Joe Biden – pictured here with President Xi Jinping in September 2015 – finally called his Chinese counterpart. File photo: AFP

Joe Biden, sworn in as the 46th president of the United States on Wednesday, in his reconciliatory inaugural address indicated the challenges ahead for his presidency, and his responsibilities. He stressed, “Much to repair, much to restore, much to heal, much to build, and much to gain.”

Biden faces huge domestic policy challenges on the one hand. On the other hand, there is the challenge of bringing America’s credibility and reputation abroad back to the pre-2017 level.

The Covid-19 pandemic has hit the US economy harder than the Great Depression and World War II. Besides, there is a deep division within the US and the domestic political temperature is at a record high. Biden said, “We can join forces, stop the shouting, and lower the temperature.”

Most significantly, the attack on Capitol Hill by supporters of former president Donald Trump has tarnished the world’s oldest democracy. The incident eroded the credibility of US democracy and further diluted its persuasive “soft power” abroad. The US has also lost its reputation among its friends and allies for democratic and peaceful transfers of power.

The past four years of Trump’s presidency have featured a historic aberration of US foreign policy. Now, for the Biden administration, it will be very difficult to alter the course of deviated foreign policy and return it to where it was before Trump came to power in 2017.

The United States has lost its global leadership in many areas. The US not only withdrew from a number of free-trade agreements, the Paris Climate Accord, and the Iran nuclear deal, but it also failed to lead the global response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Although Biden announced, “We can make America once again the leading force for good in the world,” he in fact has very little leverage. Besides, Trump’s absurd and unplanned trade and technology war against the world’s second-largest economy and US competitor China left very little room for Biden on China policy.

Yet that is a fundamental task for Biden. It is an important job to be done to advance American interests not for the present but the future.

As the incumbent superpower, the US has the primary responsibility for “socialization” and “enculturation” of an emerging superpower, China. There is no doubt China will lead the world in the next decade.

Socialization and enculturation are sociological, anthropological, and psychological concepts. They are processes by which individuals learn the dynamics of the culture and society in their environment and adopt them in order to be bona fide members of that society and follower of its worldview.

Suppose parents apply appropriate practices to nurture their children in the family. In that case, the children will grow up to be bona fide members of their parents’ society and good citizens of the country in which they live. Therefore the development of a human’s adult personality depends to a large degree on his or her parents’ child-rearing approach.

An adult personality is how an individual behaves with friends, neighbors, colleagues, and others as members of society and citizens of the country. Thus child-rearing practices are very critical to shape – in other words, to socialize and enculturate – adult behavior.

The theory of culture and personality, as proposed by the American psychological anthropologist Margaret Mead, applies to individual personality development. I think it is equally applicable to the “personality of the nation-state” in the international community.

As a superpower, if the United States shows aggressive behavior and uses punitive measures, an emerging power like China will develop behavior that is seen as inappropriate by the US and its friends and allies. But that is exactly what the Trump administration did during the past four years in its policy toward China, and the results are apparent.

By the same token, China’s future behavior will depend on how the US behaves toward it at present. If the US expects the “right actions” from China in the future, it should act responsibly now. China can become a more responsible and accountable global leader if the US avoids socializing through its own aggressive behavior.

After all, the nation-state is an abstract entity, and the visible form of the state is the government. People run the government. Thus socialization and enculturation of the country’s leaders shape the “personality of the state.” Therefore, the Biden administration is primarily responsible for undertaking this task.

For example, the Trump administration’s aggressive behavior such as imposing economic sanctions on China and unilaterally quitting international agreements negatively impacted China. Beijing consequently is flexing its muscles in Asia, such as by putting pressure on India along the Line of Actual Control in Ladakh.

Similarly, China has been punishing Australia through economic muscle power, and is threatening to impose economic sanctions on Britain. China is taking retaliatory measures against the US trade war.

All this aggressive Chinese behavior is a consequence of America’s application of punitive measures against China. China is following the footsteps of the US. China learned this aggressive behavior from the US.

It should be borne in mind that China is not like Soviet Russia during the Cold War, nor is it like Japan in the 1980s. Today’s China is a combination of Russia’s Cold War strategy and Japan’s technological and manufacturing capabilities of the 1980s.

Just as the US was the world’s largest consumer market after 1960, China is the world’s largest consumer market today. It is the both the producer and the consumer.

China has been pursuing a dual-circulation policy since August last year. This policy was a direct message to the US. If China decides to go it alone, the US economy will suffer the most, but the developing world will also suffer.

For example, Trump’s trade and technology war has made China more resilient. The United States has only suffered. The US tariffs on Chinese goods have increased the economic burden on each US household by US$1,000 to $1,200 per annum. The deadweight loss of US households has reduced the economic welfare of working and lower-class Americans. US businesses have lost profits from China.

During President Biden’s tenure and afterward, US behavior toward China will determine China’s attitude toward the US. China will definitely pursue a tit-for-tat policy against the United States if Washington continues its punitive and aggressive behavior. And so there will be no moral ground for the United States to claim that China is behaving inappropriately.

That is why the US, as the current superpower, needs to use its influence to persuade China on the right way to behave as the world’s largest economy in the future. China will become an accountable and responsible global leader it is appropriately socialized and enculturated now.

For this, the US needs to abide by global rules. Then the US can persuade others to follow the law. For example, suppose the US wants to hold China accountable and responsible for its behavior in the South China Sea. In that case, the first thing the Biden administration must do is ratify the global rules of the high seas.

The United States signed the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea in 1994. It now recognizes the treaty as the general international law of the sea. Yet to this day, the US Senate has not ratified the treaty. The US cannot ask China to follow an international law that it does not itself abide by.

Bhim Bhurtel

Bhim Bhurtel is visiting faculty for a master's in international relations and diplomacy, Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu, and faculty for a master's program of Development Economics, Nepal Open University. He was the executive director of the Nepal South Asia Center (2009-14), a Kathmandu-based South Asian development think-tank. Bhurtel can be reached at bhim.bhurtel@gmail.com.