The veteran officials U.S. President-elect Joe Biden has chosen to manage the U.S.’s fractured relationship with China are familiar throughout Asia. But they’ll find the region’s landscape dramatically changed after four years of “America First” upheaval.
Ties between Washington and Beijing have sunk to their lowest point since the height of the Cold War, while the U.S.’s alliances across Asia have been strained by President Donald Trump’s combative trade policies and demands for more troop funding. Biden’s national security team, led by long-time aides such as Antony Blinken and Jake Sullivan, are expected to leave much of Trump’s China policies in place for a period of time as they grapple with domestic crises and work with allies to build a more multilateral strategy to counter Beijing.
Antony Blinken, 58, secretary of state nominee
As a former deputy secretary of state, Blinken helped shape President Barack Obama’s policy rebalance toward the Pacific in what became known as the “Asia pivot.” The Trump administration overwrote that with its own “Indo-Pacific strategy” — a more overt, military-focused effort to contain China by drawing India into the American orbit. The French-speaking diplomat has argued that Trump has weakened Washington’s position by undermining its alliances and failing to uphold liberal values at home, as well as abroad.
Yet Blinken also offered some praise for Trump’s tougher approach toward Beijing during his confirmation hearing Tuesday, saying he has “no doubt” that China seeks to become the dominant global power. And he said he wished the Trump administration had acted faster to punish Beijing for its actions toward Hong Kong.
“We can outcompete China and remind the world that a government of the people for the people can deliver for its people,” Blinken said.
Janet Yellen, 74, Treasury secretary nominee
As Treasury secretary, Janet Yellen will find herself in more direct confrontation with China than her previous post as Federal Reserve chief. The Treasury Department not only played a lead role in Trump’s trade talks, but is also responsible for many of the sanctions heaped on Chinese officials in recent months. Yellen on Tuesday echoed the Trump administration’s criticism of China’s policies, while refraining from any pledge to look at rolling back its tariff hikes.
“We need to take on China’s abusive, unfair and illegal practices,” Yellen told Senate lawmakers in her confirmation hearing on Jan. 19. She said China has been dumping its products, erecting trade barriers, giving illegal subsidies to its corporations, stealing intellectual property and applying low labor and environmental standards. These “are practices that we’re prepared to use the full array of tools to address,” she said.
Lloyd Austin, 67, defense secretary nominee
Biden’s pick for the top spot at the Defense Department, retired General Lloyd Austin, has fueled some of the biggest questions about the incoming administration’s Asia plans. Best known for his service in the land wars of the Middle East, including the drawdown of U.S. forces from Iraq, Austin will inherit a Pentagon increasingly focused on China and the Pacific.
Austin warned at his Senate confirmation hearing on Tuesday of the “ascent and the scope and scale” of China’s military modernization. He said he and the new administration “will view China as our most serious global competitor and, from a defense perspective, the pacing threat in most areas.”
Austin has also served on the board of Raytheon Technologies since his retirement in 2016, which China said it would sanction in October over arms sales to Taiwan.
Gina Raimondo, 49, commerce secretary nominee
Gina Raimondo, the governor of America’s smallest state Rhode Island, will suddenly find herself the custodian of waves of China measures introduced by Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross. Those include tariffs and duties on goods, entity list restrictions slapped on its companies, as well as executive orders on companies such as ByteDance Ltd. and Tencent Holdings Ltd. Raimondo’s professional background is in finance, working in venture capital firms and later as state treasurer.
In a 2015 interview, she expressed resignation that many U.S. manufacturing jobs were gone for good, citing her father’s career at a Bulova watch factory in Providence. “Those jobs are not coming back,” she told Marketplace. “My dad’s manufacturing, that is gone and I don’t see that coming back to America, much less Rhode Island.”
Katherine Tai, trade representative nominee
Katherine Tai, Biden’s nominee to serve as U.S. trade representative, argues Trump’s policies toward Beijing weren’t aggressive enough. A Mandarin speaker who lived in China 25 years ago, Tai has litigated Washington’s disputes with Beijing as a lawyer for the U.S. Trade Representative. She was most recently chief trade counsel for the U.S. House’s Ways and Means Committee. Speaking at a Center for American Progress event in August, Tai described Trump’s China measures as largely defensive in nature.
“The offense has got to be about what we are going to do to make ourselves, and our workers, and our industries and our allies, faster, nimbler, be able to jump higher, be able to compete stronger and ultimately be able to defend this open, democratic way of life that we have,” Tai said. “It is about more than just economics and economic values, it is also about our political and our broader values.”
Jake Sullivan, 44, national security adviser
Returning to a role similar to one he held when Biden was vice president, Sullivan has acknowledged that the Obama administration misjudged China’s direction under President Xi Jinping. Still, he warned during a 2019 appearance on the podcast China Talk that it would be a “profound mistake” to turn China into an existential enemy. He’s advocated a foreign policy more focused on supporting U.S. allies.
Sullivan has also argued for focusing U.S. trade policy on improving economic conditions at home, questioning the emphasis on opening China’s financial system to Goldman Sachs Group Inc. “What if we said actually, advancing economic interests is advancing a stronger, more robust, more inclusive middle class? And what is the structure of our economic deals that is going to accomplish that?” he said on China Talk.
Kurt Campbell, 63, Indo-Pacific coordinator
As another architect of the Asia pivot, Kurt Campbell has called for confidence-building steps to stabilize U.S.-China ties, including readmitting journalists, easing visa restrictions and restoring closed consulates. “We can‘t say we’d like you to change your whole system, and they can’t say to us, withdraw your forces from Asia,” he told an Asia Society event this month. “We need to deal with the world in which we’re living.”
At the same time, the former assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs recommended using “relatively inexpensive and asymmetric capabilities” to deter Beijing’s “territorial adventurism.” Campbell argued in a Foreign Affairs piece last month for a managed decoupling from China based on reassuring regional states that moving supply chains elsewhere will create growth opportunities.
Laura Rosenberger, 40, senior director for China
Laura Rosenberger, most recently the director of the Alliance for Securing Democracy in Washington, will bring a focus on China’s censorship and information operations. She has warned of the dangers of a split internet that leaves part of the world in Beijing’s camp, and has criticized China for providing aide to Europe with the intent to divide the continent “from within and from the U.S.”
Rosenberger has said the U.S. can also impose costs on Beijing by exposing China’s intentions and practices. “If we can get in the cycle of pushing back on that narrative and its ability to shape it in the direction it wants to, I think that actually does provide some ability to at least slow down some of its activities,” she said on a Lowy Institute podcast in 2019.
Rosenberger said the U.S. could “weaponize corruption” to hit Beijing, which she says uses corrupt and kleptocratic networks to exert influence.
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