President Joe Biden took part in a CNN town hall with Anderson Cooper earlier this week. Such events are seldom a venue for extended foreign policy deliberation, with the discussion centering instead on the Biden administration’s strategy to combat the coronavirus pandemic and its economic fallout.
But things took an unexpected turn in the latter part of the event. Answering a question about asylum seekers, Biden suddenly invoked China: “you remember—I remember you questioning me when I came back from China. And I said, I predict, within less than a year, they’re going to end their One-China policy. And I got clobbered by saying—because they said: Biden didn’t talk about the fact that how immoral it was…” Cooper interjected with a reference to the recent two-hour phone call between Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping: “You just talked to China’s president, I believe.” He then pressed Biden on the issue of Chinese human rights abuses and, in particular, the question of Beijing’s treatment of its Muslim Uyghur minority. Biden gave something of a startled response: “the Uyghurs. We must speak up for human rights. It’s who we are. We can’t—my comment to him was—and I know him well, and he knows me well. We’re—a two-hour conversation.”
Biden then took a step back to discuss China policy more generally, offering his view of how Xi Jinping sees the world: “I said, look—Chinese leaders, if you know anything about Chinese history, it has always been the time China when has been victimized by the outer world is when they haven’t been unified at home.”
“So, the central—to vastly overstate it, the central principle of Xi Jinping,” said Biden, with a clenched fist stretched out, “is that there must be a united, tightly controlled China. And he uses his rationale for the things he does based on that.” Whatever academic quibbles one may bring to it, Biden’s truncated summa of Xi Jinping’s worldview is, by itself, not terribly controversial. But Biden continued: “I point out to him, no American president can be sustained as a president if he doesn’t reflect the values of the United States. And so the idea I’m not going to speak out against what he’s doing in Hong Kong, what he’s doing with the Uyghurs in western mountains of China, and Taiwan, trying to end the One-China policy by making it forceful, I said—by the way, he said he gets it. Culturally, there are different norms that each country and their leaders are expected to follow.”
This is a puzzling statement, further muddled by Biden’s confusing delivery. According to an emergent critical reading offered by his detractors, Biden appears to be attributing China’s alleged human rights abuses against the Uyghurs and crackdowns in Hong Kong to different cultural norms. The President’s critics likewise argue that Biden is suggesting that his administration’s outward stances on these issues—including the question of Taiwan—are a form of political theater for the domestic consumption of U.S. audiences, and that Xi Jinping “gets it.” Retired U.S. Army Lieutenant General and former National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster was more blunt, suggesting at a recent Republican Study Committee virtual event that Biden’s comments on the Uyghurs amounted to “bigotry masquerading as cultural sensitivity.” The Washington Post reported earlier that McMaster—a long-time China hawk—also drew attention to what he sees as a coterie of Washington lawmakers and business elites who are either willfully or inadvertently furthering Beijing’s policy agenda: “They have these useful idiots here in the United States … who just parrot their perspective, that ‘poor China,’ that we are trying to keep China down.”
Anderson Cooper offered Biden a chance to clarify his statements: “when you talk to him, though, about human rights abuses, is that just—is that as far as it goes in terms of the U.S.? Or is there any actual repercussions for China?” Biden answered that “there will be repercussions for China,” but did not posit any concrete policies. Instead, he discussed the potential harm to China’s public image: “China is trying very hard to become the world leader and to get that moniker. And to be able to do that, they have to gain the confidence of other countries. And as long as they’re engaged in activity that is contrary to basic human rights, it’s going to be hard for them to do that.” Biden’s critics have, again, seized on these comments to accuse the administration of what they see as an unwillingness to formulate a specific response against alleged Chinese human rights violations.
Nevertheless, the President’s recent town hall appearance speaks to an inherent problem of policy coherence; namely, the Biden administration’s China strategy is hampered by its all-too-frequent recourse to mixed signals. Take the issue of Taiwan as an example. Biden invited Bi-khim Hsiao, Taiwan’s top representative and de facto ambassador in the United States, to attend his inauguration, marking the first time since 1979 that Taiwan was formally represented at a presidential swearing-in. At the time, the gesture was widely perceived as a forceful reaffirmation of the U.S. security commitment to Taiwan. But Biden’s town hall comments have, even if inadvertently, raised the prospect that Bi-khim Hsiao’s invitation was more a matter of maintaining appearances and placating certain domestic audiences than a concrete signal of policy intent. By the same token, Biden’s cryptic appeal to “different norms” confounds his administration’s emergent policy position on China’s domestic affairs. More fundamentally, it contradicts Biden’s earlier State Department speech about “America’s place in the world.” In it, he framed foreign policy as an existential struggle between competing value systems, said that America’s raison d’être is to “to defend democracy globally” and “push back authoritarianism’s advance,” and went as far as to insist specifically that Washington must “push back on China’s attack on human rights.”
One month into the Biden administration, the President’s apparent vacillation on core policy questions and seeming lack of a coherent approach toward Beijing raises more questions than it answers about the future of the troubled U.S.-China strategic relationship.
Mark Episkopos is the new national security reporter for the National Interest.