politics

Biden’s nominees will face a China gauntlet


And because Beijing’s growing global clout touches so many different areas — from agricultural tariffs to the coronavirus pandemic to alleged Chinese spies on college campuses — senators are likely to raise the topic during hearings for positions that in the past may have seemed irrelevant.

Among those who want China to get wide attention throughout the confirmation hearings is Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a leading China skeptic who’s expected to chair the Senate Intelligence Committee in the next Congress.

“Every U.S. official has a role to play, because the national security threats posed by the Chinese Communist Party to the United States cut across all aspects of our society, our economy and our government,” Rubio said in response to POLITICO’s questions. “Biden’s nominations will need to demonstrate a strong understanding of how their departments can respond to these challenges.”

Presidential politics is helping drive the focus — the most hawkish congressional voices on China include several Republican lawmakers, such as Rubio and Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, who are eyeing a 2024 White House run. Already, some have derided Biden’s designated national security team as weak on China, or as Rubio put it, “polite & orderly caretakers of America’s decline.”

But 2024 aside, Republicans and Democrats alike are increasingly alarmed about the communist Chinese government’s often-belligerent actions on the world stage and what it will mean for U.S. power in the long term. The confirmation hearings could thus offer a taste of intense future battles in Washington about how exactly to go toe-to-toe with Beijing.

“The reality [is] that the China challenge cuts across all dimensions of power and necessitates, first and foremost, a replenishment of the sources of our national strength here at home,” a Democratic congressional aide said. As a result, “it’s legitimate that we have China-related questions across a range of committees.”

Asked for comment, a Biden transition aide made clear that the president-elect’s nominees won’t be taken by surprise. “All of our nominees will be prepared to speak to the Biden-Harris administration’s vision for and approach to outcompeting China across the board,” the aide said.

‘A China litmus test’

For years, the general consensus in Washington was that engaging economically, culturally and otherwise with China — and bringing China into institutions such as the World Trade Organization — would help its politics evolve from a one-party communist system to a more democratic one.

Few believe that anymore. While China has advanced dramatically on everything from its share of global trade to its technological prowess, its politics have grown even more authoritarian and oppressive under the leadership of Xi Jinping.

The Chinese government has detained more than 1 million Uighur Muslims in camps that have spawned allegations of torture and other abuse. Chinese officials claim the moves are an effort to stamp out terrorist thinking, but some activists say the crackdown is starting to look like a genocide. Beijing also has ramped up its control of Hong Kong, steadily eroding the political freedoms the people there once enjoyed.

The outgoing Trump administration, meanwhile, has issued a flurry of sanctions or other penalties to root out what it says are malign Chinese activities in the United States.

One example: In August, the administration designated the Confucius Institute U.S. Center as a foreign mission of the Chinese government. That organization, according to the State Department, manages, supports and funds so-called Confucius Institutes, dozens of which have been operating on U.S. college campuses. Several hundred affiliated Confucius Classrooms have been located in K-12 schools in the United States, according to the department. The centers offer language and cultural education that the Trump administration says are really just part of Beijing’s massive propaganda apparatus.

The concern about the Confucius Institutes’ aims led Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to team up with Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos to send an unusual letter in October to higher education leaders urging them to rethink the presence of such centers on their campuses.

“The presence of this authoritarian influence on our campuses has never been more concerning, nor more consequential,” the letter states.

When DeVos was going through her confirmation process in 2017, the issue of China did not come up in a meaningful way during her hearing or other exchanges with senators, according to congressional records. Neither did it arise in a notable fashion in the exchanges Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue had with lawmakers vetting them.

Given how much the international terrain has changed, it’s likely to be different for their would-be successors and even their successors’ underlings. Questions about visas for Chinese students could easily come up for education nominees who need confirmation. The coronavirus pandemic’s origins in China — and whether to cooperate with Beijing — could arise in hearings for health nominees. And the China-U.S. trade war that began under Trump and has squeezed farmers could easily come up for would-be agriculture officials.

That’s on top of questions Treasury nominees may field about China’s role in the international financial system; Commerce nominees may face on how to deal with the controversial Chinese tech company Huawei; and Environmental Protection Agency nominees may have to tackle queries about China’s role in climate change. Then of course, there are the usual suspects: the nominees for secretaries of State, Defense, and top intelligence roles are certain to face tough questions on the security challenges posed by Beijing.

“There’s definitely a sense among senators, especially the ones who have been leading on China issues and working with the current administration, that every nominee, regardless of what agency they’ve been nominated to, they should have an understanding of the threat China poses,” a Republican Senate aide said.

“We can expect to see a China litmus test on display,” said Eric Sayers, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute who follows Beijing closely. “Some senators may even choose to withhold their support for nominees who cannot sufficiently reassure them they are serious about confronting the China challenge.”

So far, one big theme Biden’s nominees, especially Blinken, have stressed is that America must do a better job of coordinating with allies and partner countries to stand up to Beijing.

Such vague prescriptions won’t suffice, some observers warned.

“If your answer is ‘working with allies,’ the response will be, ‘Here are some of our allies’ concerns. What are you going to do to address them?’” one Capitol Hill staffer said.

The staffer added that answers like, “We need to invest more in America’ domestic capacities,” aren’t good enough, either. “We also have to find a way to derail the Chinese Communist Party’s ambitions on the global stage,” the staffer said.

Aides for several senators indicated that China was on their mind when it came to prepping questions for confirmation hearings, but few were willing to get into details about exactly who would be targeted and with what query.

There were, however, some clear indications that people who have served in government before, especially during the Barack Obama administration, should be ready for more than the usual intensity when it comes to China.

“Former national security appointees coming back to service must be able to describe how their views on China have evolved as China has evolved,” Sen. Ben Sasse, a Republican from Nebraska, said in a statement. “What did they get wrong about China in their previous posts and why? Knowing what they know now about China, how would they have approached their jobs differently then, and how will they approach China now?”





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