The Biden administration has been working to get diplomacy between China and the United States back on track, in part by quietly dampening criticism of the Chinese government on a range of issues. This looks to many to be a return to old patterns of failed engagement that play into Beijing’s hands.
President Biden clearly wants to reestablish high-level dialogue with Chinese President Xi Jinping after Secretary of State Antony Blinken canceled his trip to China last month. Officials and lawmakers have noticed that the State Department has been less vocal recently in calling out China’s bad behavior regarding drug trafficking, trade with Iran, human rights and other issues.
Two senior officials speaking on behalf of the State Department pushed back on this accusation, arguing that the department is “not pulling its punches.”
“We are committed to the proposition that we can compete, we can contest, and we can even potentially cooperate with China where our interests align, at the same time,” one official told me, defending the administration’s overall China strategy.
But there is evidence in the public record to support the charge that criticism has been toned down. On the issue of drug trafficking, for example, a Jan. 30 Treasury Department press release announcing sanctions on Mexican fentanyl producers mentioned that the precursor chemicals often come from China. A State Department press release on the same announcement made no mention of China.
Sen. Bill Hagerty (R-Tenn.), a former U.S. ambassador to Japan, confronted Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman about the difference at a hearing last month. “I’m gravely concerned the State Department omitted mentioning China from these fentanyl sanctions because the secretary of state wanted to have this trip to Beijing,” Hagerty said.
“Absolutely not the case, Senator,” Sherman responded.
In fact, the State Department officials confirmed that the Office of China Coordination did remove the reference to China from the press release, and Sherman oversees this team. But the officials maintain Sherman was being truthful because the change was made not over concerns the trip would be canceled. Rather, they said, it was because Blinken was set to discuss the issue in Beijing, and he didn’t want to spoil his diplomatic play.
To be sure, it makes sense that Blinken would want to enlist Beijing’s cooperation on counternarcotics — to restart a dialogue that China cut off after then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) visited Taiwan last August. But omitting the truth from public messaging amounts to obscuring China’s culpability and makes punitive actions harder to pursue.
“The U.S. should always prioritize strong and resolved actions, especially to protect key U.S. and allied interests, over the naive wish that our unilateral restraint will persuade China to act more responsibly and somehow ‘reset’ the U.S.-China strategic rivalry,” Hagerty told me.
In a similar case, a Feb. 9 Treasury Department news release on Iran sanctions identified China as a destination for illicit oil. But in a State Department tweet thread that day “China” was changed to “East Asia.” The two State Department officials said this change was made by the Iran team, not the China team, and therefore was not directed at appeasing Beijing.
There are other signs the State Department is toning down criticism of China. In late January, Blinken, Sherman and other top officials met with representatives of the Tibetan, Uyghur and Hong Kong activist communities ahead of Blinken’s planned trip to Beijing. Afterward, the attendees were disappointed that the State Department issued only one brief tweet about the meeting and did not release the official photo, according to attendee Nury Turkel, a Uyghur American lawyer who chairs the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. Officials said the activists’ identities were kept secret due to privacy concerns, but Turkel said this was a break from past administrations, which publicized the photos.
“We need to be coherent and persistent with our messaging that the United States prioritizes human rights and will not back down from our position of strength to secure a meaningless verbal commitment to cooperation from a genocidal regime,” he told me.
In fairness, the State Department faces a difficult challenge in pursuing cooperation with China while simultaneously holding Beijing to account. But there’s a growing sense that pursuing high-level dialogue has become a greater priority than addressing the underlying problems.
Some people argue that confronting China’s bad actions publicly is dangerous because it could escalate tensions. In fact, that is the Chinese Communist Party’s line. But despite the Biden administration’s dampened criticism, the Chinese leadership has been ramping up its angry rhetoric and accusations leveled at the United States.
Beijing offers smooth relations in exchange for Washington backing off criticizing the Chinese government. By playing into this dynamic, the Biden administration only encourages the Chinese to demand still more concessions. Diplomacy should be conducted to achieve goals. It should not become an end in itself.