A senior White House official has confirmed that Vice President Joe Biden will take the lead on the administration’s next phase China policy.
While the Departments of State and Treasury have held important functional roles in conducting the China-US Strategic and Economic Dialogue meetings, raising the bilateral status of US-China relations with ongoing meetings between two senior US Executive Branch officials with two of China’s most senior leaders, Vice Premier Li Keqiang and State Councillor Dai Bingguo, there has been a general sense that neither Timothy Geithner nor Hillary Clinton and her team were comprehensively driving US-China policy.
The White House official made clear that the coming shift in the locus of US-China policy management was not a critique of either Clinton or Geithner’s management of the China portfolio — but rather, the rise of Hu Jintao heir apparent and current Vice President Xi Jinping as the likely next President of China created certain practical challenges in dealing with him on a same-status level throughout much of 2012 until Xi’s accession to the presidency is formalized.
The view of some of the administration’s China-handlers is that management of US-China policy has become so central to a vast array of other policy challenges that the administration’s approach needs to be both broad and managed with “a deep and senior bench.” The evolution of many functional offices at the Department of State and Treasury tasked with various line items in the China-US Strategic and Economic Dialogue has helped stabilize many aspects of the relationship and has helped to benchmark meeting to meeting progress on core concerns.
National Security Advisor Thomas Donilon has essentially been holding the China policy portfolio himself since September 2010 when in the early part of that month he and then Obama national economic advisor Lawrence Summers went to Beijing to attempt a reset in a quickly deteriorating US-China economic and military relationship. For the most part, currency politics aside, Donilon’s mission has succeeded — and he has since preempted either Clinton’s China hands, particularly Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell, or Geithner’s team from taking primacy over US-China policy.
The shift to a strategy of engagement with Biden at the top, orchestrated by Donilon, allows the US to deal with China’s likely next president from a Vice President to a Vice President/Next President status — and to continue both the Departments of State’s and Treasury’s ongoing engagement with other designated key Chinese leaders.
After President Obama’s 2008 presidential win, the original intention of the White House was to focus the Vice President primarily on domestic matters — telling this writer at the time to remember that Joe Biden had recently been featured in Working Mother magazine. Part of the concern at the time was that with such personalities as Defense Secretary Bob Gates, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, then National Security Advisor General Jim Jones, super-general-in-the-field David Petraeus, CIA Director Leon Panetta, Envoys Richard Holbrooke, former Senator George Mitchell, Stephen Bosworth, and Dennis Ross — Joe Biden as a roving foreign policy/national security hand wasn’t perceived to be stabilizing to a strong-on-divas Obama team.
However, Joe Biden quietly took on national security tasks that were key to President Obama and that needed more off the newspaper front page handling. These included laying the groundwork for the major nuclear materials summit that the Obama administration hosted in April 2010 as well as lining up the continuity of thinking and policy deployment tying together this nuclear materials and WMD summit with President Obama’s Nuclear Posture Review and the Senate passage of the New START treaty. Biden also played a leading role — along with Defense Secretary Bob Gates — in the “Russia reset.”
And whether Iraq’s democratic-appearing government survives or not, the person who did more than any other behind the scenes to broker the deals and to play communications envoy between factions of Iraq’s fractured political order was Joe Biden. Biden has worked nearly every day — and definitely every week of his tenure in the vice-presidency trying to seduce former, bitter enemies to realize that they had more ultimately to gain for their constituents, their nation, and themselves personally if they held together the semblance of a constitutional arrangement rather than ripping it up and devolving into civil war once again.
Biden has checked off the boxes of Iraq, Russia, and nuclear materials — and his foreign policy slate is largely clear.
While this writer thinks he should be the person who does for US-Afghanistan policy what he did in the US-Iraq case, a topic for another day, Biden’s next big task will be the next phase evolution of US-China policy.