Obama-era veterans will shape Joe Biden’s China policy
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Nov 19th 2020
SEVEN YEARS ago Susan Rice, then Barack Obama’s national security adviser, said America wanted “a new model of major power relations” with China. Her words echoed a term used by China’s president, Xi Jinping—“a new type of great-power relations”—to describe what he hoped would be a more accommodating American view of his country. Within a year Ms Rice (pictured, with Joe Biden) and her boss stopped using the phrase as it became ever more clear that Mr Xi had no plans to be accommodating himself. Now Ms Rice and her then deputy, Antony Blinken, are among leading contenders to become secretary of state under Joe Biden, America’s next president. Some of Mr Obama’s most trusted advisers on China are looking forward to a second chance. This time they have few, if any, illusions about China’s strongman.
As the president-elect selects people for his national-security team and other key China-related jobs, he will draw heavily from Mr Obama’s former staff. Most of those likely to be chosen come from a traditional school of foreign policy that places trust in alliances, treaties and multilateral institutions. Their breed is very different from that of Mr Trump’s China team.
Fears that Republicans may retain control of the Senate (to be decided in January by two special elections in Georgia) could dim Ms Rice’s prospects. She is widely disliked among Republicans. Some of them see her as partly to blame for what they view as the failings of Mr Obama’s China policy. Republican China hawks would be happier to see the job go to Mr Blinken, a genial, well-liked longtime aide to Mr Biden. Another candidate less controversial than Ms Rice is Christopher Coons, a centrist Democratic senator from Mr Biden’s home state of Delaware.
Advisers to Mr Biden say that the views on China of all three of these potential choices for secretary of state have hardened in the past two years, as have those of most other members of Washington’s foreign-policy establishment. Last year Ms Rice spoke tough about Huawei, urging Canada to keep the telecoms giant out of its 5G networks. Mr Blinken has said that some assumptions about engagement with China have turned out to be wrong. But he has also said that, as a believer in international agreements like arms control and climate treaties, there is scope for co-operation.
If Mr Blinken does not get the job at the State Department, he would probably serve as national security adviser, a White House role that would suit him well given his close work with Mr Biden over the years. It is also possible that Ms Rice may be offered the national-security role as a consolation, because it does not require Senate approval. It is unclear whether she would be willing to take a post that she has already held.
Obama veterans are sure to get other senior jobs. Michèle Flournoy, an undersecretary of defence under Mr Obama, is likely to lead the Pentagon. In an article in June in Foreign Affairs she said America needed to do more to deter China, such as by beefing up military capability and sending clear signals of American support for regional allies. Ely Ratner, one of the most respected China hawks in the Democratic ranks, may serve Ms Flournoy as an assistant secretary.
For the post of treasury secretary Lael Brainard, a member of the Federal Reserve’s board of governors and a former undersecretary at the Treasury Department, is a front-runner (see Free exchange). A former Obama official describes her as a “silent hawk” on China. (Her husband, Kurt Campbell, helped guide China policy as assistant secretary of state for East Asia during Mr Obama’s first term.)
A department that has become increasingly influential on China is Commerce, which oversees export controls and an “entity list” of blacklisted companies—tools that the Trump administration has employed with gusto against Chinese tech firms. Some tech-industry leaders, eyeing the market in China, want someone to lead the department who will loosen the screws a bit. Meg Whitman, a former CEO of Hewlett Packard Enterprise, a giant tech firm with dealings in China, is one of several rumoured candidates who would please Silicon Valley titans. Kevin Wolf, who worked on export controls under Mr Obama and is seen (by China hawks, at least) as friendly to the tech industry, has been mentioned as a contender for another powerful role at Commerce: head of the Bureau of Industry and Security. Those who fill these posts may have as much impact on China policy as other senior appointees.
It is far less certain who will fill lower-profile positions. But these can also be crucial in shaping China policy. Matthew Pottinger, Mr Trump’s deputy national security adviser, started in 2017 as senior director for Asia, a couple of rungs below Ms Rice’s old job. Mr Pottinger played a big part in steering the administration’s hard turn on the Communist Party. His successor in the Asia role could be someone like Mr Ratner (if he does not serve at the Pentagon). The choice will necessarily come later than the selection of principals in the national-security team. But it could matter a lot. ■
This article appeared in the China section of the print edition under the headline "Second-chance saloon"