President Joe Biden and his administration have made clear since taking office that its primary foreign policy challenge is what it sees as China’s increasingly aggressive actions that threaten the international order cultivated over decades by the United States and its allies. While Russia’s war in Ukraine has become the immediate concern and has heightened awareness of Russia’s persistent threat, China remains a strategic priority for the United States, as demonstrated by Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s May speech outlining the administration’s policy toward China. Just last week, Biden and other NATO leaders meeting in Madrid for their annual summit cited China’s “challenge” to “our interests, security and values” in their updated Strategic Concept 2022 for the alliance going forward.
In an attempt to understand the U.S. position and its aims in navigating the China challenge, it is useful to catalog the most significant measures the Biden administration has taken to date. The overarching approach, as outlined through numerous statements and speeches, appears to be one of framing the relationship as a contest between democracy and authoritarianism, in pursuit of a free, open, and secure Indo-Pacific region, and alliances characterized by cooperation rather than coercion. The administration’s policy toward China represents the merging of a hard-line approach partially inherited from its predecessor with a greater emphasis on taking action with allies and partners.
The concrete steps detailed below suggest that the administration has sought to cooperate with its allies where it can; some of the most strategically and symbolically significant actions have been taken in lockstep with key allies, from the agreement on nuclear submarines with Australia and the United Kingdom to the new Indo-Pacific Economic Framework and the NATO strategy document referenced above. At the same time, the Biden team has been prepared to act unilaterally to impose a wide array of sanctions on Chinese individuals and firms and has maintained some key Trump-era trade restrictions. The administration has expanded its commitment to halting China’s malign efforts to gain undue or harmful regional influence through diplomatic and military means as well. This includes both actively expanding America’s presence in the region through broad multilateral agreements and through a bolstered relationship with Taiwan.
The following catalogs Biden administration actions that directly address the relationship with China: in his speech outlining U.S. China policy, for example, Blinken talked about the importance of investment at home in boosting America’s global competitiveness; such broader aspects of the dynamic are not included here. This compilation also does not attempt to be exhaustive: there are, of course, myriad decisions made on a daily basis that are part of the wider approach to China that are not detailed here. Rather, this seeks to highlight the most significant steps, so as to create an overall understanding of the administration’s approach.
Blacklisting Chinese Companies
- Blacklists are designed to direct American investors and suppliers away from certain companies or individuals. Often, working with those on a blacklist can lead to the imposition of further sanctions. From the early days of the Biden administration, leading Chinese companies have been placed on Federal Communications Commission, Department of Defense, and Commerce Department blacklists due to national security concerns, including alleged involvement with the Chinese military, or for alleged involvement with Chinese human rights abuses.
- In March 2021, five Chinese companies, including Huawei, were blacklisted by the FCC, having been “deemed to pose an unacceptable risk to the national security of the United States or the security and safety of United States persons.” In addition to Huawei, the other companies are ZTE Corp., Hytera Communications Corp., Hikvision Digital Technology Co., and Dahua Technology Co.
- The following month, the Commerce Department added seven Chinese supercomputing companies to its blacklist, citing activities contrary to the national security or foreign policy interests of the United States. These activities include building supercomputers used by China’s military actors, and in its weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programs. American companies are barred from doing business with companies on the entity list without first obtaining a U.S. government license.
- In July, the Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Industry and Security (BIS) added a slate of Chinese companies to its Entity List over their role in human rights abuses in Xinjiang, and for their ties to China’s military. According to the announcement, these companies “enabled Beijing’s campaign of repression, mass detention, and high-technology surveillance against Uyghurs.”
- The primary impact of being added to the Entity List is that a license from the Commerce Department is required for exports, re-exports, or transfers to these companies, which face tough scrutiny when they seek permission to receive items from American suppliers.
Sanctioning Chinese Officials
- In March 2021, ahead of the Alaska talks between U.S. Secretary of State Blinken and his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi, the United States imposed sanctions on 24 Mainland China and Hong Kong officials.
- The individuals were sanctioned for their involvement in China’s crackdown in Hong Kong.
- As a result of the sanctions, foreign financial institutions that are engaged in significant transactions with the listed individuals will be subject to the U.S. sanctions.
- Later the same month, the European Union and the United Kingdom joined the United States in sanctioning two more Chinese officials, this time for their involvement in human rights abuses in Xinjiang.
- In retaliation, China sanctioned 10 EU citizens and four entities.
Sanctioning Chinese Companies
- In June 2021, Biden expanded a Trump-era ban on American investments in Chinese companies.
- Pursuant to the new executive order, Americans were barred from investing in Chinese firms with ties to defense or surveillance-technology sectors.
- The new order expanded on the Trump-era list to include the major Chinese telecommunications company Huawei.
- American investors were banned from buying or selling publicly traded securities in targeted companies, beginning August 2, 2021, when the new order took effect.
- “We see this is one action in the sort of broader sweep of steps we are taking to strengthen our approach to competing with China and to countering its actions that are against our interests and our values,” said one senior administration official in a briefing with reporters.
- Later that month, Biden signed an executive order authorizing a broad security review of apps linked to foreign adversaries, including China, in order to determine whether they pose a threat to U.S. national security.
- That executive order replaced a Trump-era order that sought to ban two major Chinese companies — TikTok and WeChat — outright from the United States. That order was deemed practically unenforceable.
- Also in June 2021, the Commerce Department announced a ban on all U.S. imports of key solar panel materials from the Chinese company Hoshine Silicon Industry Co., Ltd., over concerns that the company was involved in the forced labor of Uyghurs and other Muslim minority groups in Xinjiang.
- The Commerce Department also restricted exports to Hoshine along with three other Chinese companies and the paramilitary Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC),
- In October, the FCC ended China Telecom America’s right to provide its services in the United States. China Telecom America is a subsidiary of China Telecom, the largest Chinese state-owned telecommunications company.
- In December, Biden signed into law the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, which banned all imports from the Xinjiang region of China due to human rights abuses, including forced labor.
Expanding Economic Cooperation Elsewhere in the Region
- In May 2022, Biden announced the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF).
- A dozen Asia-Pacific nations joined a new, loosely defined economic bloc meant to counter China’s dominance and reassert American influence in the region five years after then-President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the Trans Pacific Partnership. The partnership, which did not include China, was seen as a “counterweight” against China’s growing regional influence.
- The following month, the US announced a series of new programs designed to boost its trade relationship with Taiwan. The new pact is designed to promote bilateral trade in areas such as digital trade, clean energy, and labor rights.
- Separately, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo is launching a dialogue with Taiwan to address technology trade and investments, citing the importance of Taiwan as a leading supplier of advanced semiconductors.
- “Taiwan is an incredibly important partner to us, especially as it relates to semiconductors,” Raimondo told reporters. “We look forward to continuing to deepen our economic ties with Taiwan.”
Continued Commitment to Certain Trump Administration Policies
- In October, the administration committed itself to a string of policies inherited from the previous administration.
- The Biden administration announced that it would maintain many of the Trump administration’s trade policies towards China, which include tariffs on US imports of Chinese goods.
- In a major speech on the issue in October, U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai said the administration won’t take any tools off the table, including the possibility of additional tariffs in the future. “Above all else, we must defend — to the hilt — our economic interests,” Tai said.
- The administration also announced in October that it would remain committed to the Trump-era Phase One trade agreement with China and ensure that it is fully enforced. The agreement, signed in 2020, committed China to improving its enforcement of intellectual property rights, removing its non-tariff barriers to farm imports, and liberalizing its financial services sector. China also agreed to $200 billion of purchases of U.S. goods as part of the deal.
- The administration announced in early July that it would extend its export controls on advanced technologies to China and other countries in instances where they might threaten U.S. national security. The administration has derived lessons from its approach to Russia, where the United States and its allies have blocked the export of advanced technology to Russia, hindering its war effort and economy. The purpose of the expansion is to change which technologies are deemed sensitive and could be used by militaries and security agencies, to include things like artificial intelligence.
Growing Support for Taiwan
- In May this year, it was reported that the Biden administration was accelerating its military support for Taiwan by simultaneously increasing the American presence in the region and further developing Taiwan’s own defenses. Drawing lessons from the war in Ukraine, U.S. officials are working with Taiwan to develop a more robust force that could rebuff a Chinese invasion.
- American officials have been quietly urging their Taiwanese counterparts to buy weapons designed for asymmetric warfare, U.S. and Taiwanese officials say.
- This comes as the US has more openly deployed its own military in the region as a form of deterrence against potential Chinese aggression.
- The Pentagon has begun revealing more details about the sailings of American warships through the Taiwan Strait — 30 since the start of 2020.
- The announcement also came as the Director of National Intelligence, Avril Haines, testified to the Senate that China was seeking the military capability to be able to seize Taiwan, even if the US intervened.
- In May, the administration also removed (but later restored) key language from its official position on Taiwan’s status.
- An updated State Department fact sheet on Taiwan still acknowledged, though without supporting, the Chinese “one-China” policy regarding Taiwan, but removed a key sentence that said the US “does not support Taiwan independence.”That sentence had appeared in the 2018 version of the fact sheet but had been removed. New language said that the US “continues to encourage the peaceful resolution of cross-Strait differences consistent with the wishes and best interests of the people of Taiwan.”
- At a press briefing a few days after the new document was released, the State Department spokesperson walked back the change, saying that “our policy towards Taiwan has not changed” and that “we do not support Taiwan independence.”
- The sentence was returned to the fact-sheet and, in his speech on US-China policy, Secretary Blinken reaffirmed that the United States does not support Taiwan’s independence.
Rallying U.S. Allies Around the Security Threat Posed by China
- In June 2021, NATO leaders at their summit in Brussels declared China a global security risk. This represented the first time that the organization, traditionally focused on Russia, shifted to prominently emphasize its concern about China.
- In the official communique released at the end of that summit, the leaders declared that China’s “stated ambitions and assertive behavior present systemic challenges to the rules-based international order.”
- At their latest summit last week in Madrid, NATO leaders adopted a new Strategic Concept that picks up much of the language from the Brussels summit the year before and details actions that alliance members will take. In particular, the strategic concept states that NATO will “boost [its] shared awareness, enhance our resilience and preparedness, and protect against the PRC’s coercive tactics and efforts to divide the Alliance.”
- In May 2022, US allies in the region collectively pushed back against coercive Chinese expansion in the Indo-Pacific. According to a draft agreement obtained by the New York Times, China sought to expand its regional influence in policing, maritime cooperation, and cybersecurity through a new agreement with Pacific nations. Documents obtained by the Times outline how Beijing seeks to expand its alliances and access to the chains of islands in the Pacific that are of geopolitical significance to China.
- However, when China presented the proposal to Pacific Island nations, they faced pushback from U.S. allies in the region. In a letter to other Pacific nations, David Panuelo, president of the Federated States of Micronesia, cautioned them against signing on, saying that the agreement represents the “single-most game-changing proposed agreement in the Pacific in any of our lifetimes.”
Expanding the U.S. Role in the Indo-Pacific
- Perhaps the most significant U.S. policy development with respect to China came in September 2021, when the administration announced an agreement with Australia and the U.K. to provide the Australian government with nuclear-powered submarines and to cooperate on cybertechnology and artificial intelligence. As a result of the agreement, according to the New York Times,
“Australia may begin conducting patrols that could move through areas of the South China Sea that Beijing claims as its exclusive zone and that range as far north as Taiwan. The deal enables Australia, a major U.S. ally in the region, to become a far more significant actor in the American-led alliance in the Pacific. The vessels are equipped with nuclear propulsion systems that offer limitless range and run so quietly that they are hard to detect.”
- In May 2022, Biden announced during his trip to Tokyo that the U.S. would set up joint monitoring of ships in the Indo-Pacific region with India, Japan, and Australia, the three other members of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, also known as the Quad. The Wall Street Journal reported the move was “designed to deter illegal Chinese fishing and maritime militias.”
Other Diplomatic Measures
- The administration has also sought to leverage symbolic diplomatic pressure on China. Most significantly, in December, the United States announced that its diplomats and officials would be boycotting the Beijing winter Olympics, citing human rights concerns.
Concern over China’s role in the world is one of the few bipartisan issues remaining on Capitol Hill. In just the last few weeks, members of both parties have introduced legislation that would overhaul American policy towards Taiwan and firmly commit the United States to standing by Taiwan. The stakes involved in U.S. policy on China, coupled with the inflamed rhetoric as tensions rise, is only further evidence that the relationship with China requires delicate handling.
The measures detailed above illustrate the Biden administration’s attempt to walk that tightrope. It is impossible to anticipate the turns this relationship will take in the coming years. The measures outlined above demonstrate that, successful or not, the administration has a unified and consistent approach to China using allies where it can, but acting alone where it must, in an effort to support American interests both regionally and globally.