◎ Biden has edged back to the accommodation policies of the Clinton and Obama administrations.
Last week, on the 72d anniversary of the People’s Republic of China, Secretary of State Antony Blinken sent a brief congratulatory message to “the people of the People’s Republic of China.” Some conservatives found the message inappropriate because of the regime’s many violations of international norms and because the Chinese people are essentially its captive victims. But Blinken’s message was similar to one sent by Secretary Mike Pompeo a year ago, except that Pompeo referred to “the people of China” and Blinken also called for cooperation “to solve the challenges we all face.”
Both statements were perfunctory, but on the PRC’s 70th anniversary the year before, President Trump tweeted to China with more personal warmth: “Congratulations to President Xi and the Chinese people on the 70th Anniversary of the People’s Republic of China!” Although Trump at the time was trying to strike a favorable trade deal with Beijing, his message triggered a spate of criticism from across the ideological spectrum of the Republican Party.
Then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said that China under President Xi Jinping is a “modern version of Maoist China.” He criticized Beijing’s violence against pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong and its Uyghur internment camps and said Chinese Communist Party rule is “not just a tragedy for more than a billion Chinese [but] also a telling indicator of the threat the PRC poses to its neighbors.”
Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) warned that “an authoritarian China is perhaps the single greatest threat to freedom around the world,” and Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) said the anniversary was “a day to remind ourselves of the horrors inflicted on the Chinese people over this time.” Sens. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), and Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) all dissented from Trump’s congratulatory message on the same grounds.
In a joint statement, Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), House Republican Conference chairwoman at the time, and Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.) said it was “not a day for celebration. … Since its founding, the People’s Republic of China has deprived its citizens of their fundamental human rights and human dignity.” They condemned the Chinese government’s “appalling record of repression.”
The dichotomy between Trump’s personal friendliness toward the Chinese leader and congressional opposition to Chinese government policies was also reflected within the Trump administration itself. While Trump focused on China’s trade and economic threat, virtually all his top officials, starting with Vice President Mike Pence, delivered a series of major speeches delineating the security and human rights concerns about the Chinese regime.
At the Hudson Institute in October 2018, Pence noted that Trump had “forged a strong personal relationship [with Xi], but I come before you today because the American people deserve to know…” And he proceeded to enumerate the challenges and threats presented by Communist China. “[S]oon after it took power in 1949, the Chinese Communist Party began to pursue authoritarian expansionism.” He laid out its behavior over the next seven decades taking advantage of American and Western goodwill and generosity, but never abandoning its aggressive intentions. He said “previous administrations all but ignored China’s actions — and in many cases, they abetted them. But those days are over.”
Over the next two years, Pompeo orchestrated a series of speeches by other Trump administration officials highlighting the vast landscape of Beijing’s strategic challenges to not only U.S. national interests and values but also the entire international order.
He led the charge with a sweeping condemnation of the Chinese Communist Party in his address at the Nixon Presidential Library and Museum in July 2020, where he said, “The old paradigm of blindly linking with China has failed. We cannot continue. We can’t go back this way.”
Some described the Pence and Pompeo speeches as declarations of a new cold war. There were powerful talks, as well, from then-national security adviser Robert O’Brien and his deputy, Matt Pottinger. Then-Assistant Secretaries Randall Schriver (Defense) and David Stilwell (State) also spoke out forcefully on the China threats within their domains. Even then-Attorney General William Barr and FBI Director Christopher Wray weighed in with accounts of the internal threats emanating from China’s whole-of-government and whole-of-society assault on the United States.
Trump never made his own ringing declaration against China’s behavior beyond the trade area. He sometimes stepped on his appointees’ coordinated anti-Beijing messaging, but he did not suppress or actively repudiate his appointees for the sake of his relationship with Xi and a favorable trade deal. The two-track approach to China persisted throughout the Trump administration — until the COVID-19 pandemic soured Trump’s view of Xi.
President Biden, for all his policy differences with Trump, shares his proclivity to personalize international relations, especially Sino-U.S. relations, and assumes he possesses sufficient personal charm and ability to overcome obstacles to cooperation. He believes the Joe-and-Jinping rapport, cultivated for years before they became the leaders of their countries, gives him a unique ability to manage the relationship to America’s advantage — though Biden did throw down a marker by calling Xi “a thug” during the campaign to position himself on the growing tough-on-China consensus.
The fallacy in this thinking is that America’s adversary is not an individual Chinese leader but a hardened communist system created by Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin and honed through generations of dictatorship.
In office, Biden has edged back to the accommodation policies of the Clinton and Obama administrations. After a recent 90-minute phone call with Xi, which Biden initiated, he allowed Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou to return to China. Trump’s Justice Department had her detained in Canada for lying about Huawei violating Iran sanctions.
Complicating America’s predicament, Biden, unlike Trump, lacks a national security team whose innate instincts and experiences place them in a default position of suspicion and opposition to “the Chinese Communist regime” — an expression that is not likely to pass the lips of any official in this administration.
Despite Blinken’s stated agreement with the Trump administration’s declaration that China is committing genocide against the Uyghurs, United Nations Ambassador Thomas Greenfield and White House spokesperson Jen Psaki have cast doubts on the Biden administration’s commitment to the finding. And Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo recently told the Wall Street Journal, “It’s just an economic fact. I actually think robust commercial engagement will help to mitigate any potential tensions.”
If the president and his subordinates fail to recognize the comprehensive existential threat that China poses, the underlying ideological basis for resistance that the Trump team built will be eroded. That relapse may be under way already.
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 the Institute for Taiwan-American Studies, and has held nonresident appointments in the Asia-Pacific program at the Atlantic Council and the Southeast Asia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
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