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Commentary – With Biden, Washington returns to normalcy: But ‘strategic patience’ with China?



A week has passed since U.S. President Joe Biden was sworn in, and Washington is gradually returning to normalcy. One example is the daily press briefings resumed by Press Secretary Jen Psaki at the White House. Full transcripts of these briefings used to be required reading.


In her first press briefing on Inauguration Day, Psaki referred to “the importance of bringing truth and transparency back to the briefing room.” She also underscored the importance of “communicating about the policies across the Biden-Harris administration and the work his team is doing every single day on behalf of all American people.”


This pledge was welcome news. The former president’s early morning tweets were driving Tokyo crazy on a daily basis. Now that Donald Trump is banned from major social media, people here, from bureaucrats to journalists and businesspeople alike, are returning to their regular lives.


It is great to have something dependable and trustworthy to read like these daily briefings. On Jan. 20, Psaki explained Biden’s new executive orders for a 100 Day Masking Challenge and a return to the World Health Organization and the Paris climate agreement. On Jan. 21, Psaki invited Anthony Fauci to deliver a brief on COVID-19. She brought National Economic Council director Brian Deese with her on the following day. On Jan. 26, Psaki asked domestic policy adviser Susan Rice, former national security adviser to President Obama, to talk about racial justice and equity.


As expected, most of the questions raised were on domestic affairs, with special focus on the never-ending pandemic, the U.S. economy and the second impeachment of the former president. In the first five press briefings, foreign policy was seldom raised in the question and answer sessions.


To be sure, Psaki has done a great job compared with her predecessors in the Trump administration. In the first two years of the Trump era, they often antagonized the White House press corps. Moreover, a long-standing tradition was broken on March 11, 2019, when no televised briefing was held by the press secretary.


Near perfect answers on foreign policy

A question was raised about the Iran nuclear deal on Jan. 20. Psaki responded, “the United States should seek to lengthen and strengthen nuclear constraints on Iran and address other issues of concern. Iran must resume compliance with significant nuclear constraints under the deal to proceed.”


On Jan. 22, Psaki was asked about Japan and North Korea. She replied that “North Korea’s nuclear ballistic missile and other proliferation-related activities constitute a serious threat to the international peace and security of the world and undermine the global nonproliferation regime.”


She continued, “We will adopt a new strategy to keep the American people and our allies safe. That approach will begin with a thorough policy review of the state of play in North Korea, in close consultation with South Korea, Japan and other allies on ongoing pressure options and the potential for any future diplomacy.”


She also commented on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, saying that “President Biden knows TPP wasn’t perfect and believes we need to make it stronger and better. But, at this point, his focus, as it relates to the economy, is on doing everything we can to advance working families and the American middle class. And so that will be his focus in the coming months.”


The answers were almost perfect. As a former State Department spokesperson, Psaki handled those questions skillfully. With that said, her handling of China raised the eyebrows of some in Tokyo. She used the phrase “strategic patience” on Jan. 25 in response to a question about the stance of the Biden administration toward China.


She explained that “Beijing is now challenging our security, prosperity and values in significant ways that require a new U.S. approach. And this is one of the reasons that we want to approach this with some strategic patience, and we want to conduct reviews internally.” Conservatives in Tokyo did not miss the reference.


On Jan. 27, an editorial in the Sankei Shimbun claimed, “Although Ms. Psaki announced that the U.S. policy vis-a-vis China would not change, ‘strategic patience’ was the policy of the Obama administration vis-a-vis North Korea which was so passive that it consequently allowed Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program.”


If the Biden administration applied the abortive “strategic patience” concept to China, many in Tokyo would indeed be concerned. Nevertheless, Biden’s China policy does appear to be different from President Obama’s unsuccessful North Korea policy. There is reason for optimism.


Psaki earlier stated in the same briefing that the United States “will need to go through the interagency, so the State Department, the Treasury Department, a number of others, who will review how we move forward. We’re starting from an approach of patience as it relates to our relationship with China.”


What Psaki meant was that the U.S. approach to China remains what it has been but that, considering the complexity of Chinese investment in telecoms or other issues, the administration will conduct reviews internally, through the interagency process, which may take some time and, therefore, require some patience before drawing conclusions.


Psaki did not intentionally use the phrase “strategic patience” as a new policy for China. She might have inadvertently put “strategic” before “patience,” which reminded many in Tokyo of the failed Obama policy on North Korea. At least, that is the hope. Otherwise, there will be trouble in the Biden administration from the very outset.


Kuni Miyake is president of the Foreign Policy Institute and research director at Canon Institute for Global Studies. A former career diplomat, Miyake also serves as special adviser to Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s Cabinet. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect the positions of the Japanese government.

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