Secretary of State Antony Blinken will hold the Biden administration’s first meeting with China in Alaska on March 18. The policies he advances, the tone he sets, and lines in the sand that he draws at this momentous event will impact America’s safety and security for the next four years and beyond.
While Blinken has laudably called out China’s behavior and advocated for accountability regarding China’s considerable human rights abuses, some of his past statements indicate that he may not fully grasp the nature of the security threat China poses to the United States.
For example, at an event hosted by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in September, Blinken said, “Trying to fully decouple, as some have suggested, from China … is unrealistic and ultimately counter-productive.” This comment raises questions on his position on a Commerce Department interim rule that cracks down on technology-related business transactions between China and the U.S. that the department determines pose a threat to national security.
The Biden administration must decide whether to finalize this rule by March 22. With the clock ticking, China likely will have plenty to say about it in the meeting with Blinken, especially given that the country has accused the U.S. of “abusing its national power to unreasonably suppress foreign companies.” As such, the secretary of State must understand the scope of the problem that the Commerce rule addresses and commit to holding the course on this important rulemaking.
China’s military-civil fusion policy, National Intelligence Law of 2017, Data Security Law and Cryptography Law of 2020 and its Corporate Social Credit System all mandate and coerce Chinese entities to work with the government. This includes turning over any data and information that can assist the communist regime in acquiring knowledge and technology to advance China’s ambition to possess a “world class military” by 2049 and to promote China’s rise to a dominant position in international politics.
Unfortunately for the United States, cyber attacks, intellectual property theft and other nefarious actions have been directed by China against the United States at an astonishing rate, in spite of a 2015 agreement between former President Obama and Chinese leader Xi Jinping. In 2018, the Department of Justice charged two Chinese hackers with stealing confidential digital information from NASA, the Navy and dozens of U.S. companies. Based on recent intelligence and investigatory reports, this trend appears to be growing worse, not better.
Blinken is correct in that it is never ideal, from a financial or diplomatic perspective, to decouple from a given country. That said, America’s security is paramount; thus, there are occasions and circumstances when trade must be subordinate to national security interests.
The interim Commerce decision is far from controversial. It will merely provide the department with the tools it needs to identify, access and address transactions between the U.S. and China with key technologies – including software and hardware, mobile networks, and those involving satellite payloads and operations – to ensure these transactions do not pose national security risks.
Recent case studies demonstrate just how needed the government’s judgment and analysis is in determining whether entrepreneurs’ business dealings could put the American public at risk.
Consider the example of American car company Tesla, which, according to its CEO, Elon Musk, had software stolen by China. This is concerning because this software also serves as a tool for Musk’s space company, SpaceX, which works on sensitive missions with NASA and the Pentagon. And yet, despite the proven vulnerability of this technology to China espionage, Tesla chose to further intertwine its operations in the country after the communist regime helped it secure over $1 billion in loans.
Unfortunately, current law does not allow the U.S. government to comprehensively investigate whether vulnerabilities could come from this move. Blinken should agree that this oversight from Commerce is needed. He should commit to finalizing the rule by March 22 at this week’s meeting and advocate supplementary rulemaking to ensure that a respectable government agency has some degree of oversight over all cases like this one.
A final comment: The choice of venue is unfortunate. Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev first met with former President Ford in Nov. 1974 in Vladivostok, which was interpreted by the Chinese as an insult to Beijing at a time when the U.S. sought good relations with China to balance Soviet power. Although this is ministerial, a meeting in Alaska only serves to support China’s illegitimate claim to be an Arctic nation. Many other venues would have better served U.S. national interests.
Regardless, Blinken still has an opportunity to advance U.S. security and to pressure China with immediate effect by advocating support of Commerce’s ruling – an important battle in a long war to separate U.S. technology and investment from China, to denounce Beijing’s territorial and economic expansionism, and to protest China’s human rights abuses including in Xinjiang and Tibet.
This meeting will set the tone for the Sino-American relationship under President Biden. Most importantly, it is pregnant with opportunity for the U.S. if Blinken will strongly and confidently advance the interests of the liberal international system against China.
Bradley A. Thayer is the co-author of “How China Sees the World: Han-Centrism and the Balance of Power in International Politics.”
Lianchao Han is vice president of Citizen Power Initiatives for China. After the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989, he was one of the founders of the Independent Federation of Chinese Students and Scholars. He worked in the U.S. Senate for 12 years, as legislative counsel and policy director for three senators.