Biden zigzags on China policy

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The Biden administration continues its back-and-forth effort to balance the Trump national security team’s strong China policy with its own desire for a more “constructive” reset on bilateral relations. This past week it took a half-step forward in advancing the more assertive Trump administration approach, but a step-and-a-half back toward the Clinton-Bush-Obama quarter-century of accommodating China.

On the positive side, the Justice Department announced the indictment of four state-sponsored Chinese nationals for hacking American and allied government entities, universities and corporations. The administration withheld sanctions that it imposed when it accused Russian entities of similar espionage activities, but President Biden warned “the investigation is not finished” and the State Department said the U.S. is “not ruling out further action.”

The administration also announced sanctions against seven Chinese officials for their roles in crushing Hong Kong’s democracy, and cautioned U.S. companies against continuing to do business there.

China reacted by blocking a much-sought Beijing visit by Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman. This constituted a half-step backward in the U.S.-China psychological jousting by reversing the earlier roles of supplicant and dispenser of favors when the Biden team declined several Chinese requests to meet, finally agreeing to the acrimonious March encounter in Anchorage.

After that confrontation, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said any potential follow-on meetings “really have to be based on the proposition that we’re seeing tangible progress and tangible outcomes on the issues of concern to us with China.” No such progress has been indicated. Yet, Beijing sensed administration desperation as the tentative Sherman meeting date approached. China demanded a more substantive U.S. concession than the face-saving gesture of letting Sherman cool her heels — and they got it just before the weekend meeting was to take place. 

Justice suddenly dropped charges against five visiting Chinese researchers the Trump administration had accused of visa fraud for hiding their connections to the People’s Liberation Army. This is at least the second time the Biden team has lifted Trump-imposed pressure on Chinese technology companies that support the Communist Party’s military objectives. In May, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin took technology giant Xiaomi off the banned list for U.S. investment. 

Then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo followed the visa fraud indictment by ordering the closure of China’s Houston consulate, which he called “a hub of spying and intellectual property theft.”  Beijing retaliated by closing the U.S. consulate in Chengdu. U.S.-China relations under Trump were clearly taking on the trappings of a new cold war, which the Biden administration seeks to tamp down while still mostly holding firm against multiple Chinese violations of international norms. 

The diplomatic zigzagging is complicated by a fundamental misalignment of administration thinking on how the relationship should proceed. Most of the Biden appointees served in the Clinton and/or Obama administrations, which were deceptively more tranquil than the rocky but realistic tenure of Trump’s national security apparatus.  

During his confirmation hearing, Blinken said that “President Trump was right in taking a tougher approach to China,” though he disagreed with some of his style and tactics. Going forward, Blinken repeatedly has said that “Our relationship with China will be competitive when it should be, collaborative when it can be, and adversarial when it must be.” 

His targets for cooperation echoed administrations from Richard Nixon to Donald Trump: proliferation, North Korea’s nuclear program, the environment and climate change, and most recently, pandemics and public health. 

But there are two serious problems with the intended Biden approach toward China. First, on none of the potentially “collaborative” issues has the communist regime historically demonstrated anything more than lip service. Far from seeing shared global interests as the West does, for Beijing they are non-core issues that can be exploited to extract concessions and gain a strategic advantage for China.

On proliferation, for example, the Congressional Research Service reported in 2015 that China was “a key supplier of … nuclear and missile-related technology to Pakistan and missile-related technology to Iran.” China’s direct and indirect transfers to those and other Middle East states, and to North Korea via the A.Q. Khan network in Pakistan, made it not only a key proliferator of weapons of mass destruction, but a proliferator of proliferators — all of whom oppose American and Western interests.

While U.S., Japanese and South Korean officials agonized about the existential threats emanating from Pyongyang’s erratic Kim dynasty, Beijing was pocketing the rewards from posturing as a “responsible stakeholder” and good-faith negotiating partner. In every bilateral and multilateral forum, including the United Nations Security Council, Beijing provided diplomatic cover for its lone ally

On the environment, China has earned its reputation as one of the world’s worst polluters of air, land, and water. Even the current focus on climate change, which Biden has called the “number one issue facing humanity,” has not significantly advanced its compliance with international commitments. A recent Foreign Affairs article suggests that its future performance will be no better.

John Kerry, Biden’s climate change “czar,” said, “[W]e have serious differences with China. Those issues will never be traded for anything that has to do with climate. That’s not going to happen. … [C]limate is a critical, standalone issue.”

On global health security and the pandemic, the headline to a Washington Post editorial this past weekend read: “China is stepping up its deception and denial in investigations of COVID-19.”  Even more indicative of China’s COVID cover-up was the about-face by World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who previously excused China’s non-cooperation. Last week he called on Beijing to be more transparent: “I think we owe it to the millions who suffered and to the millions who died really to understand what happened.”  

The second fatal impediment to the Biden approach is the unbridgeable gap between U.S. expectations and Chinese intentions. Days after Blinken described America’s strategic plan, Beijing rejected compartmentalization. Lü Xiang of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences said, “U.S. officials would be too naïve if they believe China will accept dialogue and cooperation with no basis for equality and mutual respect.” And Beijing has made emphatically clear that means accepting China’s depredations on human rights and Hong Kong and its aggression in the South and East China Seas and against Taiwan: “[I]f Washington keeps believing that it can have Beijing’s cooperation in addressing daunting challenges while at the same time suppressing China, it is hugely wrong.”

Beijing’s message, reiterated to Sherman, is clear: China’s authoritarian policies will remain unchanged, while America must abandon its interests and ideals — that is, stop being America.  The existential challenge could not be more stark, and it is now the Biden administration’s duty to take it on, more consistently than it has so far.

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 hacking Climate change Donald Trump Joe Biden Lloyd Austin U.S. sanctions on China US-China relations Wendy Sherman Xi Jinping

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