The move on the last day of Trump’s term, has no immediate effect but is likely to further strain ties with China.
United States President-elect Joe Biden’s nominees to lead the State and Defense Departments told Congress on Tuesday they would seek to reassert the nation’s leadership in world affairs and reverse the Trump administration’s policies.
Antony Blinken, who has been nominated to be the next US secretary of state, promised to restore US leadership in international affairs after four years of President Donald Trump’s term in office.
“We will revitalise American diplomacy to deal with and take on the most pressing challenges of our time,” Blinken told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
“American leadership still matters,” Blinken said, describing the world as one defined by “rising nationalism, receding democracy, growing rivalry from China and Russia, and other authoritarian states”.
For his part, Lloyd Austin, Biden’s nominee to be secretary of defence, told the Senate Armed Services Committee renewing US military alliances against China would be one of his top priorities.
“I look forward very much to going out to refurbish those alliances,” Austin said under questioning from Democratic Senator Jack Reed, who will chair the committee this year.
As Trump leaves office and Biden ushers in a new administration on Wednesday, the US faces diplomatic and military challenges from China, Russia, Iran and North Korea, Blinken and Austin said.
Trump had pursued an “America First” foreign policy that irritated Washington’s allies in Europe and strained relationships with NATO and had adopted a hardline position against China and Iran.
Blinken named China as the US’s top foreign policy challenge and said he agreed with the general thrust of the Trump administration’s tougher approach.
“The basic principle was the right one,” said Blinken, adding that he disagreed, however, with some of the steps Trump took.
“We have to start by approaching China from a position of strength”, Blinken said, which will require “investments in military to make sure we can deter any aggression”.
On the Middle East, Blinken said the incoming Biden administration would seek to build on recent US-brokered normalisation deals between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan.
Blinken emphasised that the US’s commitment to Israel’s security is “sacrosanct” and said the two-state solution, which has long been a centrepiece of US policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, is “very challenged at this point”.
At the same time, the Biden team will examine some of the commitments Trump made to incentivise countries to reach those deals with Israel, said Blinken. He did not go into further detail on what that would mean.
For instance, US recognised Morocco’s claim to the disputed territory of Western Sahara as part of the Morocco-Israel normalisation deal. It also removed Sudan from its list of “state sponsors of terrorism” after the Sudanese government agreed to its own agreement with Israel.
Blinken also reiterated Biden’s pledge to end US support for the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen.
That has been a considerable demand from Democratic Party legislators, who say Washington’s involvement in the devastating conflict has worsened an already dire humanitarian crisis.
The war in Yemen began in late 2014 when the Houthi rebel group seized control of much of the country, including Sanaa, the capital.
The conflict escalated in March 2015 when Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates assembled a US-backed military coalition in an attempt to restore the government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.
— Chris Murphy (@ChrisMurphyCT) January 19, 2021
On Iran, Blinken said Biden would seek to renew the nuclear deal with a “longer and stronger agreement”. Trump unilaterally withdrew from the Iran nuclear pact in 2018 as his administration pursued a “maximum pressure” strategy against Tehran.
Blinken said Trump’s assassination of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani a year ago “made us less safe” in the region.