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Home Editorials of Interest Taipei Times Biden weakens US’ China policy

Biden weakens US’ China policy

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Until now, US President Joe Biden’s China policy has been characterized by relatively seamless continuity with the transformational approach of the national security team on Taiwan, the South China Sea, Hong Kong, trade and human rights.

Last month, it expanded its human rights enforcement beyond endorsing former US secretary of state Mike Pompeo’s declaration of China’s genocide in Xinjiang (the independent state of East Turkestan until China’s invasion in 1950).

Pompeo’s successor, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, announced the unprecedented sanctioning of a Chinese official for persecuting Falun Gong practitioners, noting that China “broadly criminalizes religious expression, and continues to commit crimes against humanity and genocide against Muslim Uighurs, and members of other religious and ethnic minority groups.”

Similarly, on the fraught issue of Taiwan, Biden’s national security team has moved incrementally to broaden and deepen bilateral relations by increasing high-level interaction between US and Taiwanese officials.

Furthermore, the US recently joined Taiwan to establish a coast guard working group to coordinate maritime security policy, after Beijing officially declared that its coast guard could fire on foreign vessels.

The administration tried unsuccessfully to persuade visiting Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga to state publicly that, if necessary, Japan would stand by its ally and help defend the 24 million people of Taiwan.

That would be the reciprocal commitment for the US pledge to support Japan’s defense of the uninhabited Senkakus, or Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台), against a Chinese attack, but Suga would agree only to an anodyne joint statement to “underscore the importance of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait, and encourage the peaceful resolution of cross-strait issues.”

However, even that one step forward was soon followed by two steps back, as Suga twice said publicly that Japan’s military would not get involved in a conflict over Taiwan — despite its critical location for Japan’s own security.

Tokyo’s hesitancy reflects the Biden administration’s unwillingness to declare its intention to defend Taiwan and move beyond the outdated policy of strategic ambiguity.

Instead, US National Security Council Coordinator for the Indo-Pacific Kurt Campbell diluted Blinken’s frequent statements that US support for Taiwan is “rock solid.”

He told a security conference: “I believe that there are some significant downsides to ... what is called strategic clarity.”

However, history teaches painful lessons on the dangers of strategic vagueness in the face of aggression.

Conceivably, Biden has privately conveyed a clear message of deterrent about Taiwan to Beijing, as former US president Donald Trump said that he had done, but “red lines” secretly made are easily denied and of limited value in avoiding strategic miscalculation by an adversary bent on aggression, as China openly declares that it is regarding Taiwan.

Meanwhile, US Navy ships have made one transit of the Taiwan Strait per month on average, although no US aircraft carrier has done so since 2007 — even as China’s fledgeling carrier force routinely makes the passage through what Beijing calls “Chinese waters.”

However, there is one important area where the Biden administration’s backsliding has undeniably occurred: enforcement of Trump’s crackdown on US investment in Chinese technology companies that support the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin has removed Chinese technology giant Xiaomi from a blacklist of such companies considered security risks pursuant to an executive order Trump signed in November last year.

The US Department of Defense said that its retreat was based on a decision by the US District Court in Washington in March, which ordered a temporary halt in enforcement of the listing and ruled that the department had not convincingly shown the company’s organizational connection to the Chinese military.

In second-guessing the department, US District Judge Rudolph Contreras acknowledged: “This country’s national security priorities are undoubtedly compelling government interests, and the executive is to be afforded deference when sensitive and weighty interests of national security and foreign affairs are at stake.”

Yet, he concluded that the department had “not made the case that the national security interests at stake here are compelling.”

The judge’s reasoning was interesting.

He noted that “the designation authority ... went unused for almost 20 years until a flurry of designations were made in the final days of the Trump administration. This lack of use ... undermines the notion that the ... designation process is critical to maintaining this nation’s security.”

In effect, the court ruled that neglect of the authority by previous administrations was a more defensible executive policy than the Trump administration’s decision to exercise it, a judicial disregard of changed circumstances and presidential perceptions of the rising threat from China.

Indeed, the court questioned not only the soundness of the designation in the Xiaomi case, but the criticality of “the designation process” itself.

The judge also noted what might be considered “minor clerical errors” that nevertheless colored his opinion on the merits of the case.

“These errors do not inspire confidence in the fastidiousness of the agency’s decisionmaking process,” he said.

(Beijing will tout the judicial review as showing the “inferiority” of democratic government.)

If ever a court case was ripe for appeal, this was it, but the department, which had received Xiaomi’s complaint in January and knew its legal arguments, did nothing to correct perceived technical defects or to buttress its legal case. Instead, it simply pulled the plug, pointed a finger at the Trump administration and issued a statement.

“The Biden administration is deeply concerned about potential US investment in companies linked to the Chinese military and is fully committed to keeping up pressure on such companies,” the statement said.

The same court last month issued another order halting the similar blacklisting of Luokung Technology Corp, a Chinese mapping and big-data company.

The judge found that Luokung providing “products to entities with ties to the Chinese state” does not “compel the conclusion that [it] is ‘effectively controlled’ by the PRC [People’s Republic of China] or the PLA ... This behavior is no different than American technology companies such as Apple.”

The court did not consider the nature of the communist government, and its pervasive and coercive influence over all entities within China, especially a company collecting data, but there is no indication that the department intends to fight these delistings on national security grounds.

Of all the Trump administration’s pushback against China’s escalating assertiveness, what concerned Beijing the most was not the imposition of tariffs or the “phase 1” trade deal, but the legal measures that cut Chinese companies off from access to the US market, US capital and US technology.

The Biden administration has given China the gift of freeing those companies to continue business as usual and allowing the communist party-state to continue utilizing their work for its malign purposes.

Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) can be expected to detect and exploit this weakness.

Joseph Bosco, who served as China country director in the office of the US secretary of defense, is a fellow of the Institute for Taiwan-American Studies and a member of the Global Taiwan Institute’s advisory committee.

Source: Taipei Times - Editorials 2021/06/02

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Photo: Peter Lo, Taipei Times

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