After months of Republican worry that Joe Biden would be lenient on Beijing, the new U.S. president received unexpected praise from a Chinese Big Hawk after less than two weeks in the White House.
“President Biden [and his team] are off to China, ”said Robert O’Brien, Donald Trump’s last national security adviser, at a US Peace Institute event with his successor, Jake Sullivan.
After four years of turbulent policy making, Democrats and Republicans expect a more structured approach under the leadership of Mr. Biden. But experts are watching closely for signs of just how hawkish he will be towards the most important US bilateral relationship.
“The concern about the evolution of Biden’s Chinese policy is very high. This is true in Washington where there are strong concerns about a return to Obama’s approach in the mid-2010s, ”said Eric Sayers, an Asian security expert at the American Enterprise Institute, who said that some in Japan and Taiwan were also nervous.
The White House has said Biden will exercise “patience” in shaping his Chinese policy. But he did provide some clues as to the future direction of the administration’s response to events in Asia and the responses of some of its cabinet candidates during their Senate confirmation hearings.
A clear example is that of Taiwan. Before setting foot in the White House, Mr. Biden invited Hsiao Bi-khim to become the first Taiwanese representative to the United States to attend a presidential inauguration.
Three days later, the State Department warned China to stop trying to intimidate Taiwan after Chinese fighter jets and bombers entered Taiwan’s air defense zone and simulated attacks on a nearby American aircraft carrier.
During his confirmation hearing, Antony blinkSecretary of State said Trump was right to be tougher on China. He later admitted that the Chinese crackdown on Muslim Uyghurs in Xinjiang was “genocide”.
At the US Peace Institute, Sullivan said Biden would work with allies on China. But he said he was prepared to “impose costs for what China is doing in Xinjiang, what it is doing in Hong Kong, for the warmongering and threats it is projecting towards Taiwan.”
His words were a sign that Biden would be tougher than when he was vice president in the Obama administration, and officials spoke of encouraging Beijing to become a “responsible stakeholder.”
“This assumption that greater economic engagement with China would make it a responsible stakeholder on the world stage has been proven wrong – this era of US policymaking is over,” said Lindsay Gorman, an expert on China to the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
“Biden’s expectations of a policy that is ‘gentle on China’ do not correspond to reality given the threats democracies face from authoritarian actors around the world.”
While Mr Biden has taken action that has been welcomed by some hawks, his team has also raised concerns.
During her confirmation hearing, Gina Raimondo, the candidate for the head of the trade department, refused to commit to keeping Huawei, the Chinese manufacturer of telecommunications equipment, on the “list of entities” – which makes very difficult for US companies to export technology to companies. the list.
Michael McCaul, the top Republican on the House foreign affairs committee, said it was “remarkable and frankly disturbing” that she did not make a commitment. In the Senate, Marco Rubio and several other Republican hawks from China, including Tom Cotton, also hoisted flags, signaling a possible slowdown upon confirmation.
A former senior official said Mr Biden would face fierce opposition from career bureaucrats if he took a softer approach to China on issues like Huawei, saying there would be “violent disagreement” .
Some critics have also sounded the alarm when Mr Biden extended the deadline for a ban – created by the Trump administration – on Americans investing in companies with suspected ties to the Chinese military. But some experts have privately said his team wanted time to clarify a policy that was causing confusion in financial markets and said he was unlikely to reverse course due to pressure from Congress.
Paul Haenle, former Chinese director of the National Security Council (NSC) under George W. Bush and Barack Obama, said Biden had so far “done it right” on China.
“The Trump administration was right to make a change, but the way they did it was self-defeating, very inconsistent and dispersed,” Haenle said, adding that the new administration would also have to face Congress who advocated a tougher approach from China.
“Change at Capitol Hill is bipartisan. There are Democrats who don’t want a softer approach, ”he said. “The key is to have a smart approach that aligns with American interests.”
Some Democrats fear that John Kerry, the international climate czar and friend of Mr Biden, may push the president to compromise with China to get a climate deal, prompting the former secretary of state to defend himself. “I know some people are worried. Nothing will be diverted from one area to another, ”he said.
This concern has also been alleviated somewhat by the appointment of Kurt Campbell, a Chinese hawk, to coordinate overall Asia policy within the NSC, and the appointment of a cadre of next generation Chinese experts who are considered more belligerent on China, including Laura Rosenberger at the NSC, and Kelly Magsamen and Ely Ratner at the Pentagon.
“A new generation of Asian hands has emerged within the Democratic Party which takes a much more competitive approach in Beijing,” Sayers said. “It is this group that we are now seeing evolving into mid-level jobs in administration and that leaves me encouraged.”
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