By commencing the new bilateral relationship with a provocative escalation, Beijing is attempting to warn incoming Biden administration officials they could suffer personal costs if they dare run afoul of the Chinese Communist Party’s delicate and paranoid sensibilities. China sanctioned former secretary of state Mike Pompeo, two of former president Donald Trump’s national security advisers, outgoing deputy national security adviser Matthew Pottinger, former U.N. ambassador Kelly Craft and several other officials. Beijing justified the move by claiming that its targets “have planned, promoted and executed a series of crazy moves which have gravely interfered in China’s internal affairs.”
Substantively, the sanctions are meaningless. There’s little chance John Bolton or Stephen K. Bannon — both of whom called the sanctions a badge of honor — will be harmed by a ban on traveling to or doing business in China. The true intent of the sanctions is to target incoming officials — an audacious attempt to intimidate them against continuing any of Trump’s policies. Former health and human services secretary Alex Azar was sanctioned presumably because he visited Taiwan. Craft was sanctioned for simply planning to visit Taiwan. (The trip was canceled after the failed Jan. 6 insurrection.)
Pompeo’s final sin was to declare Tuesday that the Chinese government is committing genocide and crimes against humanity against Uighurs and other ethnic minorities in Xinjiang province. China’s foreign ministry called his determination “nothing but paper,” and said he “is making himself a laughing stock and a clown.” But if China’s leaders were paying better attention to their new Biden administration counterparts, they would recognize this strong-arm strategy is doomed to fail.
On Tuesday, incoming Secretary of State Antony Blinken testified to the Senate that he agreed with Pompeo’s genocide determination. He was not freelancing. The Biden campaign made that decision after a full internal debate back in August, my sources said. Blinken, whose opening statement recounted his family’s history of escaping the Holocaust and Russian pogroms, is not likely to reverse course and ignore a genocide after being threatened. In fact, Beijing’s bullying makes it more difficult to do so. That was the CCP’s first major miscalculation.
Beijing’s second error was thinking the Biden team disagrees with the Trump administration’s fundamental stance toward China. Unprompted, Blinken told senators Trump’s “basic principle was the right one” and the Trump administration was “right in taking a tougher approach to China,” although he had issues with the way the administration carried it out. The Biden administration is rebranding, not reinventing, the Trump administration’s China approach. Top incoming Asia officials are focused on competition, not a return to engagement in the hope of smooth relations.
Moreover, any officials inside Biden-world who might have argued that Beijing was interested in playing nice have now been preemptively discredited. Meanwhile, the Chinese government is reinvigorating its efforts to spread conspiracy theories about the source of covid-19, calling for an investigation into a U.S. Army fort while thwarting attempts to investigate the origins of the virus in Wuhan. Beijing is also spreading lies about U.S. vaccines to muddy truth-telling about the problems with China’s own vaccine. Senior CCP members are also ramping up threats regarding Taiwan.
China’s new sanctions on Americans are actually helpful, since they identify which of Trump’s policies have been effective. For example, Beijing sanctioned former undersecretary of state Keith Krach, who led an effort to keep “untrusted vendors” out of international 5G infrastructure called the Clean Network Initiative. Krach told me Beijing hates that program because it joins the United States with allies. “When you confront a bully, they back down, especially when your friends are by your side,” he said.
To be sure, the Trump administration’s China approach was over-politicized and needlessly antagonistic. But its actual policies were responses to China’s actions, not aggressions in and of themselves. And without the Trump administration’s boorishness to point to, China’s familiar game of gaslighting and false equivalence is even more transparent.
To its credit, the incoming Biden team correctly recognized Beijing’s latest gambit as “an attempt to play to partisan divides” responding that, “Americans of both parties should criticize this unproductive and cynical move.” Now that Beijing has shown its cards, hopefully the Biden team won’t have to go through a torturous period of trying and failing to reset relations.
China’s opening salvo leaves no room for doubt: Contentious competition will be the focus of the U.S.-China relationship for the next four years. Beijing’s greatest fear is that the Biden team will be better at it than Trump.