The White House is off to the races with an unapologetically left-of-center policy agenda, despite Joe Biden’s efforts during the campaign to cast himself as a moderate. But when it comes to China, the Biden administration seems to be leaving progressives out in the cold.
At least for now, it’s building on the Trump team’s strategy rather than adopt the dovish perspective favored by progressive media and noninterventionist think tanks. The new administration is set to push back against Beijing in a number of areas, and in its first week on the job, it’s done so in a strong push for continuity on human rights, Taiwan, territorial disputes, and more.
The organizing principle underlying all of this was articulated by Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who during his confirmation hearing last week (he was confirmed yesterday) gave an assessment of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) that’s now widely endorsed on both sides of the aisle.
Under Xi Jinping, “the hiding and biding has gone away,” Blinken told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “And they are much more assertive in making clear that they seek to become, in effect, the leading country in the world, in effect, the country that sets the norms, that sets the standards, and to put forward a model.”
There remains plenty of time for the Biden administration to veer from this outlook, particularly as Beijing makes overtures for U.S.-China cooperation on climate change and public health. Still, Blinken’s theory about China’s open drive for dominance is exactly the kind of statement that some pro-“restraint” writers, such as The Nation’s Jeet Heer, might dismiss as “the type of hyperbolic rhetoric that has often been a prelude to shooting wars.”
The China policy pushed by certain progressive thinkers, though, severely underestimates Beijing’s intentions and its ambitions to project power globally. Warning of a new Cold War in the Nation last week, Heer wrote, “China has the world’s largest population and second-largest economy, but it remains very much a regional military power with a global economic sway, not an aspiring global leviathan.”
Others, such as the Asia team at the Quincy Institute, attribute the current nadir in U.S.-China ties to more abstract balance-of-power questions, arguing that American concerns about China’s rise can be attributed to misreading the intentions of the Chinese party-state. Beijing doesn’t mean to export its authoritarian model or significantly project power beyond the Indo-Pacific region, the Quincy analysts argue, but Washington should push back against China with targeted measures on human rights and other issues.
Whereas Quincy analysts have warned about “the loose application of loaded terms like genocide,” Blinken last week told the Senate panel that he agreed with Mike Pompeo’s determination that Beijing is perpetrating genocide against the Uyghurs. Progressive analysts warn that moving too decisively to support Taiwan constitutes a breach of the One China Policy and could spark conflict; the Biden administration nonetheless invited Taipei’s representative in Washington to the presidential inauguration and issued a strongly worded statement about the recent breach of Taiwan’s air defense-identification zone by People’s Liberation Army fighter jets and bombers.
Blinken is not the only Biden official critical of Beijing’s actions. Other Biden appointees before the Senate appear to share his views. Previewing what his tenure at the helm of the Pentagon would look like, Lloyd Austin, who was confirmed last Friday, said that China’s “goal is to be a dominant world power,” and its aggression must be checked. Even Janet Yellen, during her hearing for confirmation as Treasury secretary, took a stand against Beijing’s “abusive, unfair, and illegal” economic practices and its “horrendous human-rights abuses.”
And this isn’t empty posturing. We’ve entered an era in which whole-of-government pushback against the People’s Republic has become the norm. Yellen’s guidance on sanctions will make her a major player in foreign-policy debates in the administration.
Of course, there also remain plenty of opportunities along the way for these appointees’ apparent China hawkishness to be subverted by others. It’s widely speculated that John Kerry might use his new climate-czar role to strike a grand bargain with Beijing on climate. He previewed an ambitious push on the issue during an international climate conference on Monday, pledging that “We come back with humility for the absence over the last four years, and we will do everything in our power to make up for it.”
And already, the new administration seems to be ignoring the previous one’s well-founded views that China wields outsized influence in the World Health Organization. Biden months ago pledged to reverse Trump’s decision to trigger the one-year withdrawal process from the global health body. One can reasonably argue, as I have, that remaining within the organization to fight Chinese influence is better than ceding to it. Yet when the United States resumed its participation in the WHO on Thursday, neither Kamala Harris, who spoke on the phone with WHO’s Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, nor Anthony Fauci, when he represented the U.S. at a meeting of the organization’s executive board on Friday, said a word about Beijing’s push to have the WHO downplay the pandemic at its outset. Harris and Fauci made only vague references to reforming the WHO.
Most notably, though, the administration still had work to do to directly tie Beijing’s bad behavior with its source: the insecure Leninist party-state, whose desire to cling to power motivates its every action. This was just short of an obsession under Pompeo, who relentlessly bashed the CCP. In a final blistering statement, he said that if the Party is “allowed to commit genocide and crimes against humanity against its own people, imagine what it will be emboldened to do to the free world, in the not-so-distant future.”
The Biden administration has issued solid statements on, among other things, Beijing’s sanctions targeting former U.S. officials, its recent aggression against Taiwan, and the Senkaku Islands dispute. It sent an aircraft carrier strike group through the South China Sea days after the inauguration (this had been scheduled prior to the start of the Biden administration, but it’s a reassuring signal nonetheless). And to his credit, Blinken divides the world between “techno-democracies and techno-autocracies,” such as China. Still, the new team must do more to explain the sources of the CCP’s conduct — and explaining it to the American public and the world. More than just backing the lion’s share of the Trump administration’s policies on China, it should also endorse its cold-eyed assessments of the Communist regime.
To be sure, it’s very early in the Biden administration. But as long it continues to ignore the faulty thinking that downplays the CCP’s global threat to peace, human rights, and democracy, it’s likely to get more right than wrong. With any luck, it will continue to develop the new consensus on China strategy that the last administration brought to fruition.