Prof. ST Hsieh
Director, US-China Energy Industry Forum
February 11, 2022
The following article is from Washington Post. The author labeled himself as a “neoliberal with a constructivist streak.” He provides a review of Biden’s China policy in his first year at White House and makes projections for the second year, 2022. We provide some comments.
- The claim that “Restraining China is now a multi-administration, bipartisan strategy that stands among the most important foreign policy adjustments since the end of the Cold War, is a bit of stretch. First of all, a multi-administration US strategy is a far cry from reality. Secondly, bipartisan strategy is needed, again the reality is depressing. We can take issue at how many ambassadors appointed by Biden have been confirmed so far. For example, the administration is deeply concerned about Putin will invade Ukraine anytime. However, we do not have an ambassador on the ground in Kiev.
- It is true as the author wrote: That mind-set isn’t unanimous that US is in full competition with China. CNN anchor and Post columnist Fareed Zakaria characterized the Biden administration’s approach to China as a failure because Beijing had not gotten on board. “What has been achieved by this tough talk? What new trade detail have you got? What concessions has China made? What climate agreement has been reached? What has been the net effect of all of that?” he asked Sullivan on CNN.
- It’s not enough just to maintain the status quo — China’s not standing still, and neither can the United States.” True, but Biden has to effectively manage the US domestic challenges including the Pandemics and inflations. Further, Biden wishes to bring the US back to the global stage as a leader. Unfortunately, Biden’s approval rating is below average. The political risk of losing the mid-term election on Nov. 2, 2022, is so great that Biden has to devote his time/energy to domestic campaigns. So: They are trying to cement a long-term strategy toward China that can weather whatever administration comes next, and they know their time in power is short.
- Looking ahead, it is most likely for 2022: In effect, the U.S.-China relationship was at a stalemate, with both sides refusing to blink.
- Meanwhile, many in the business community and Wall Street continued to press the Biden team to let go of the tariffs and sanctions that constitute the leverage of the competitive approach, and smooth relations with Beijing for the economy’s sake. Inside the Treasury and Commerce departments, senior officials continue to resist the harder line.
- It is obvious that Biden’s China policy so far has not pleased everyone in the US, especially the business community.
- We suggest readers also take look at the article: America’s Russia Policy Has a Biden Problem, By Kori Schake, New York Times, Feb. 11, 2022.
Biden doesn’t want to change China. He wants to beat it.By Josh Rogin, Washington Post Columnist February 10, 2022
During his four years in office, President Donald Trump tried to execute a sharp pivot in U.S. policy toward China, abandoning a 45-year-old foreign policy consensus aimed at persuading China to become more like the West. His administration’s strategy checking Chinese military and economic expansion through sanctions and tariffs was a sensible response to the regime of Xi Jinping. But the erratic and sometimes clumsy implementation by Trump’s dysfunctional mix of GOP hawks and MAGA aides prevented it from gaining broad acceptance in Washington or around the world.
To the surprise of many in Washington and Beijing, the Biden administration has largely followed Trump’s lead, keeping U.S. policy toward China on a more competitive — if not confrontational — footing, an approach now favored, in varying degrees, by lawmakers in both parties and likely to last as long as China continues its great leap backward. Restraining China is now a multi-administration, bipartisan strategy that stands among the most important foreign policy adjustments since the end of the Cold War.
If Trump’s China hands were an improbable team of rivals, President Biden’s are center-left internationalists who have worked together for years and believe that unless the United States acts more assertively, China will soon dominate the Asia-Pacific region and alter the world order to suit its interests. This group — let’s call them the “competitors” — includes most of the top U.S. foreign policy figures: Secretary of State Antony Blinken; national security adviser Jake Sullivan; the National Security Council’s Indo-Pacific coordinator, Kurt Campbell; the NSC’s senior director for China and Taiwan, Laura Rosenberger; and key officials at the Pentagon and State Department.
That mind-set isn’t unanimous. Scattered through the government are officials — let’s call them the “engagers” — who are determined to resist the new approach. Still, Biden is regarded to be squarely on the competitors’ team, having tapped so many of them to oversee his foreign policy. “The competitors understand that the United States is in a prolonged competition with China that we have to win but could lose,” said Thomas Wright, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “They feel a sense of urgency and the need to make big plays to shape the strategic environment, even if it’s difficult. It’s not enough just to maintain the status quo — China’s not standing still, and neither can the United States.”
Since Xi came to power in late 2012, the Chinese Communist Party has been expanding its military, intensifying internal repression and taking steps to undermine the Western-led system of free trade, rule of law and universal rights. Now, after decades of believing that China might someday fully join the multilateral economic system created after World War II, most U.S. officials no longer imagine that China can be more like us. Instead, the goal is to defend an international system that is under attack, protect the interests of the United States and its allies, and fight for the values that underpin our fundamental humanity against authoritarianism. The competitors represent a centrist foreign policy establishment that is regarded with deep suspicion by both the far left and the far right in American politics. They are trying to cement a long-term strategy toward China that can weather whatever administration comes next, and they know their time in power is short.
An unlikely reset
China had a warning shot waiting for Biden’s China hands when they walked into the White House on Jan. 20, 2021. That day, Beijing imposed sanctions on outgoing secretary of state Mike Pompeo, national security adviser Robert C. O’Brien, his deputy Matthew Pottinger and 25 other Trump officials, in retaliation for Washington’s posture toward China. The move was meant to threaten the newcomers: If you continue Trump’s policy, you will pay the same price.
One unfortunate aspect of the Trump years needed mending early: The former president’s bullying approach to allies had alienated large parts of the international community. Meanwhile, Trump’s racist rhetoric during the pandemic fueled rising hate and violence directed at Asian Americans here at home. That alienated progressives and politicized the issue in American politics, which narrowed the space for bipartisan cooperation on how to respond to China’s behavior. The Biden team knew that China was too big and powerful to confront without the support of both political parties and that of other countries facing the same threat.
The Biden team’s first move was not to launch the traditional review of U.S. policy often done by new presidents. Instead, the competitors spent several weeks huddling with allies, informing them of the hard line they intended to take toward Beijing and asking them to rally around it. In the early months of 2021, Rosenberger’s office at the NSC led hours-long “virtual roadshows” with officials in France, Germany, Britain and the Baltic states. The sessions were meant to reassure allies and hear them out so that U.S. officials could identify opportunities for cooperation as well as potential weaknesses in a united front.
Biden spoke with his counterparts in Japan, Australia and South Korea before finally accepting a call from Xi on Feb 10. The two-hour call was friendly. Xi tried the personal touch, retelling stories of the two men’s time together, suggesting his team had compiled research on their past interactions over the years. “We did get the sense that Xi had come into that first phone call hoping for a reset,” a senior Biden official said. “He really went out of his way to bash the Trump administration and blame them for all the ills that have befallen the United States and China.”
Despite the mostly positive call, the Biden team tried to make clear to Beijing that a friendlier reset of the relationship was not in the offing. Biden was also aware that his familiarity with Xi could be a liability. “Let’s get something straight,” he said later when questioned by a reporter. “We know each other well. We’re not old friends. It’s pure business.” The truth lay somewhere in between.
The Biden-Xi call paved the way for the first meeting of top diplomats a month later in Anchorage. On March 17, a day before the scheduled session, the Biden administration announced sanctions on 24 Chinese Communist Party officials for Beijing’s recent crackdown on democracy in Hong Kong, in part to show Biden would not back down from asserting American values. Then, at the top of the Anchorage meeting, while cameras rolled, Blinken listed the U.S. government’s “deep concerns” about China’s behavior on Hong Kong, Taiwan, cyberattacks and economic coercion.
China’s top diplomat, Yang Jiechi, and foreign minister, Wang Yi, reacted angrily. Yang insisted that reporters remain in the room while he accused the United States of its own human rights violations, including the “slaughtering” of Black Americans. “We believe that it is important for the United States to change its own image and to stop advancing its own democracy in the rest of the world,” he said. “Many people within the United States actually have little confidence in the democracy of the United States.”
Yang’s comments got most of the attention in news accounts, but at this stage both sides were opening with hard lines. Publicly, the Chinese said they wanted to be treated as equals. But, as they would later detail in two written lists of demands, what the Chinese really wanted was for the Biden administration to cease all criticism of anything Beijing considered a core — and therefore untouchable — issue. “Behind closed doors,” an American official said, “… it was quite clear both Yang and Wang really came to the table essentially saying, ‘Roll back all the Trump administration’s policies.’ They were given clear marching orders by the boss to take a very tough line and to show no give with the Americans and to really push us into trying to see if they could back us off our approach.”
Team Biden was having none of it. Three days after Anchorage, the administration announced new sanctions over China’s abuse of Uyghur Muslims. In effect, the U.S.-China relationship was at a stalemate, with both sides refusing to blink.
The competitors knew that many in the Washington bureaucracy, the business community, and China hands in think tanks and universities did not agree — or perhaps recognize — that the rules had changed. Lobbyists, former trade officials and others with economic incentives to keep U.S.-China relations on an even keel typically assumed Biden would end the Trump-era hostilities and return to the cooperation of the Barack Obama days. But, as the NSC’s Campbell would later explain, “The period that was broadly described as engagement has come to an end.”
One big change in the U.S. approach was to do away with “linkage.” No longer would China’s participation or progress on issues of common interest such as climate change or North Korea be grounds for Washington to grant concessions on other fronts. “We are not in the business of trading cooperation with China on climate change as a favor that Beijing is doing for the United States,” Sullivan said at the Aspen Security Forum in April.
To the Chinese leadership, however, it made little sense to work with Washington on, say, the climate, while the Biden administration was attacking Beijing on Hong Kong or Taiwan. It wasn’t long before Biden officials charged with reaching solutions on multilateral matters found themselves unable to make progress on any front. Those officials, in turn, often argued internally against many of the tougher policies.
Biden’s climate envoy, John F. Kerry, had been a leading proponent of engagement when he was secretary of state, once inviting Yang to his Boston home for the weekend. Now, Kerry’s main task was to gain China’s buy-in for the COP26 climate summit in November. In June, while Kerry was jetting back and forth to Beijing, the administration imposed crippling sanctions on China’s main silicon company. Chinese officials told Kerry they would not cooperate under these circumstances, and Kerry complained publicly about the squeeze. “On the one hand, we’re saying to them, ‘You have to do more to help deal with the climate,’” he told reporters. “And on the other hand, their solar panels are being sanctioned, which makes it harder for them to sell them.”
But if the Biden team had divisions, Beijing was unable to exploit them. In July, Deputy Secretary of State Wendy R. Sherman traveled to Tianjin, China, as part of an Asia tour. Here was a chance to engage with a top U.S. official not regarded as a proponent of more confrontation. But instead of welcoming Sherman, Beijing treated her with disrespect, refusing at first to give her high-level meetings and then — before her meetings had even concluded — releasing a harsh rendering of the session. “The United States wants to reignite the sense of national purpose by establishing China as an ‘imaginary enemy,’” Vice Foreign Minister Xie Feng told Sherman, according to the preemptive Chinese news release.
A superficial detente
Some modest progress came from Sherman’s visit. Working groups were established on journalist access and releasing detained Americans. Kerry managed to secure a bland statement from Beijing to distribute at the climate summit in November. Internally, Kerry often argued against measures that would increase pressure on China over its human rights abuses, several officials told me. Sherman took a tougher line than Kerry, but she remained focused on finding avenues for engagement. Despite their efforts, the administration continued to impose sanctions on China for a range of violations.
By and large, the competitors won the important rounds. “You’ve got a cohort of people whose entire careers were made around engagement,” said Matthew Turpin, who served in the Pentagon during the Obama administration and in the NSC during the Trump administration. “And it didn’t work. So, we’re changing.”
The tactical differences between officials inside the Biden team are not to be confused with the more fundamental objections of some progressive Democrats, who view Biden’s tougher line with Beijing as a path toward more defense spending and inevitable conflict. In a June Foreign Affairs essay titled “Washington’s Dangerous New Consensus on China,” Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) advocated a relationship based on cooperation, not conflict. His arguments dovetail with those in official Communist Party propaganda: Don’t blame China’s aggression for the downturn in relations; blame the United States.
Both competitors and engagers take seriously Xi’s threats to Taiwan. But they don’t agree on what should be done. The competitors moved quietly to deepen U.S. cooperation with the Taipei government led by President Tsai Ing-wen: The State Department put out new rules for how to engage with Taiwanese officials even though Washington and Taipei lack formal diplomatic relations. The Pentagon assembled naval exercises in the South China Sea with allies as distant as the Netherlands. The NSC worked with the governments in Tokyo and Seoul — with some success — to be more public about their support for Taiwan.
Officially, U.S. policy regarding Taiwan has not changed. But unofficially, U.S. officials realize that the strategic balance across the Taiwan Strait is tilting heavily toward Beijing. Xi’s actions and rhetoric have sharpened fears he intends to unify China and Taiwan before he steps down. For all the maneuvering behind the scenes, however, Biden has sent mixed signals as to whether he would send U.S. forces to defend Taipei.
In September, the competitors made their biggest strategic play — a new alliance expanding military cooperation with Australia and the United Kingdom. Called “AUKUS,” the deal has at its cornerstone a commitment to share nuclear submarine technology with Australia. AUKUS was not the Biden team’s idea, a senior official told me; credit belonged to British and Australian officials. China had been battering Australia economically throughout the pandemic in retaliation for its government calling for an independent investigation into the origins of the coronavirus. Meanwhile, Britain was looking to shore up its alliances following Brexit. In response to the sub deal, China’s acting ambassador to Australia, Wang Xining, issued a vague threat: “There’s zero nuclear capacity, technologically, in Australia, that would guarantee you will be trouble free, you will be incident free. … And if anything happened, are the politicians ready to say sorry?”
Biden’s aides tried to mollify the French, who were incensed over a valuable arms contract nullified by the AUKUS deal. In the face of Beijing’s ire, the president seemed to want to turn down the temperature. “We are not seeking a new Cold War or a world divided into rigid blocs,” he said at the United Nations that month.
But the strategy continued. Three days later, Biden hosted the leaders of Australia, Japan and India for talks, his first such meeting with the leaders of “the Quad,” a multinational group that emerged from the international response to the 2004 Southeast Asian tsunami and has evolved since then into a diplomatic counterweight to China in Asia.
Step by step, the Biden team had by fall put in place a tough China policy of its own design, more nuanced than Trump’s. Biden officials had rained sanctions on China, reinforced the alliance diplomatically and to some degree militarily, and yet made clear that it wanted to keep channels to Beijing open. This stiff but mostly consistent behavior was something Beijing could at least understand.
Now the goal was to translate that understanding into a stable, if not exactly friendly, relationship. Biden and Xi had a phone call in September that was used to tee up a meeting between their designated envoys: Yang representing Xi; Sullivan representing Biden. The resulting six-hour meeting in Zurich on Oct. 6 was considered by those on the U.S. side to be the most professional conversation between the two governments in 2021. Gone were the public insults. A long list of issues was constructively discussed, though there were no big breakthroughs. At the end, Yang and Sullivan met one-on-one, with only interpreters in the room.
The Zurich meeting paved the way for a virtual summit between Biden and Xi on Nov. 15, which produced broad agreement to pursue “strategic stability.” Afterward, both governments praised steps that might lead to cooperation on nuclear nonproliferation and countering narcotics. The Washington establishment hailed the Biden-Xi virtual summit as a needed improvement to the tense relationship. Internally, the Biden team regarded it more modestly — “as a steam release valve,” one official said, “that let off a bit of the pressure that’s building in the containerized object.”
Almost immediately, the superficial detente came under strain. In early December, the administration announced it would send no officials to the Winter Olympics in Beijing, to protest China’s extensive human rights abuses. Soon after, the public war of words resumed.
The road ahead
Upon returning to government, several top Biden officials said they were struck by how determined Beijing had become in implementing Xi’s strategy against the West. U.S. intelligence assessments, they said, portray Xi as a man in a hurry to secure China’s supremacy in the hierarchy of nations and prove the superiority of its autocratic system. Xi has shared this intention with others, including Biden, who has mentioned it in private and in public. “From China to Russia and beyond, they’re betting the democracies’ days are numbered. They’ve actually told me democracy is too slow, too bogged down by division to succeed in today’s rapidly changing, complicated world,” Biden said on Jan. 6.
The competitors have not always prevailed inside the Biden administration. Early on, the NSC’s Campbell and his team pushed for the White House to reserve vaccine donations for strategic allies in Asia, including Taiwan and South Korea. China was engaged in heavy-handed vaccine diplomacy, which included coercing countries such as Paraguay and Nicaragua to drop their diplomatic recognition of Taiwan in exchange for vaccine supplies. The State Department team in charge of vaccine distribution objected, noting that the United States should not play politics with vaccines. Yet Beijing was doing just that: Days after Nicaragua switched its diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China, Beijing delivered a million doses to Managua. The competitors understand that large parts of the government are not on board with their approach.
Meanwhile, many in the business community and Wall Street continued to press the Biden team to let go of the tariffs and sanctions that constitute the leverage of the competitive approach, and smooth relations with Beijing for the economy’s sake. Inside the Treasury and Commerce departments, senior officials continue to resist the harder line. This year will bring internal fights over trade policy, whether to engage Beijing on North Korea and inevitably rising tensions across the Taiwan Strait. Holding a firm line with Beijing is likely to get harder, not easier. Nonetheless, an NSC spokesman said Biden’s team “is moving out in unison in executing our strategy: out-competing China in the long term by investing in ourselves and aligning with our allies and partners.”
As Biden’s second year in office began, U.S. tariffs on China were still in effect. U.S. and allied ships traversed the South China Sea more often. Sanctions for China’s human rights violations and restrictions on its technology and investments continued to pile up. Meanwhile, Beijing’s use of masks and other supplies since the pandemic began as tools of political coercion awakened other countries to the reality that China was a sometimes unreliable partner in a crisis.
At home, an unexpected consensus had emerged: Americans in both parties want the U.S. government to pursue a tougher approach to China, polls show. Ordinary Americans seem to understand that meeting the China challenge means abandoning the wishful thinking of the past — even if some influential voices do not. In November, CNN anchor and Post columnist Fareed Zakaria characterized the Biden administration’s approach to China as a failure because Beijing had not gotten on board. “What has been achieved by this tough talk? What new trade detail have you got? What concessions has China made? What climate agreement has been reached? What has been the net effect of all of that?” he asked Sullivan on CNN. “I think it’s the wrong way to think about it,” Sullivan responded. “The right way to think about it is, have we set the terms to an effective competition where the United States is in a position to defend its values and advance its interests not just in the Indo-Pacific but around the world?”
Of course, it’s hard to see China as the top issue in foreign policy when our government isn’t reorganizing to treat it as such. Some 85 percent of U.S. foreign military assistance still goes to the Middle East. Why aren’t U.S. government agencies that fund private business investments overseas working to match Chinese infrastructure projects such as the Belt and Road Initiative throughout Southeast Asia? Why isn’t there a trade policy for the region that U.S. officials can articulate? Why hasn’t Biden nominated anyone to be North Korean human rights envoy or ambassador to Thailand or for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations?
Year Two of the Biden presidency might bring answers to some of these questions. The Biden team says China is welcome to become a responsible leader in the current international system. But its actions are meant to cement a bipartisan consensus that can last for several presidencies — and disprove the contention that autocracies are better at long-term planning than democracies. If the competitors succeed, they could help preserve allied security, prosperity and public health. “Our intention is to prevail in this competition with China,” a State Department official said. “Let’s just be very clear about it. It’s a competition, and we intend to win it.”
Author: Rogin is Jewish and was raised in Bensalem, Pennsylvania in the suburbs of Philadelphia. He graduated with a B.A. in international affairs from the George Washington University‘s Elliott School of International Affairs. After graduation, he worked as a journalist covering foreign policy and national security for Newsweek, The Daily Beast, Foreign Policy, Bloomberg View, The Washington Post, Federal Computer Week, Asahi Shimbun of Japan, and Congressional Quarterly. He is currently a foreign policy columnist for Global Opinions section of The Washington Post and a political analyst for CNN.