasingly prepared to invade neighbouring Taiwan.

Relations with Russia and China are now arguably at the forefront of American foreign policy. But what exactly does this mean for the United States?

Russia’s aims abroad

A core component of Russia’s foreign policy is maintaining its sphere of influence from the Cold-War era. Ongoing tensions between Russia and Ukraine demonstrate this perfectly, as did the annexation of Crimea in 2014. 

The central motivation behind Russia’s potential invasion of Ukraine appears to be the desire to heavily influence Eastern Europe and challenge the advancement of NATO. During the Cold War, Ukraine was governed by Moscow as part of the Soviet Union. The Soviets further dictated affairs in European countries such as Poland, Hungary and Romania through the Warsaw Pact. A buffer was therefore created between Communist USSR to the east, and Capitalist powers in western Europe and beyond. 

Russia has also demonstrated interest in other global conflicts, providing military support and funding in proxy wars. In 2015, Russia formally entered the Syrian Civil War. Backing President Bashar Al-Assad. Russian mercenaries have since been deployed in efforts to support Vladimir Putin’s regional ally. Concerns over successful revolutions abroad and their influence on potential uprisings in Russia itself further motivated intervention.

China’s move to the top

Over the last decade, the acceleration of China’s global influence has been followed with concern from an American perspective. The Asian superpower has arguably become the top global trading partner, but it has also recently come under the spotlight for various reasons.

China’s contemporary foreign policy has been described as ‘aggressive, with increased military presence close to Taiwan and in the Himalayas and expanding operations in the South China Sea — amongst other disputed areas. However, this foreign policy is not limited to just military aggression. China also seeks to exert itself as a leader in global affairs. 

Projects such as economic development in African nations and increasing global trade during the Covid pandemic have bolstered China’s foreign relations. In fact, China has fast become a priority for world leaders, with more heads of state visiting Beijing than the United States every year since 2013. Despite this, a negative image abroad could hinder Chinese progress. Suspected detention camps for Uyghur Muslims and the general restriction of freedoms on the nation’s public do little to dispel China’s reputation as an aggressive force.

Where does this leave the United States?

The approaches taken by Russia and China are a challenge for American foreign policy. Primarily, the US must deal with the strong relationship between its two prominent rivals. In early February, China fully backed Russia’s increased military presence along the Ukrainian border. This level of support is something not seen before, and it puts the United States in a difficult position. 

Sino-American relations are already significantly damaged, particularly since Donald Trump waged a trade war during his presidency. America would be expected to hand both China and Russia sanctions should an invasion of Ukraine occur. Placing sanctions on Russia is nothing new, but bringing China into the equation could further sour already fragile relations.

Meanwhile, China has been applying pressure on its neighbours with increasing military operations near Taiwan. Both the US and Japan are eager to prepare a plan in case of future clashes. However, recent US policy regarding foreign conflicts has demonstrated a renewed lack of willingness to intervene militarily. Last August’s departure from Afghanistan and a gradual decline of operations in Syria highlight a reserve towards entanglements abroad.

America’s hesitancy regarding foreign conflicts against China’s growing influence could prove difficult to sustain.  Realistically, the rise of China and Russia might leave America no choice but to remain an active player rather than an observer in the game of foreign policy dynamics.

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