The Biden administration continues to send mixed messages on China

The Trump administration’s China policies over four years generally made America marginally more secure than those carried out during the previous four decades. The Biden national security team insists on being judged on its own merits, as practitioners of a third way different from either “maximum pressure” or “strategic patience.” 

But, as with all administrations, the effectiveness of its policies and actions inevitably will be compared to what came before. Splitting the difference between the Trump and pre-Trump eras will not be sufficient to meet the relentless, all-of-society challenge from China.  

In adopting, modifying or rejecting the Trump administration’s policies, the Biden approach roughly approximates the tri-level way Washington envisions its dealings with China itself.  Secretary of State Antony Blinken has defined a China policy comprising cooperation, competition and confrontation. That seems to define, as well, the Biden approach to the legacy of Trump’s China policy. 

On some security issues, the new team has accepted and ratified its predecessor’s policies, such as by agreeing that China is perpetrating genocide against the Uyghurs, or by continuing freedom of navigation operations (FONOPS) in the South China Sea, or by regularizing Navy transits through the Taiwan Strait.

On other issues, the Biden team seeks to demonstrate it can do things better than Trump did, such as by buttressing rather than questioning America’s Indo-Pacific alliance relationships — something the former president used as a negotiating tactic to enhance financial burden-sharing, while his national security team preferred a more collaborative approach.  

Biden’s summits with Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and South Korean President Moon Jae-in were good-faith attempts to shore up a collective defense message on the likeliest scenario for Indo-Pacific conflict: the Taiwan contingency.  But both meetings fell short of the kind of commitment needed to present a united deterrent message to Beijing — partly because Biden, like every president since the Carter administration, refuses to be explicit on whether the United States will defend Taiwan against Chinese aggression.

Biden’s pick-and-choose willingness to abandon or reverse Trump’s China policies has been most evident in the area of sensitive technology transfers and the protection of intellectual property, where at times he seems to be taking two steps forward and one step backward.

In April, the Commerce Department announced it was adding seven Chinese supercomputing companies to the Entity List for “activities that are contrary to the national security or foreign policy interests of the United States.” Commerce stated, “These entities are involved with building supercomputers used by China’s military actors, its destabilizing military modernization efforts, and/or weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programs” and prohibited American companies from exporting to them.

But then, last month, the administration declined to appeal an adverse court ruling on Trump’s blacklisting of Chinese telecommunications giant Xiaomi, or to correct the procedural deficiencies perceived by the judge and re-file the listing. Instead, it simply dismissed the matter as a botched Trump effort.

After bipartisan criticism of its action — or rather, inaction — the administration last week veered back and announced a new, broader list of Chinese companies with ties to the People’s Liberation Army. The action builds on a Trump executive order by banning U.S. “investments in Chinese companies that undermine the security or democratic values of the United States and our allies.” 

In announcing the expanded prohibition, the president stated: “This [executive order] prevents U.S. investment from supporting the Chinese defense sector, while also expanding the U.S. government’s ability to address the threat of Chinese surveillance technology firms that contribute — both inside and outside China — to the surveillance of religious or ethnic minorities or otherwise facilitate repression and serious human rights abuses.”

But, notably, Xiaomi is not on the new list. So, Biden’s reversal of a serious national security decision regarding that company remains in place, even as it widened the net to capture dozens of other companies. Beijing vehemently objected to the expanded list but naturally approved Xiaomi’s continued reprieve.

China also welcomed the Biden team’s dismantling of another Trump administration bulwark against China’s technology inroads. In 2020, Trump’s Commerce Department had put DJI, a Chinese drone manufacturer, on the Entity List, making it ineligible to purchase U.S. technology.  But now, Biden’s Defense Department released a report saying it found “no malicious code or intent” in the drone technology. 

The Pentagon statement simply ignores the overall reality of Beijing’s ongoing and pervasive “malicious intent” against the United States and the West generally — and the fact that no  Chinese high-tech company interacts with foreign entities without full government awareness and influence. Aside from the external applications of China’s drone technology, it undoubtedly will prove useful for government operations in Tibet, Xinjiang, Hong Kong and possibly Taiwan.  

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin repeatedly describes China as America’s “pacing threat,” but some of his recent decisions on the technology front raise serious concerns. Biden’s June order describes his administration’s approach regarding U.S. investments as impacting Chinese companies “in a targeted and scoped manner.” This may be prudent as long as the calculus of determining factors does not include winning Beijing’s approval.  

The same applies to Biden’s decision to extend and intensify the investigation of the origin of COVID-19. It is a welcome development as long as it is carried out in a transparent, no-holds-barred manner. If it concludes that a release of the virus from the Wuhan Institute of Virology is the most likely explanation, it must not shy away from determining whether the subsequent pandemic was purely accidental or was a form of biological warfare from China. If the worst-case scenario bears out, the international community has a range of non-kinetic options at its disposal: broad financial sanctions, economic boycotts, censure from national governments, selective ejection from international organizations, further economic decoupling and, most importantly, universal pressure on the Chinese Communist Party to begin a phased program of political reform and liberalization.

Given Biden’s hopscotching back and forth between Clinton-Bush-Obama engagement policies and Trump pushback, it is not yet clear where the spinning Biden policy will end up — but the consequences for U.S. national security are immense. 

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. Follow him on Twitter @BoscoJosephA.

Tags Antony Blinken China entity list Freedom of navigation Joe Biden Lloyd Austin Taiwan Uyghur genocide

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