Biden (mostly) builds on Trump’s foreign policy
At his confirmation hearing last week, Secretary of State-designate Antony Blinken surprised Republicans by approving much of the Trump administration’s foreign policy, particularly on China. While he dissented from some of Donald Trump’s style and tactics, his positive tone differed markedly from President Biden’s harsh campaign rhetoric.
His reference to a “growing rivalry from China and Russia and other authoritarian states” echoed the themes laid out in the Trump administration’s National Security Strategy, National Defense Strategy and Indo-Pacific Strategy Statement.
In their hearings, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines also painted broad policy strokes that suggest significant continuity between the Trump and Biden administrations on national security matters. Both promised to devote greater attention to China as a growing “adversary.”
Austin: “China is the pacing threat for the United States. The Indo-Pacific must be the focus of the department.”
Haines: “China is a challenge to our security, to our prosperity, to our values across a range of issues, and I do support an aggressive stance . . . one that is more assertive than where we had been in the Obama-Biden administration.”
There remain areas of stark disagreement, of course, such as U.S. participation in the Paris Climate Agreement — which Biden restored with an executive order within hours of his swearing-in — and the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) on Iran’s nuclear program. But even on the JCPOA, Blinken repeated Biden’s position that Washington’s re-entry first would need to correct some of the perceived flaws in the original agreement. Making it “longer and stronger” by restraining Iran’s missile program and its support for proxy militias across the Middle East would resonate with Republicans and dissipate much congressional opposition.
At least one of Biden’s first-day actions, however, contradicted one of his own promised governing principles: close coordination with America’s allies. As GOP Senators admonished Blinken, revoking the Keystone pipeline permit not only costs thousands of union jobs; it also precipitously spurns Canada’s export of its energy resource from oil sands.
It remains to be seen whether the generally agreeable posture of Biden’s national security Cabinet appointees was simply prudent confirmation posturing, or whether it reflected genuine conviction that will result in actual policy implementation. For the moment, Blinken’s approach seemed closer to the assertive thrust of the Trump administration’s China policy team than to the more “live-and-let-live” strategy advocated by national security adviser Jake Sullivan and his China policy coordinator Kurt Campbell, neither of whom required Senate confirmation.
Blinken also agreed with former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s designation of China’s Uighur suppression program as “genocide,” consistent with the Biden campaign’s clear statement on the issue: “The unspeakable oppression that Uighurs and other ethnic minorities have suffered at the hands of China’s authoritarian government is genocide and Joe Biden stands against it in the strongest terms.”
Among the atrocities enumerated in Pompeo’s declaration were the imposition of “measures intended to prevent births within the group,” such as by sterilization and forced abortions. A Chinese spokesperson effectively confirmed the practice and the intention, proudly stating that it was liberating Uighur women from being “baby-making machines.”
But Beijing also created a new level of atrocity apparently not employed by the Soviets in their genocidal undertakings. With seized Uighur men placed in concentration and “reeducation” camps, Chinese soldiers were stationed in their homes as new “members of the family,” including sharing the beds of the inmates’ wives. While this cruelty matched the sexual slavery of Imperial Japan’s use of “comfort women,” it had a perverse strategic purpose as well. The rapes and forced impregnations produced Han-ized children who would be raised outside the Uighur culture and Muslim religion, a diabolical new technique for destroying an ethnic and religious group.
How the new U.S. administration meets the legal obligations imposed on it by the Convention “to punish” perpetrators will be a significant test of its widely-advertised commitment to human rights. Congress enacted the Genocide Convention Implementation Act of 1987 mandating fines and/or imprisonment for anyone who “commits, attempts to commit or publicly incites acts of genocide.”
Depending on publicly available evidence, the United States could bring indictments against Chinese communist officials, potentially including Chinese leader Xi Jinping. Since Biden has pledged not to direct or intervene in the actions of the Justice Department, the prosecutorial decision presumably will be left to Attorney General Merrick Garland.
Finally, Blinken was asked how the new administration will manage the volatile issue of China’s aggression toward Taiwan. He pledged to continue helping Taiwan provide for its self-defense and to increase its international participation. He said he would like to see completion of the process that Pompeo initiated to relax the constraints on official governmental contacts with Taiwan.
As president-elect, and so far as president, Biden has not followed Trump’s example in accepting a congratulatory call from Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen, which upset Beijing. But he created his own precedent by inviting Taiwan’s de facto ambassador to the United States, Bi-khim Hsiao, as a guest at his inauguration — which, predictably, also upset Beijing.
Days later, China flew its largest contingent of bomber aircraft in years through Taiwan airspace, and the United States dispatched the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt and other Navy ships into the South China Sea. (While the Trump administration also increased transits through the Taiwan Strait, carriers were excluded, as with prior administrations, except for a “weather diversion” in 1995 and an explicitly defiant passage in 2007.) The State Department issued a statement that “urg[ed] Beijing to cease its military, diplomatic and economic pressure against Taiwan” and declared, “Our commitment to Taiwan is rock-solid.”
China also did not wait long after Biden’s inauguration to announce sanctions against several members of the Trump administration for “anti-China” actions and rhetoric. That sent a clear message to Biden people that their post-government careers could be adversely affected if they do not cooperate with China. The national security adviser’s office called the move “unproductive and cynical.”
All in all, the initial signals from the Biden administration offer hope that a reversion to the China policies of the Clinton-Bush-Obama administrations is not imminent. The sound, forward-looking approach of the Trump team — if not necessarily of the former president himself — likely will be retained and strengthened, at least in the short term.
The long-term prospects will be known only when China, or North Korea, precipitates a serious national security crisis and the Biden administration finds itself looking into what it may regard as “the abyss.”
Joseph Bosco served as China country director for the secretary of Defense from 2005 to 2006 and as Asia-Pacific director of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief from 2009 to 2010. He is a nonresident fellow at the Institute for Corean-American Studies and a member of the advisory board of the Global Taiwan Institute.