WASHINGTON (BLOOMBERG) – US President Joe Biden is filling out his China policy team with staff whose past writing and speeches align with the tough tone toward Beijing that emerged under his predecessor Donald Trump, adding to evidence that the new administration won’t revert to an earlier era of conciliation.
Among the new hires is Melanie Hart, a former Centre for American Progress senior fellow, who will help oversee a review of Trump administration policies including its “Clean Network” initiative, which pressed countries to bar Huawei Technologies from their fifth-generation telecommunications networks.
In October, she co-wrote a report that highlighted the state subsidies fuelling Huawei’s rise and advocated countervailing support to vendors from the US and allied nations.
The China team also includes Ely Ratner at the Pentagon and Elizabeth Rosenberg at the Treasury Department. Both were previously at the Centre for a New American Security.
In a report co-authored with colleagues there – including three others who have joined the Biden administration – Ratner and Rosenberg called for an “international consortium” with Japan and the Netherlands to build semiconductors and diversify the supply chain.
“The China challenge – too often described as a problem for the future – is here and now,” the group wrote in the congressionally mandated report.
In a separate report, Rosenberg and Peter Harrell, who is joining the National Security Council, called for the US to authorise funding to compensate targets of “Chinese coercive measures” and for the US to make itself irreplaceable in the supply chains of the future.
The new appointees’ past work offers hints of what approach Biden’s team may embrace.
The administration has been cautious in laying out out its plans, saying most policies from the Trump era are under review.
The new team is unified in its message of working with allies before confronting China, in contrast to Trump’s go-it-alone approach, which often veered from praise of President Xi Jinping to harsh criticism, depending on Trump’s mood and the day’s events.
“When we’re in the business of picking fights with our allies instead of working with them, that takes away from our strength in dealing with China,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in an interview with NPR.
In a sign of potential future policy, Hart has called for a national lending programme through the Export-Import Bank that would “form a coalition of export credit agencies willing to support vendors from partner nations.”
She has also urged the US to make financing for developing nations available so they can access secure technologies and “high-standard governance principles for a free and open Internet.”
Hart, who declined to comment, will be China policy coordinator serving the undersecretary of state for economic growth, energy and the environment, a position that hasn’t yet been filled.
Blinken has called China the pre-eminent nation-state challenge facing the US, and competition in technology – on matters of supply chains, microchips, artificial intelligence and next-generation networks – is expected to form a centrepiece of the administration’s China policy.
It wasn’t always clear that Biden’s administration – many of whose officials worked to foster close, cordial ties with China during the Obama era – would press a tough line. A 2019 letter in the Washington Post signed by 100 former officials and scholars sought to push back against the Trump administration’s sharper tone, saying the US shared blame in the downward spiral of relations and calling the approach to China at the time “fundamentally counterproductive.”
Yet in a sign of the shift underway, few if any of the signatories on that letter have landed jobs under Biden.
“There’s been a sea change, and the people who are going into the administration now just have a different mindset and a different approach to the China challenge,” said Richard Fontaine, the chief executive officer of the Centre for a New American Security.
One challenge the incoming team faces is how politicised China policy has become in the US Last week, Republican Senator Rick Scott of Florida criticised the administration for what he said were a succession of moves including an initial refusal by Commerce Secretary nominee Gina Raimondo to commit to keeping Huawei on a Commerce Department restricted trade list.
And Linda Thomas-Greenfield, Biden’s nominee for ambassador to the United Nations, took fire from Texas Republican Senator Ted Cruz in her confirmation hearing last month over a 2019 speech to a Chinese-sponsored institute about Beijing’s strategy in Africa.
“They have very experienced, expert thoughtful people in there,” Robert Daly, director of the Wilson Centre’s Kissinger Institute on China and the United States, said of Biden’s team.
“But these problems are unprecedented and fraught with the need for compromise, and they haven’t reconciled that yet.”
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