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Foreign Policy

What’s on Biden’s Mind?

Mar 02, 2021
  • Nong Hong

    Senior Fellow, National Institute for the South China Sea Studies

Joe Biden, the newly elected president of the United States, began taking executive actions immediately after his inauguration to enact many of his administration’s initial priorities. There was a flurry of 28 executive orders, five proclamations and eight presidential orders, memoranda, determinations and notices by Feb. 8 to address campaign promises, ranging from the pandemic to climate change, equality and the global economy. A careful reading of these presidential documents shows that the Biden administration will be spending more effort on domestic issues than on foreign affairs — particularly on China policy — at least during the early part of the term.

Among these presidential documents are two executive orders on climate change and the environment — an executive order on protecting public health and respecting science in the climate crisis, and another directly dealing with the climate crisis at home and abroad.

Governance-related documents include two executive orders and one memorandum. There are 13 documents related to public health — the coronavirus in particular — most of which are presented in the format of executive orders.

There are six executive orders and proclamations on immigration, for example, to end discriminatory bans on entry to the United States, to end the emergency at the southern border and to redirect funds that had been diverted to the construction of a border wall.

Another six documents are associated with societal issues such as condemning and combating racism, xenophobia and intolerance against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the United States; and on preventing and combating discrimination on the basis of gender identity or sexual orientation.

Six other documents, including five executive orders and one memorandum, are driven by economic factors, such as science and technology, economic relief related to the pandemic, protection of the federal workforce and protecting the interests of America’s workers. 

Although the U.S. presidential documents, as of today, may not directly imply the administration’s China policy, Biden’s appointees for international affairs are likely to shape the trajectory of U.S.-China relations. In his first speech on foreign affairs (Feb. 4) after his inauguration, Biden called China America’s “most serious competitor.” He appears more positive toward China than his predecessor but he still lacks a clear policy.

The process of decoupling is likely to continue under Biden, although he will be more amenable to cooperation with China in certain areas, such as climate change and the denuclearization of North Korea.

Vice President Kamala Harris will likely attempt to keep Biden aligned with her views as reflected in nearly all of her past legislative co-sponsorships and votes on issues regarding Chinese human rights violations in Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Tibet, as well as her opposition to allowing Chinese companies such as Huawei to conduct business in the U.S.

Antony Blinken, the new secretary of state, had previously served as Biden’s national security adviser and as the president's deputy national security adviser during the Obama administration. Blinken supports hawkish intervention and has expressed concerns about Trump's rough treatment of historic U.S. allies, which has made it harder to confront China over human rights, technology and Hong Kong. He made it clear that the U.S. must approach China from a position of strength, which arises from having strong alliances, and by engaging in international institutions. Additionally, he argues that this strength also comes from challenging China on human rights issues, posturing the military to deter Chinese aggression and investing in American competitiveness.

Jake Sullivan, who had served as deputy assistant to the president and national security adviser to Biden in the Obama administration (2013-14), is Biden's new national security adviser. He aligns with most of President Biden’s views on China. While acknowledging China as a competitor, he rejects the idea that competition between the United States and China will eventually lead to a Cold War scenario. Sullivan agrees that it’s necessary to confront China over fundamental issues, such as defending democracy.

Kurt Campbell, the deputy assistant to the president and coordinator for Indo-Pacific affairs, was the top U.S. diplomat for Asia in the Obama administration and was considered an architect of the “pivot to Asia” strategy. Campbell’s greatest challenge will be finding ways to recalibrate Donald Trump’s fractious relationship with Beijing to allow Biden to cooperate on issues such as climate change even while pursuing policies challenging China’s increased assertiveness through its economic and military growth.

On the trade and finance side, several key senior officials’ China positions are worth noting. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen is seen as a moderate voice. Yellen has supported open trade and rules-based multilateralism. In the past, she has acknowledged concerns about Chinese industrial practices and criticized the Trump administration’s focus on the trade deficit with China. She appeared skeptical that the use of tariffs would help reduce trade deficits.

Some observers expect Gina Raimondo, the nominee for secretary of commerce, to ease trade tensions with Beijing given her past moderate rhetoric. But she has also encountered critics who question whether she has the technical background to devise and carry out a strategy to deal with technology challenges from China.

Biden’s pick as the top U.S. trade official will continue America’s tough line on China. Katherine Tai is believed to be entirely comfortable in aggressively confronting China when needed. She has publicly said that the Trump administration was not 100 percent wrong on trade policies, and she supported subsidies and incentives to reduce U.S. overreliance on Chinese imports.

The U.S. defense and security team indicate a more moderate position on China. General Lloyd Austin, secretary of defense, has not revealed any clear position on China so far, which has led to some criticism and skepticism suggesting that he is not sufficiently willing to take on China. His supposed lack of experience in dealing with China has also been noted. He has suggested that the United States should preserve its current forward presence and strengthen cooperation with regional partners.

Alejandro Mayorkas, secretary of homeland security, led the negotiation of the cybersecurity agreement between the United States and China in 2015 during his previous tenure as deputy secretary. He also led a delegation in overseeing the agreement’s implementation and building the civilian and criminal investigative framework with the government of China.

Ambassador William Burns, the nominee to direct the Central Intelligence Agency after the departure of Gina Haspel holds views on China that are in many respects in line with President Biden’s. He acknowledges the importance of managing competition with China and rejects the idea that competition will eventually become a total confrontation between the two countries.

Avril Haines is the first woman to serve as director of national intelligence in U.S. history. Her approach to China also aligns with Biden’s call for a democratic front. Haines agreed that it is important to address cybersecurity issues with China and that there may be common ground with China in this area. 

Compared with their colleagues in the fields of diplomacy/foreign policy, trade/finance and defense/security, Biden’s appointees in the fields of energy, technology, environment and health have encountered more skepticism because of their lack of experience working with China.

Energy secretary nominee Jennifer Granholm, during her time as governor of Michigan, did not visit China in her endeavors to expand overseas investments. Xavier Becerra, the pick for secretary of health and human services, has had limited public engagement with China. Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has no evident views on U.S. foreign policy, on China or on U.S.-China relations at this time, although her scientific research has expanded past U.S. borders. Michael Regan, Biden’s pick to run the Environmental Protection Agency, has no evident views on foreign policy or U.S.-China relations on the topic of environmental protection but recognizes the necessity of partnerships in rebuilding the EPA.

Biden’s presidential documents and his personnel appointments seem to indicate that climate change will be an area of particular effort by his administration and one that offers clear opportunities for China-U.S. engagement. The U.S.-China climate relationship during the Obama administration was central to the global progress that culminated in the Paris climate agreement. But the deterioration of relations during the Trump administration has complicated the ability of both sides to cooperate on climate change.

John Kerry, Biden’s special presidential envoy for climate, sees working with China — and other heavy producers of carbon emissions such as India and the European Union — as a necessary step toward healing the globe. He was recently described as “an optimistic centrist with a long-held interest in tackling climate change who likes to build alliances.” He promises that U.S. climate change diplomacy won’t make unsavory concessions to China in exchange for progress on climate issues.

Reviving climate cooperation and engagement is vitally important. Starting with the U.S.-China Climate Change Working Group, a solid foundation exists to build new and expanded cooperation and to provide a key venue for sharing information on decarbonization plans and collaborating on low-or no-carbon technologies and policies. It also creates an opportunity for China and the United States to shift the bilateral relationship from rivalry to cooperation in many parts of the global agenda.

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