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Foreign Policy

Biden’s China Team

Jan 30, 2021

Professional diplomats, knocked into a tizzy of not knowing which way to turn under the ever-shifting, erratic tides of Trump policy, can now take a deep breath, roll up their sleeves and get back to their work of building trust, carrying out policy and keeping the peace. 

When it comes to repairing the tattered relations of the world’s two most powerful countries, there’s a lot of work to be done. A tall order even in the best of times, but the times are not good, so the task is especially daunting. Given the recent spate of wolfish howls and growls on both sides of the U.S.-China divide, it will take fearless diplomacy to get things back on an even footing again.

Trump left much carnage in his wake, both at home and abroad. He wasn’t consistently anti-China--he famously praised Xi Jinping’s handling of the coronavirus crisis--and his predictable narcissism and greed could indeed at times be played to Beijing’s advantage. But his anti-China rants, racist innuendo and abusive language will not be soon forgotten.

The good news for U.S.-China relations is that the accession of Biden brings with it the promise of decent speech, a degree of fair play and the restoration of protocol. The bad news is that the points of dispute between the U.S. and China are many, and things could actually get worse.

After a half-century of government service, Biden is the ultimate seasoned bureaucrat. He doesn’t rule by ego nor need to take credit for everything; he is a team player. In putting together his China team, he has called upon partisan professionals who he has reason to trust. Most of his picks are experienced Beltway practitioners who adhere to Democratic Party party-line diplomacy.

Judging from the names he has put forward so far-- Antony Blinken, Kurt Campbell, Ely Ratner, Avril Haines, William Burns, Lloyd Austin, Janet Yellen-- U.S. China policy going forward will be more muscular than that of the feckless and oft-indifferent Obama. It will probably be somewhat closer to what the relatively strident Hillary Clinton would have sought had she won the ticket in 2016. However, the absence of Hillary stalwart Michèle Flournoy, and the “demotion” of former Obama “Valkyries” Samantha Powers and Susan Rice to less-essential roles, hints of a policy shift away from goggle-eyed humanitarian intervention and more inclined to hard realism.

Biden has yet to choose an ambassador to Beijing, a judicious pick for which could restore a degree of trust to both sides.

Incoming Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said Trump’s decision to get tough on China was the right one. More surprisingly, when asked about the incendiary declaration made by his unpopular predecessor Mike Pompeo, who accused China of genocide in Xinjiang, he said “that would be my judgement as well.” 

If this is an accurate indication of which way the wind is now blowing in Foggy Bottom, then U.S.-China relations are going to remain on tenterhooks for some time to come. Bilateral relations may be less subject to whim and whimsy than before, but the potential for existential disputes and over-reaction on both sides remains high.

China’s defensive reaction to the world’s reaction to the Wuhan outbreak may be understandable, but it is counterproductive. The more China seeks to deflect blame and redirect it elsewhere, the more it appears that its notoriously opaque government has something to hide. 

The complex web of relationships in the Beijing leadership is frequently defined by guanxi, and the same could be said for Washington, DC, though the Trump era, with its high turnover rate and constant revolving door, was something of an anomaly in this respect. 

Biden’s China-related appointees include many Beltway insiders, consummate players in the game which bankers, corporate lobbyists, Silicon Valley czars, and Pentagon factotums mix promiscuously. 

Think tanks and consultants play an outsized, if somewhat underappreciated role. As the joke goes, the job of think tanks is to make the taxpayer think they need more tanks. Consultants reap lucrative fees sealing the deal. Biden’s appointments are no exception. They represent an attempt to return to business as usual, though business is bad and things are unusual. 

Antony Blinken, Biden’s Secretary of State pick, co-founded the Center of a New American Security think tank with Michèle Flournoy, and later formed West Exec Advisors. Well-heeled West Exec consultants include incoming CIA director Avril Haines, and long-time Biden aide, Ely Ratner, who will go to the Pentagon to advise the newly-confirmed Defense chief, Lloyd Austin.

Michèle Flournoy, who has served with Blinken at both organizations, is conspicuous by her absence from the first round of plum appointments. Known for her hawkish views on China, with an eye to militarizing the South China Sea, she was at one time tipped to be Hillary Clinton’s Secretary of Defense. The appointment of the Austin-Ratner team in the Pentagon might be understood as a rejection of Flournoy’s hardline views for a more realist approach. 

Ratner, though in a deputy position, enjoys the confidence of President Biden, and may enjoy a bit of outsized influence, not unlike Mathew Pottinger, a China-focused deputy national security advisor who enjoyed the trust of Trump. (Until publicly breaking with his boss in the aftermath of the Capitol Hill insurrection.)

Any change of leadership after the chaos of the Trump years is to be welcomed, but there is no time to waste. Trade was disrupted, bureaucracies were gutted and diplomatic partners were browbeaten by Trump’s Twitter tirades. Now that the man prone to tyrannical outbursts is off Twitter and out of the White House, maybe the victims of his attacks can get back to business again. Only through cooperation can global issues such as the pandemic and global warming be properly addressed.

The return to “normalcy” must go beyond the reinstitution of protocol and tact and extend to both sides keeping their part of the deal in regards to the One-China policy. Pompeo’s eleventh-hour show of support for a unilaterally independent Taiwan in violation of the 1972 Shanghai Communique was custom-made to create a diplomatic minefield for the incoming administration. 

The perception gap remains wide and reaching across the divide will not be easy. But that’s the job of diplomats, and these men and women come well-compensated.

So guys, it’s time to roll up your sleeves and get working! 

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