President-elect Joe Biden has been quick to shape his national security team. Jake Sullivan will serve as national security adviser, Antony Blinken is to be nominated for Secretary of State, Avril Haines will be the director of national intelligence, and John Kerry will take on the role of a Cabinet-level climate czar.
These selections give us confidence (if that's the right word) of three things. First, that Biden will desperately try to return America to the disastrous Iran nuclear deal. Second, that the European Union will be happy. Third, that Xi Jinping, the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao Zedong, is feeling pretty good right now.
The contrast between Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Kerry is one of night and day. Where Pompeo has prioritized retraining China’s aggressive tendencies worldwide and its undermining of American interests, Kerry’s record of standing up for our interests, especially against our rivals and enemies, is flaccid. He spent his time as secretary of state proclaiming the virtues of positive engagement with Beijing. And his willingness to give Iran everything it wanted in the 2015 nuclear deal should make China optimistic that he'll be generous in the coming climate negotiations.
Climate change activists should share our concerns because China’s climate strategy is a disingenuous absurdity. It is building hundreds of new, heavily polluting coal plants each year, while simultaneously pledging to be carbon-neutral by 2060. It is highly unlikely that Kerry will force China to agree to having its promised emission cuts independently verified. (Remember that the inspection regime built into the Iran deal contained loopholes big enough to drive an Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps tank through.) He’s far more likely to commit America to economically damaging emission cuts without getting other nations to do the same.
Concerns about Kerry go considerably beyond how he'll manage climate policy.
Biden’s assertion that he’ll prioritize American alliances should produce a clear and explicit public declaration to confront China in a broad sense, just as Reagan did with Russia while campaigning and in office. Beijing is threatening Australia and Canada with trade wars and the Philippines and Japan with actual wars. And it is stealing the territory of new partners such as India. Biden hasn’t told the public anything about how he’ll confront these challenges.
Worse, Biden is evidently reluctant even to identify China for what it is — a communist dictatorship that seeks to displace the United States as the leader of an international order built around human freedom and opportunity and to replace it with one of Beijing-centered feudal serfdom. This truth isn’t negotiable. Xi’s imprisonment of millions of his own people in reeducation camps, his shredding of treaty commitments to uphold Hong Kong’s democratic character, and his seizure of the near entirety of the South China Sea make it incontrovertible. His regional policy is one of an imperialism that has not been seen in the Pacific region since the 1930s, when the aggressor was Japan. This reality is the context for the global reach of China’s industrial-scale cyberespionage campaign to steal everything of value — whether it be computer software or a coronavirus vaccine. Regrettably, when asked about the incoming administration's policy toward China, Biden, Blinken, and Sullivan offer only a pledge for more effective competition with Beijing. Whatever that means. Beijing has taken note.
China’s Global Times propaganda outlet was unable, on Tuesday, to contain its excitement about the Biden presidency. It praised the new foreign policy team as “a group of ‘elites’ [who are] very ‘predictable’ in foreign policy with a multilateral mind-set that will help restore U.S. leadership and strengthen connections with allies. This is unlike Trump's approach, which combines people with little experience, and extremists who deeply believe in protectionism and nationalism.”
When China attacks Trump and praises Biden, it does so with an eye on its own benefit, not ours. Thus, there is reason for alarm about the new custodians of America's national interests. What is at stake in U.S. relations with China is much more than the form of climate, economic, human rights, and security dialogue. Under Xi, the Chinese Communist Party is determined to supplant America as the global superpower. If given space and deference, China will rush forward to take advantage. Biden seems set to give it precisely that space.