Biden’s in no rush to engage China. Guess who’s trying to take advantage.

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President Joe Biden so far has held calls with about a dozen world leaders, from the president of France to Vladimir Putin, Russia’s strongman. But the head of the world’s No. 2 economy and America’s chief geopolitical rival? Nope.

It’s not that Biden has nothing to say to Xi Jinping, the iron-fisted head of China’s communist system. Quite the opposite — America has a long list of grievances to air, from Beijing’s crushing of democracy in Hong Kong to its underhanded trade practices. But Biden aides are taking their time and lowering the rhetorical temperature while touching base with U.S.-allied nations and taking stock of the policies left behind by former President Donald Trump.

Five days after Biden was sworn into office, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the administration was “starting from an approach of patience as it relates to our relationship with China.”

The worry, some former officials say, is that Biden is just getting organized while Xi is seizing the moment: ramming through a massive investment deal with the European Union, for instance, that aims to cement ties with the 27-country bloc. And the longer Biden takes to make any big moves related to China, the more he risks letting Beijing dictate the course of events abroad — while leaving political openings for his Republican critics to exploit back home.

“It’s a strategy to keep us divided,” former Trump trade adviser Clete Willems said. “There is no question [Chinese leaders] see the U.S. shifting, at least rhetorically, to a more multilateral posture, and they want to make that difficult for us.”

Biden’s approach has plenty of defenders, too, especially at this early stage.

“They are determined to put into place the elements of a smart China strategy,” said Daniel Russel, a former senior Asia hand in the Obama administration who is in touch with Biden officials. “It takes time, but I think they are committed to trying to get it right. They’re not oblivious to the time pressures.”

The China hawks are circling

Also watching the clock are Republicans eager to swipe at the new president.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) has put holds on at least two of Biden’s Cabinet picks — Commerce nominee Gina Raimondo and the nominee for ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield — accusing both of being insufficiently tough on China. (Cruz’s hold on Thomas-Greenfield only briefly delayed her advancement through a Senate committee vote.)

Cruz and other GOP China hawks say they are concerned that Raimondo and other Biden officials may remove Chinese military and telecom companies from the Commerce Department “Entity List” that prohibits American firms from doing business with malign foreign actors.

During her confirmation hearing, Raimondo would not commit to keeping telecom giant Huawei and other Chinese firms on the list, saying it was all under review. In response, Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) and Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) pressed her in a letter to clarify her views, and several House Republicans urged the Senate to pause her nomination until there was clarity around these positions.

Raimondo later recanted in written responses to the Senate, saying she sees no reason to remove the firms now. But Cruz is still not satisfied, concerned the administration may be open to removing some companies in return for actions from the Chinese.

Cruz’s office has also released an ominous video that claims the Biden team, “as a policy decision, is embracing and getting into bed with China.”

China will surely be a focus during the coming confirmation hearing for Biden’s nominee for U.S. Trade Representative, Katherine Tai, yet to be scheduled by the Senate Finance Committee. But Tai’s track record, including a stint as head of China trade enforcement at USTR, could insulate her from accusations of being soft on Beijing, and that experience has helped her win favor with trade leaders from both parties.

Courting business leaders, allies

Beijing isn’t waiting around. As the Biden team has focused on the presidential transition and its policy reviews, China has waged an influence campaign, seeking to endear itself to U.S. businesses as well as the same American allies that Biden and his top aides are engaging.

In a speech last week, Yang Jiechi, director of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission of the Chinese Communist Party, insisted that China has “no interest to replace U.S. influence in the world,” or to “export its development model or seek ideological confrontation.”

Yang’s speech contained multiple overtures aimed at U.S. businesses in what appeared to be an attempt to stoke industry opposition to sanctions and trade restrictions on China put into place by Trump. Those included more than $350 billion in tariffs on Chinese goods; a ban on imports of cotton and tomato projects from the Xinjiang region, where Uighur Muslims face persecution; and prohibitions on U.S. firms doing business with Chinese telecom and military firms. Biden has signaled he will keep those penalties in place for now.

“China will always welcome U.S. business investment in China, and it falls on both sides to provide a fair, open and non-discriminatory environment for both countries,” Yang said.

Business interests have already called for engagement with Beijing, with the Chamber of Commerce saying last month it expects a high-level Chinese delegation to visit Washington in the next few months.

“We hope that happens,” Myron Brilliant, executive vice president for international economic affairs at the Chamber, told reporters on a call at the time. “We need to see both sides send early signs, positive steps, to defuse the growing tensions in the relationship.”

U.S. apparel and tech firms have also shown a willingness to push back on restrictive policies toward China. Last year, lobbying from firms like Apple, Nike and Coca-Cola stalled a Uighur human rights bill in the Senate that passed the House nearly unanimously. But Trump used executive power to block imports of cotton and tomatoes from China’s Xinjiang region anyway, stinging many of the same companies.

“There will be pressure on the new administration, there already is, from some industry groups to not overdo it” on import controls, Aaron Friedberg, a former deputy assistant for national security affairs to Vice President Dick Cheney, told a recent trade panel. “There are arguments about the costs this would impose on American industry and the advantages it may give to competitors to American countries. So they [the Chinese] are going to try to work that.”

Beijing seeks to cement its own alliances

Yang’s speech reflects an energetic economic diplomacy from Beijing in recent years. The landmark investment deal with the EU came on the heels of China signing the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership after Biden’s election in November — a 15-nation trade deal in Asia that includes U.S. allies like Japan, Australia and South Korea.

Coordinating with allies is the keystone of Biden’s economic agenda against China, aiming to unite a global bloc of market-based economies to influence Beijing’s trade practices. But there are early signs that China’s economic charm offensive with Europe is paying off.

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell on Monday reiterated his invitation for Xi to meet all 27 European leaders once the pandemic subsides, garnering a “positive response” from the Chinese. French President Emmanuel Macron insisted last week that the EU and U.S. ganging up on China will be “counterproductive.” And Germany helped push through the investment deal with China over the opposition of smaller EU members.

The Chinese “are trying to do everything they can to prevent Europe from working with the U.S. to single them out,” Willems said. “EU folks defending the deal will point out it was a seven-year negotiation, but it just so happened that China found the flexibility to bring it over the finish line between President Trump and President Biden. It’s clearly not a coincidence.”

Since signing the RCEP deal, Xi has talked about joining the successor to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a separate regional trade deal the Trump administration abandoned. Biden’s team, by contrast, won’t go near any discussions about reigniting TPP-style talks in Asia, even though he backed the deal when he was vice president.

“China is moving in ways that are tactically quite smart to put a wedge between the U.S. and its allies,” Susan Shirk, a Clinton administration official, said during a recent forum on U.S.-China relations. “[I]n effect,” she added, noting Biden’s outreach to democratic allies, the U.S is “saying we recognize we no longer have the leverage we once had.”

On multilateral trade, Biden has already begun to receive pressure from his own party, with Rep. Stephanie Murphy, a Florida moderate, calling for him to restart talks during a panel discussion with trade leaders the week before inauguration.

“If we’re serious about competing with China in Asia, the Biden administration needs to reconsider TPP or something else along those lines and we owe the country debate on this issue that is transparent,” said Murphy, a member of the Ways and Means Committee that oversees trade.

Democratic leaders in Congress are less apt to push Biden on TPP, which plummeted in popularity among both parties before Trump rejected it. But Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), head of the Ways and Means panel on trade, said Biden should at least consider new talks after he secures domestic economic stimulus.

“China has expanded that [RCEP] group with their vision of trade, which is less concerned about the environment, less concerned about worker rights and fairness,” Blumenauer said. “They’ve pulled others into that group, so we need to go back in and reestablish working relationships and priorities and then we can think about what the structure should be.”

Buying time, but for what?

Biden’s defenders note, above all, that his administration is less than a month old. Many appointees are still setting up their passwords, and the Cabinet is far from being filled. Biden administration officials also are starting new jobs during a coronavirus pandemic that restricts their interactions.

Even under the best of conditions, it would take significant time to inventory the China-related tariffs, sanctions, orders and various other policies left behind by Trump, not to mention come up with a fresh path forward.

A senior Biden administration official declined to put a timeframe on a rollout of a China strategy. The official warned, however, that it would be simplistic to try to define the strategy or its rollout in terms of a single action or an isolated set of policies, given how the U.S. relationship with China touches on so many aspects of American life and U.S. relations with other countries.

For instance, one of Biden’s main solutions for thriving in that extreme international competition is investing in education, infrastructure and other domestic U.S. needs. Even if those future policies don’t have the word China attached to them, they still help America in the broader contest.

“I don’t think we feel bound by a timeframe,” the senior official said. “When I think about a strategy, it’s something you’re always updating and tweaking…. We obviously will be doing a lot more public messaging and laying out of our approach as time goes forward.”

While noting China’s moves in recent weeks, the senior official said it’s no surprise given the increasing rivalry between the two countries. “It’s par for the course what I expect from China,” the official said. “To me it only speaks to the need for us to up our own game in this competition.”

A complicated human rights agenda

Secretary of State Antony Blinken has spent much of his two weeks at the helm of the State Department reaching out to America’s allies and partners to discuss a shared approach to China, among other challenges.

The State Department’s readouts of Blinken’s calls with counterparts in Thailand and the Philippines notably did not mention any specific discussion of human rights, despite concerns about the deterioration of freedoms in both countries.

A State Department official who deals with Asia policy, and who was not authorized to speak to reporters, said that was likely partly due to a realpolitik-infused desire to keep Thailand and the Philippines on America’s side amid growing tensions with China.

On Friday, however, when Blinken at last spoke to China’s Yang Jiechi, he not only mentioned human rights in places like Hong Kong, Tibet and Xinjiang, but he also warned that America will hold Beijing “accountable for its efforts to threaten stability in the Indo-Pacific, including across the Taiwan Strait, and its undermining of the rules-based international system,” the State Department said.

It’s not clear when Biden will talk to his counterpart, Xi. Administration spokespersons stress he is prioritizing talks with allied and partner foreign leaders first. (Biden spoke Monday with India’s Narendra Modi, a critical player in Asia.)

In a recent interview with CBS News, Biden downplayed the lack of contact with Xi so far, saying, “There’s no reason not to call him.” Biden, who once called Xi a “thug,” told CBS that the Chinese leader is “very bright” and “very tough” but without “a democratic, small d, bone in his body.”

Biden, who has spent significant time with Xi in the past, also predicted an era of “extreme competition” between the United States and China, if not necessarily conflict.

Beware the “negotiation trap”

Some former U.S. officials who worked on China for Trump are cautiously welcoming Biden’s approach so far. More than one has said it would be a mistake to enter into serious discussions with the Chinese without having clear, discrete objectives from the start — and lines you’re not willing to cross.

“It doesn’t bother me at all if we don’t talk to China,” Miles Yu, who served as an adviser to former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, told POLITICO. “They have shown the U.S. again and again that talk is cheap and talk leads to nowhere.”

Matthew Pottinger, a China expert who served as Trump’s deputy national security adviser, warned the Biden team that China could try to set a “negotiation trap” for the new administration.

“Don’t fall for a trap that Beijing sets time and again for administration after administration which is to try to lure the United States into a long, formal, mid-level, bottoms-up negotiation,” Pottinger said during a recent panel discussion. “We should be talking on our terms, and we should be speaking with actions.”

Chinese officials have signaled they’re ready to talk.

A month before Biden was inaugurated, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi urged the incoming president “to restart dialogue, return bilateral relations to the right track and rebuild mutual trust” with China. And in his early February speech, Yang singled out climate change as a fruitful subject, alongside his overtures to American business, saying it could be an area of “mutually beneficial cooperation.”

There is appetite for climate cooperation in Washington. Climate envoy John Kerry said last month he hopes to separate the issue from other tensions between the two nations in order to make a deal with Beijing to cut emissions.

“The issues of theft of intellectual property, and access to markets, the South China Sea … those issues will never be traded for anything that has to do with climate,” Kerry said. “But climate is a critical standalone issue that we have to deal on in the sense that China is 30 percent of the emissions of the world.”

Other top aides to Biden, including Blinken, also say they are willing to work with China on issues that merit cooperation. That includes climate but also could cover response to the coronavirus pandemic and efforts to curb North Korea’s nuclear program.

When asked if the Biden team plans to resurrect the Strategic and Economic Dialogues of the past with China — the types of dialogues Pottinger warned against — a State Department spokesperson demurred.

“We have nothing to announce at this time,” the spokesperson said. “The United States expects any engagement with the People’s Republic of China to be constructive and results-oriented.”

Russel pointed out that the Biden administration’s rhetoric is — perhaps intentionally — nowhere near as heated as what Pompeo and sometimes Trump used when discussing China.

“The overall level of aggressive static has radically diminished,” Russel said. “There’s sort of an inverse signal there, which takes some of the edge and the urgency off.”

Foreign diplomats are watching the U.S-China maneuvering with keen interest, though many of them, too, are left guessing at what lies ahead.

“It’s a little bit of a dance as both sides try to feel each other out,” one Asian ambassador told POLITICO, requesting anonymity because of diplomatic sensitivities. “Neither side wants to show anxiety. Each understands this is the most important relationship.”

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