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Biden administration off to a combative start with tough rhetoric on Russia, China

President Joe Biden didn’t waste a beat when asked this week whether he believed his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin was a “killer.”

“Mm-hmm,” Biden told ABC News anchor George Stephanopoulos, nodding slightly, “I do.”

Some of the President’s advisers who share his assessment were still surprised by his answer, which overshot what many believed would be Biden’s opening bid in dealing with an increasingly adversarial counterpart.

They anticipated — correctly, it turns out — an outsized response from Moscow. The Kremlin ended up recalling its ambassador to the US for the first time in more than 20 years. Putin responded with a dry wish for “good health” and a proposal for a live televised debate.

The White House said Biden had no regrets in labeling Putin a killer. But his response set the tone for what would become a marquee week for the young administration in establishing a surprisingly combative foreign policy, designed to reassert US strength and moral authority while showily antagonizing leaders who have drifted toward authoritarianism.

Two days later, senior Biden officials engaged in open sparring with their Chinese counterparts in the ballroom of the Hotel Captain Cook in Anchorage, Alaska, animosity rarely seen so plainly on the world stage. US officials, who already had low expectations for the meeting, voiced little surprise the Chinese delegation entered the meeting loaded for bear.

If the two episodes shared something in common, it was the apparent desire to publicly signal to Moscow, Beijing and skeptical Americans alike that Biden will not be pushed over, even if the result is dramatic deterioration of relations. As both countries seek to paint the US as weakened — by political divisions, a botched response to coronavirus and economic instability — Biden has used the country’s moral rooting as proof of its continued global standing, setting up a contentious contest of values even as the tone turns increasingly bitter.

Administration officials are now working to finalize a package of sanctions to punish Russia for its attempts to meddle in the US election, its role in the massive SolarWinds hack and its placing of bounties on US troops serving in Afghanistan, which could be unveiled as soon as next week, according to two administration officials.

But sanctions on Putin’s regime have done little to change his behavior so far. So the White House has also said to expect an “unseen” response to the hack, which could signal use of the United States’ own cyber capabilities to stage a retaliation. Some officials have suggested the possibility of hacking potentially embarrassing information about Russian leaders and leaking it.

Biden’s options for countering China are less clear, with sanctions difficult to make effective. The White House is continuing to explore ways to counter China’s growing technological advantages by changing US industrial policy. It’s also moving to counter Chinese aggression in Asia by better enlisting allies in the region.

In both cases, a more explicit focus on calling out anti-democratic behavior has been clear, prompting angry responses from the other side. Both episodes this week seemed to illustrate a desire to make a hard break from former President Donald Trump — who largely avoided raising issues like human rights and sought to flatter both Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping — even if the undiplomatic sparring recalled some of Trump’s more chaotic outings on the world stage.

“The larger story here is that President Biden has been saying that we need to stand up for democracy, we are going to compete with these authoritarian countries. You saw rounds one and two this week with the Russians and Chinese,” said Nicholas Burns, a former US ambassador and senior State Department official who is said to be a leading contender to become Biden’s ambassador to China. “The United States is standing up for itself after four years of not doing that. And I think it’s been an important week to reposition the United States.”

Where that repositioning goes from here remains something of an open question, and Russia and China present vastly different challenges. One is the diminished former cold war adversary whose disruption of cyber networks has proved deeply destabilizing; the other is a rising power whose economy and military could overtake the US in the coming decades.

The US will have to cooperate to some degree with each; Biden has already quickly renegotiated the New START nuclear treaty with Russia and hopes to work with China on climate change.

But this week’s conflicts raise questions on how far that can extend.

Both China and Russia have seized on perceived weaknesses inside the United States as evidence the country is waning in power, including the January 6 insurrection at the US Capitol and the pandemic-prompted economic downturn. They have defended their own human rights abuses by pointing to US treatment of minorities, both historic and present-day.

Biden, and by extension his national security team, have made improving those factors central to their foreign policy. And Secretary of State Antony Blinken, channeling a phrase Biden uses often, told his Chinese counterparts that “it’s never a good bet to bet against America.”

How to sanction Russia

But behind the scenes there are other ways the administration is working to counter its foes. Biden signaled in his interview that punishment on Russia — both for its role in the SolarWinds attack and its efforts to influence the US elections — was coming soon.

“He will pay a price. We had a long talk, he and I,” Biden said of his first talk with Putin. “The conversation started off, I said, ‘I know you and you know me. If I establish this occurred, then be prepared.’ “

Discussions about the response to the devastating SolarWinds security breach of at least nine federal agencies and dozens of private businesses are still ongoing, but could come before the end of the month, officials said.

The package will likely include sanctions and a cyber component, as well as other options that make clear just how serious the Biden administration views Russia’s actions more broadly, officials have told CNN. Options in the past for responding to Russian cyber aggression have included using technology to expose Putin’s hidden assets or moves that would help dissidents get their message through government censors.

Earlier this month, the Biden administration imposed a raft of sanctions on Russian officials and entities in response to the poisoning and imprisonment of opposition leader Alexey Navalny. The actions — taken in coordination with the European Union, which also unveiled sanctions — represented the first significant move against Moscow since Biden became President.

Both steps would mark a clear departure from the strategy of the Trump administration, which failed to impose penalties over the poisoning and shied away from directly confronting Russia.

Tough talk with China

So, too, has the Biden administration more aggressively sought to call out China for its actions in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang province, steps Trump stopped short of doing publicly.

Those arguments were the crux of the disagreement at the start of Thursday’s meeting in Anchorage, where Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan raised the issues and said the US and its allies would push back against Chinese authoritarianism.

“That’s a subject matter they’re very, very sensitive to because they think it’s other countries meddling in their internal affairs and they’re trying to push back and say basically: who are you, the United States, to lecture us on human rights and civil rights and so forth when you have your own problems?” said Gary Locke, a former US ambassador to China.

“They’re feeling their strength, they’re feeling their economic rebound,” Locke went on. “Their country has really come back, life is almost back to normal in china whereas here in the United States we’re still struggling with the coronavirus and our economy is still in tatters, although it’s also rebounding. So China’s feeling a bit of strength and confidence.”

By the end of the first day of talks, the Chinese had accused the US delegation of being “condescending” in its tone, while a US official said the representatives from Beijing seemed “intent on grandstanding” and accused them of breaking protocol.

One official suggested the Chinese were looking to embarrass the Americans on their own soil. The site in Alaska was selected in part because the US wanted to stage the first high-level meeting on their own terms; an invitation to meet in Washington was regarded as a step too far, making Anchorage a suitable alternative.

After the initial sparring, both sides insisted the mood was better behind closed doors than what cameras caught transpiring. And Biden said Friday he was “proud” of Blinken.

The President’s endorsement sent a strong signal to the Chinese that the tone struck at Thursday’s meeting — a forceful US critique of China’s behavior domestically in places like Xinjiang and overseas, as well as Blinken’s pushback — has the full backing of the administration and that US officials are speaking with one voice.

With Biden, however, surprise escalations are not out of the question. Known for going off-script, it will be his own assessments of the global stage that dictate his administration policy going forward.

For now, his primary focus appears to be making plain the differences he is offering from Trump, who strained global alliances and confounded the national security establishment, including when he met with Putin alone and demanded the notes of his interpreter.

Describing his lengthy meetings with Xi when both were serving as vice president on Friday, Biden made clear that he was taking a different approach.

“I met with him, I guess, they tell me, 24, 25 hours alone, just me and an interpreter, and he and an interpreter,” he said. “And, by the way, I handed in all my notes.”

Article Topic Follows: National Politics

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