At his confirmation hearing last month, US secretary of state-designate Antony Blinken surprised Republicans by approving much of the administration of former US president Donald Trump’s foreign policy, particularly on China.
While he dissented from some of Trump’s style and tactics, his positive tone differed markedly from US President Joe Biden’s harsh campaign rhetoric.
His reference to a “growing rivalry from China and Russia and other authoritarian states” echoed the themes laid out in the Trump administration’s National Security Strategy, National Defense Strategy and Indo-Pacific strategy statement.
In their hearings, the nominees for US secretary of defense, Lloyd Austin, and US director of national intelligence, Avril Haines, also painted broad policy strokes that suggest significant continuity between the Trump and Biden administrations on national security matters.
Both promised to devote greater attention to China as a growing “adversary.”
“China is the pacing threat for the United States. The Indo-Pacific must be the focus of the department,” Austin said.
“China is a challenge to our security, to our prosperity, to our values across a range of issues, and I do support an aggressive stance ... one that is more assertive than where we had been in the [former US president Barack] Obama-Biden administration,” Haines said.
There remain areas of stark disagreement, of course, such as US participation in the Paris Agreement — which Biden restored with an executive order within hours of his swearing-in — and the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) on Iran’s nuclear program.
Yet even on the JCPOA, Blinken repeated Biden’s position that Washington’s re-entry would first need to correct some of the perceived flaws in the original agreement. Making it “longer and stronger” by restraining Iran’s missile program and its support for proxy militias across the Middle East would resonate with Republicans and dissipate much congressional opposition.
However, at least one of Biden’s first-day actions contradicted one of his own promised governing principles: close coordination with the US’ allies.
As Republican senators admonished Blinken, revoking the Keystone pipeline permit not only costs thousands of union jobs; it also precipitously spurns Canada’s export of its energy resource from oil sands.
It remains to be seen whether the generally agreeable posture of Biden’s national security Cabinet appointees was simply prudent confirmation posturing, or whether it reflected genuine conviction that will result in actual policy implementation.
For the moment, Blinken’s approach seems closer to the assertive thrust of the Trump administration’s China policy team than to the more “live-and-let-live” strategy advocated by US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and US Coordinator for the Indo-Pacific Kurt Campbell, neither of whom required US Senate confirmation.
Blinken also agreed with former US secretary of state Mike Pompeo’s designation of China’s Uighur suppression program as “genocide,” consistent with the Biden campaign’s clear statement on the issue: “The unspeakable oppression that Uighurs and other ethnic minorities have suffered at the hands of China’s authoritarian government is genocide and Joe Biden stands against it in the strongest terms.”
Among the atrocities enumerated in Pompeo’s declaration were the imposition of “measures intended to prevent births within the group,” such as by sterilization and forced abortions. A Chinese spokesperson effectively confirmed the practice and the intention, proudly stating that it was liberating Uighur women from being “baby-making machines.”
Beijing also created a new level of atrocity apparently not used by the Soviets in their genocidal undertakings. With seized Uighur men placed in concentration and “re-education” camps, Chinese soldiers were stationed in their homes as new “members of the family,” including sharing the beds of the inmates’ wives.
While this cruelty matched the sexual slavery of Imperial Japan’s use of “comfort women,” it had a perverse strategic purpose as well. The rapes and forced impregnations produced Han-ized children who would be raised outside the Uighur culture and Muslim religion, a diabolical new technique for destroying an ethnic and religious group.
The US Congress enacted the Genocide Convention Implementation Act of 1987 mandating fines and/or imprisonment for anyone who “commits, attempts to commit or publicly incites acts of genocide.”
How the new US administration meets the legal obligations imposed on it by the convention “to punish” perpetrators will be a significant test of its widely advertised commitment to human rights.
Depending on publicly available evidence, the US could bring indictments against Chinese communist officials, potentially including Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平).
As Biden has pledged not to direct or intervene in the actions of the US Department of Justice, the prosecutorial decision presumably would be left to US Attorney General Merrick Garland.
Finally, Blinken was asked how the new administration would manage the volatile issue of China’s aggression toward Taiwan. He pledged to continue helping Taiwan provide for its self-defense and to increase its international participation.
He said he would like to see completion of the process that Pompeo initiated to relax the constraints on official governmental contacts with Taiwan.
As president-elect, and so far as president, Biden has not followed Trump’s example in accepting a congratulatory call from President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), which upset Beijing, but he created his own precedent by inviting Taiwan’s de facto ambassador to the US, Hsiao Bi-khim (蕭美琴), to his inauguration — which, predictably, also upset Beijing.
Days later, China flew its largest contingent of bomber aircraft in years through Taiwan’s air defense identification zone, and the US dispatched the USS Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier and other US Navy ships into the South China Sea.
While the Trump administration also increased transits through the Taiwan Strait, carriers were excluded, as with prior administrations, except for a “weather diversion” in 1995 and an explicitly defiant passage in 2007.
The state department issued a statement that “urg[ed] Beijing to cease its military, diplomatic and economic pressure against Taiwan” and said that “[o]ur commitment to Taiwan is rock-solid.”
China also did not wait long after Biden’s inauguration to announce sanctions against several members of the Trump administration for “anti-China” actions and rhetoric. That sent a clear message to Biden’s people that their post-government careers could be adversely affected if they do not cooperate with China.
The national security adviser’s office called the move “unproductive and cynical.”
All in all, the initial signals from the Biden administration offer hope that a reversion to the China policies of the administrations of former US presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Obama is not imminent.
The sound, forward-looking approach of the Trump team — if not necessarily of the former president himself — is likely to be retained and strengthened, at least in the short term.
The long-term prospects will be known only when China, or North Korea, precipitates a serious national security crisis and the Biden administration finds itself looking into what it might regard as “the abyss.”
Joseph Bosco served as China country director in the office of the US secretary of defense. He is a fellow at the Institute for Taiwan-American Studies and a member of the advisory committee of the Global Taiwan Institute.
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