President-elect Joe Biden vowed to confront China using global alliances during a national security speech on Monday.
Less than a month out from Inauguration Day, Biden signaled that his rhetoric on the China challenge will be stern, but doubts remain about how tough on Beijing the Democrat will actually be considering his vow to rejoin the World Health Organization quickly and his desire to put combating climate change at the top of his agenda.
“As we compete with China, to hold China’s government accountable for its trade abuses, technology, human rights, and other fronts, our position would be much stronger when we build coalitions of like-minded partners and allies that make common cause with us in defense of our shared interest and our shared values,” Biden said on Monday.
“On any issue that matters on the U.S.-China relationship, from pursuing a foreign policy for the middle class — including a trade and economic agenda that produces and protects American workers, our intellectual prosperity, and the environment — to ensuring security and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region, to championing human rights, we’re stronger and more effective when we’re flanked by nations that share our vision in the future of our world,” Biden said.
China’s influence over the WHO during the coronavirus pandemic has been criticized by Republicans — President Trump withdrew U.S. support earlier this year — and China is the world’s largest polluter. That means the country’s ability to challenge China’s actions in Hong Kong, against the Uighurs, or in the South China Sea could be stymied by negotiations with China over carbon emissions.
Biden added that “that’s the power of smart, effective American leadership — but right now, there’s an enormous vacuum.”
The former Obama vice president has faced questions about how tough he will be on China considering past remarks welcoming China’s rise and his son, Hunter, being under federal investigation for his taxes, potentially linked to his Chinese business dealings. The president-elect did not take questions Monday.
The Biden transition website lists four priorities — COVID-19, economic recovery, racial equity, and climate change — and the coronavirus section contains a vow to reenter the WHO immediately. The WHO publicly praised China’s coronavirus response, even as evidence shows China worked to cover up the severity of the outbreak. Trump himself has faced criticism from Biden for praising China’s transparency.
“If we aren’t investing with our partners around the world to strengthen the health systems everywhere, we’re undermining our ability to permanently defeat COVID-19,” Biden said Monday. “And we’re leaving ourselves vulnerable to the next deadly epidemic.”
The WHO is sending a team to China to investigate the origins of the coronavirus outbreak next month, and Fabian Leendertz from the Robert Koch Institute, who will be on the small investigative team, declared to Agence France-Presse that “this is not about finding a guilty country or a guilty authority — this is about understanding what happened to avoid that in the future.”
Zhang Zhan, a Chinese citizen journalist who documented the coronavirus pandemic as it ravaged Wuhan earlier this year, was arrested in May and sentenced to four years in prison by a Chinese court Monday for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.”
Biden’s ability to get tough on China could also be complicated by his prioritization of climate change and the stance of his climate czar, former Secretary of State John Kerry.
Kerry told ProPublica in September that climate change “is just such a catastrophic impact on our biosystem and on our planet that it’s hard to even describe to people,” and so, “we have to … go to China, sit down with President Xi, and talk about mutual interests.” Kerry added: “China is about to bring 21 gigawatts of coal-fired power online … That’s going to kill us … If we don’t get China on board to help us lead all development efforts over the next years, and then India and Brazil and a group of other countries, we’re not going to get this done.”
Defense One reported last week that Kerry “believes that cooperation with China is the key to progress on climate change and that climate is by far the most important issue in the relationship between the United States and China.” The outlet reported sources familiar with Kerry’s thinking, who stressed that “everything else, including geopolitical competition with China, is of secondary importance.”
The Trump administration has ramped up pressure on China over the past few years, and a number of the U.S.’s Western allies have joined the U.S. in taking a stronger stance against China.
The U.S. has engaged in an all-out effort to limit Chinese telecom giant Huawei’s global reach, especially in the area of 5G, pushing its “Five Eyes” intelligence alliance to reject Huawei technology in its communications networks. Australia joined the U.S. in confronting China and removing Huawei from its telecoms, and the United Kingdom signaled this year that Huawei would be removed in the coming years. This summer, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo touted how a host of eastern European nations had also made moves to avoid Huawei.
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