US president-elect’s foreign policy appointees can be expected to seek multilateral ways to keep the pressure on China
As US President-elect Joseph Biden unveils his top cabinet picks, the outgoing Donald Trump administration’s hawks are bidding to box in their successors and boost their post-Trump political careers.
Most prominently, former deputy secretary of state Antony Blinken, a Barack Obama-era official and outspoken defender of America’s global alliances, is set to become Biden’s secretary of state.
Blinken is a decades-old aide to President-elect Biden, stretching back to the latter’s stint on Senate Foreign Relations Committee and later the vice-presidency.
Meanwhile, close aide Jake Sullivan will become national security adviser, while veteran diplomat Linda Thomas-Greenfield will serve as Biden’s ambassador to the United Nations.
The incoming administration’s top picks, however, are not necessarily doves, with many having adopted tough stances on China by emphasizing the importance of multilateral coalitions with European and Asian allies to address common threats.
Just months before the presidential election, Blinken underscored the importance of multilateralism since “the big problems that we face as a country and as a planet, whether it’s climate change, whether it’s a pandemic, whether it’s the spread of bad weapons – to state the obvious, none of these have unilateral solutions,” while speaking at the conservative Hudson Institute in Washington, DC.
Even a country as powerful as the United States can’t handle them alone,” he added, a direct rebuke of the Trump administration’s “America First” unilateralism and contempt for international organizations and alliances, including the United Nations and the North Treaty Atlantic Organization (NATO).
Blinken identified long-standing allies such as Europe as a partner of “first resort, not last resort, when it comes to contending with the challenges we face,” including on China.
A staunch believer in American global leadership, Blinken has argued for America to “strive to the best of our ability to align our actions with our principles, and because American leadership has a unique ability to mobilize others and to make a difference.”
Meanwhile, former under-secretary of defense for policy Michele Flournoy is the frontrunner for the other top cabinet position, secretary of defense. If appointed, she will be the first woman to head the Pentagon.
A top Hillary Clinton adviser, Flournoy is known for her relatively hawkish stances, advocating the escalation of American military involvement in Afghanistan, criticizing the Obama administration for being risk-averse, calling for increased defense spending, and even commending Trump for “rais[ing] the need for more defense dollars.”
In a June essay in Foreign Affairs, Flournoy emphasized the need for deterring China’s worst instincts through combat-readiness, including the ability to “credibly threaten to sink all of China’s military vessels, submarines, and merchant ships in the South China Sea within 72 hours.”
Dispensing with military primacy, she has called for the Pentagon to maintain “enough of an edge” over rivals such as China as well as checking the latter’s “gray zone” threats in adjacent Pacific waters and to Asian allies such as the Philippines where China is muscle-flexing in the South China Sea.
Similar to Blinken, the frontrunner for the Pentagon chief’s position believes “we have to deal with China,” emphasizing the need for a compartmentalized approach rather than fully confrontational approach, she wrote in the same Foreign Affairs essay.
Eager to consolidate their punitive measures against China and its ruling Communist Party, outgoing Trump administration officials have doubled down on their increasingly tough policies in coordination with regional partners such as Taiwan.
Last week, the State Department’s policy planning office released a 70-page policy paper, “The Elements of the China Challenge,” which has evoked comparisons to George Kennan’s famous anti-Soviet “containment” strategy during the Cold War.
In a clear echo of Cold War rhetoric, the paper accuses China of “plans to dominate world affairs” and maintains “the communism that the CCP professes is … a theory of a globe-spanning universal society, the ultimate goal of which is to bring about a socialist international order.”
The chief architect behind Trump’s China policy, outgoing Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has successfully pushed for tougher sanctions against Chinese exports and military-affiliated commercial entities, stronger military and diplomatic ties with Taiwan and restrictions on Chinese investments in the US.
Citing a draft document, Reuters reported on Monday that the Trump administration will soon declare that 89 Chinese aerospace and other companies have military ties and restrict them from buying a range of US goods and technology, marking the latest escalation of the tech and trade wars that defined Trump’s China relations.
The US State Department’s July statement on the South China Sea marked a major departure from previous administrations, with the US in effect rejecting all of China’s claims in disputed waters and resources in the area, while in effect siding with allied rival claimants such as the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia.
Pompeo’s 11th-hour trip to the Middle East and Europe in the past week, where he ramped up Trump’s hawkish policies on China, Iran and Russia, is seen by many as part of a calculated bid to launch his own presidential campaign in 2024.
Meanwhile, a top intelligence official at the US Navy’s Indo-Pacific Command, Rear Admiral Michael Studeman, made an unannounced visit to Taiwan, underscoring tightening defense cooperation that has provoked uproar in Beijing.
The high-profile visit coincided with the recent signing of a memorandum of understanding on economic exchanges during a meeting between Taiwanese and US officials in Washington.
China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian warned of “stern representations” and said China “resolutely opposes” Studeman’s visit as well as broader strategic cooperation between Washington and Taipei.
“The Chinese side will, according to how the situation develops, make a legitimate and necessary response,” Zhao added.