The Debate | Opinion

5 Steps Joe Biden Should Take to Confront the China Challenge

China is a looming threat to international order. U.S. leadership in confronting the issue has never been more important.

By Joey Siu for
5 Steps Joe Biden Should Take to Confront the China Challenge
Credit: Pixabay

Crackdowns on Hong Kong, Xinjiang, and Tibet have revealed the true nature of the Chinese Communist Party. The disregard for fundamental human rights, the contempt for international law, and the repression of dissidents all show the world why the China challenge is the most pressing issue on Joe Biden’s desk.

Hong Kong is the canary in the coal mine, and the United States cannot afford to ignore its plight.

Compared to clear cut stances on climate change, racial justice, and several domestic issues, the incoming Biden-Harris administration’s take on the People’s Republic of China is rather unclear.

As we step into a transition period full of uncertainties, China is taking a range of steps to silence dissent in Hong Kong and bully our international partners. The Biden-Harris administration must prevent China from swooping in with effective, comprehensive measures. Here are five steps the new administration should consider in order to confront China’s challenge head-on.

The first thing that the administration must avoid is falling into dialogue traps without any clear concessions from Beijing. China’s brutal crackdown on Hong Kong, in violation of the Sino-British Joint Declaration, is a clear indication of the country’s contempt for international treaties, which is seen everywhere from trade embargoes targeting Australia to the continuous, rapid growth of carbon emissions.

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The Obama administration spared no efforts in participating in negotiations with Beijing on almost every issue ranging from climate change to foreign policies, but the results were obviously not proportional. Lessons should be learnt from China’s under-delivered promises. Beijing is well aware, and has been taking advantage, of the fact that the United States has often been willing to shelve unfavorable policies to pacify China’s leaders so as to keep conversations over significant issues going. The incoming Biden administration must not be distracted by endless dialogues with China but instead focus on formulating policies based on evaluation of the regime’s real actions to create solid outcomes. These substantial steps are needed if dialogues are to go anywhere.

Second, the China challenge requires an extensive whole-of-government approach and cannot be confined to the State Department alone. The response to China must cut through the Departments of Defense, Homeland Security, Commerce, Energy, Treasury, and Education. Decision-makers should realize the fact that in many aspects, from technology to financial flows, China still needs the United States. This leverage should be exercised effectively.

The third priority must be showing solidarity with the oppressed in Hong Kong, Xinjiang, Tibet, and countries suffering from Xi Jinping’s authoritarian bullying, followed by materialized actions. Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam recently said that she cannot get a bank account, even with Chinese state-owned banks, proving that economic sanctions targeting Chinese and Hong Kong officials involved in human rights assaults are useful, and should be prioritized. Refugee policies should also be implemented within the administration’s capacity to assist diaspora communities escaping from the CCP’s oppression.

The China challenge goes far beyond human rights. Under a national “military-civil fusion” strategy, the Chinese Communist Party has been acquiring intellectual property, key research, and technological advances from researchers, scholars, and private industries worldwide to fulfill its military aim of advancing the People’s Liberation Army into a “world-class military” by 2049. Other than the systematic reorganization of domestic science and innovation developments, China is also emulating overseas technology establishments and exploiting backdoors in the global trading system. The fourth thing needed from the Biden administration is the continuous efforts to regulate China’s involvement in 5G network developments, to provide reimbursement for U.S. enterprises to remove equipment from red-capital-controlled networks or services, and to cultivate a more capable and skilled workforce, so as to prevent further sacrifices and remedy existing damages.

Congress and the White House have taken important steps both domestically and internationally, including placing Chinese companies on the Entity List and increasing funding and subsidies for technology development, to challenge this. There is a bipartisan consensus on the Capitol Hill to counter China and it should be extended to more legislation to protect sensitive research and combat CCP infiltration in tertiary education or research institutions. Policies that require tertiary institutions to report funding from China are much needed. Likewise, regulation of CCP-sponsored or censored media and technologies like TikTok and WeChat is necessary to combat China’s massive propaganda machine and infiltration schemes. All these should also be developed and executed by the Biden administration within its capacity, under a “zero-tolerance” principle.

China’s efforts in strengthening its United Front Work – meant to “influence overseas Chinese communities, foreign governments, and other actors to take actions or adopt positions supportive of Beijing’s preferred policies” – have been significant over the recent years. The incoming Biden administration must fight the ideological competition and display a clear and bold stance against China’s totalitarianism. Evaluations on China’s human rights abuses in Hong Kong, Tibet, and especially the mass detention of Uyghurs in Xinjiang must be continued. Strong public condemnations and materialized targeted sanctions should be followed through.

Finally, this must be a global effort. The United States has to restore leadership in international bodies like the United Nations and create an alliance of democracies to combat the China challenge. Hong Kong is not the only place under pressure; China is bullying Australia and Canada in a bid to pick off America’s allies one by one. The Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China has suggested that one way of building solidarity would be to buy Australian wine – currently subjected to massive tariffs in China – and otherwise support their economy. Strategic dependency on China among U.S. allies will only be reduced if there are other markets for their goods.

China is a looming threat to international order and we have been taking it too lightly. U.S. leadership in formulating a new, global “zero tolerance” net has never been more important.

Joey Siu is a Hongkongese-American human rights activist, an associate of Hong Kong Watch and advisor to the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC).