Michael Sobolik, writing for The Hill, identifies a key problem with Joe Biden’s China policy. That policy is an incoherent mishmash.
Nearly every president from Nixon on has tried to engage and to some degree appease China. Donald Trump chose a different course. He confronted China.
Biden, by contrast, is straddling these two courses. Sobolik writes:
On the one hand, the president has insisted that the United States will compete with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) when necessary, and has described that competition in stark terms: democracy versus authoritarianism. On the other, Biden has identified climate change as “the number one issue facing humanity” — one that demands a global response from the world’s leading polluters, including Beijing.
Biden is in theory splitting the difference and crafting a policy that selects the best of both worlds. In reality, however, such a gambit is liable to become hopelessly entangled in contradictions.
A hopeless muddle, in other words. For example:
Last month, the White House decided to effectively slap an import ban on Hoshine Silicon Industry, the world’s largest producer of metallurgical-grade silicon and a giant in the solar industry, over its use of Uyghur forced labor.
That’s all fine and good. But the administration is simultaneously letting several other companies guilty of the same practice off the hook. According to a recent report from Sheffield Hallam University, “widespread adoption of state-sponsored labor programs in the Uyghur Region means that it is nearly impossible to avoid forced-labor-tainted raw materials if they are being sourced in [Xinjiang] under the current regime.” In other words, all of the firms active in Xinjiang are likely complicit.
Why these inconsistent moves? According to Sobolik, Biden’s “climate change” team persuaded Biden (or whoever is in charge) that a full ban on solar imports from Xinjiang could threaten Biden’s climate-related agenda.
As if climate-related concerns weren’t enough to undermine Biden’s goal of confronting China, there is also the problem of his insistence on multilateralism:
As one unnamed Biden official told the Wall Street Journal, “Our focus is on making sure that we’re moving from unilateral action, which has been what has defined U.S. policy over the last four years, to really working with our partners.”
The message is clear: the Biden administration is liable to think twice about sanctioning foreign entities if doing so either threatens the climate agenda or irritates key allies.
This would seem to preclude any meaningful confrontation with China.
So Biden is left with what Sobolik calls “symbolic sanctions that check the box without rocking the boat.” In Sobolik’s view, “with some creative sanctions, Washington could cut off half of the CCP’s Belt and Road Initiative trade routes for their links to the ongoing Uyghur genocide.” But in all likelihood, that’s not going to happen.
China’s ruling elite is breathing a sigh of relief. Or having a good laugh.
The problem, as Sobolik explains, is that “while transnational issues like climate change demand diplomacy and multilateral responses, great power competition depends principally upon American strength and consistency.” The other problem is that China isn’t going to make economic sacrifices in the name of combatting climate change no matter how much the U.S. eases off on great power competition.
China is all in on that competition. It is not distracted by worries about climate.