January 19, 2021

Welcome back to Axios China. Today I'm looking back at four years of the Trump administration's China policies and what we may see from the incoming Biden team.

  • 🎧 In Axios' new podcast, "How it Happened: Trump's Last Stand," Jonathan Swan breaks down exactly what happened during the final weeks of the Trump White House, starting with Trump's COVID-19 recovery and ending with the insurrection at the Capitol. Check it out here.

🚨 Situational awareness: The State Department has formally determined that China's campaign of repression against Muslim minorities in Xinjiang is genocide. Go deeper.

Today's newsletter is 1,596 words, a 6-minute read.

1 big thing: Trump's U.S.-China transformation

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

President Trump began his term by launching the trade war with China he had promised on the campaign trail. By mid-2020, however, Trump was no longer the public face of China policy-making as he became increasingly consumed with domestic troubles, giving his top aides carte blanche to pursue a cascade of tough-on-China policies.

Why it matters: Trump alone did not reshape the China relationship. But his trade war shattered global norms, paving the way for administration officials to pursue policies that just a few years earlier would have been unthinkable.

  • Trump-era China policy often featured two separate tracks: policies Trump personally led, and policies spearheaded by officials with China expertise.
  • In some cases, Trump's own actions worked against the stated objectives of his China-focused national security staff — most notably Trump's disparaging attitude toward allies and his prioritizing of trade negotiations over sanctions.

Here's a timeline of the evolution of U.S. policy toward China under Trump:

Late 2016: A surprising election result leaves many guessing what turn U.S.-China relations might take. Initially, there are concerns that, despite his tough campaign rhetoric regarding China's trade practices, President Trump might cozy up to Chinese President Xi Jinping.

  • But an early December 2016 phone call between the president-elect and Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen — the first such direct contact between the top U.S. and Taiwanese leaders since at least 1979 — swiftly reformulates expectations and foreshadows the Trump administration's diplomatic iconoclasm.

2017: A trade war and little else. As promised, Trump levies tariffs on billions of dollars of Chinese goods, sparking a trade war that stretches on for most of Trump's presidency.

2018: A whole-of-government approach begins to take shape.

  • The National Security Strategy's Indo-Pacific framework is approved in early 2018, and a Trump-era China strategy begins to emerge.
  • U.S. Pacific Command changes its name to Indo-Pacific Command in a move seen as aimed at countering China's rise.
  • The Department of Justice launches its China Initiative, an effort to disrupt China's covert activities in the U.S.

2019: The U.S. gets tougher, with some guardrails.

  • Secretary of State Mike Pompeo becomes a leading figure in the U.S. push against China, publicly accusing the Chinese Communist Party of seeking "international domination."
  • Trump's desire to seal a trade deal with China, however, prevented administration officials from pursuing sanctions on Chinese officials deemed complicit in human rights abuses.

2020: All bets are off. The year reshapes many aspects of the U.S.-China relationship.

  • After years of tariffs and negotiations, the Phase One trade deal is signed in January, giving President Trump a PR-ready "win."
  • But after the coronavirus outbreak, Trump embraces blaming China as a way to deflect the blame from his own administration's failures to effectively address the rising number of cases stateside. His racially tinged invocation of the "China virus" exacerbates anti-Chinese racism, as attacks against Asian Americans rise around the country.
  • With a trade deal signed and a new grudge against China, Trump lifts the floodgates, allowing staff across agencies to push through long-desired actions on China-related issues across the board.
  • With Trump conspicuously absent from China policy-making, Pompeo becomes the public face of America's China policy.

2. Quote: "We were proved to be correct"

A senior administration official with knowledge of the Trump administration's China strategy told me that China's coercive economic practices and the unique threats it posed to U.S. national security interests and values required new thinking:

  • "The U.S. had to step out in front and take some actions that were perceived as extreme. It’s not establishment Washington thinking."

The results: "I think we were proved to be correct in many ways. You can impose economic costs on China without the world falling apart. China has been extremely restrained in its retaliation. The U.S. as the world’s largest economy had to take the lead and show that the world isn’t going to end."

Looking to the Biden administration: "I think this is good momentum for the next team to come in," said the official.

3. By the numbers: 2020's whole-of-government approach

Photo Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios. Photos: Alex Wong/Getty Images and Lintao Zhang/Getty Images

In 2020, the Trump administration took at least 210 public actions related to China that spanned at least 10 departments, according to publicly available data, demonstrating what the administration calls a "whole-of-government" strategy.

Why it matters: The full impact of such an enormous number of actions taken in such a short period of time has not yet been felt — leaving the Biden administration with the huge task of sorting through these new policies.

  • 22 actions by the Justice Department, including indictments and arrests.
  • 60 actions by the State Department, including visa restrictions, travel advisories, diplomatic actions and public statements.
  • 27 actions by the White House, including executive orders, signing bills into laws and the signing of the Phase One trade agreement.
  • 23 actions by the Defense Department, including freedom of navigation operations, Taiwan Strait transits, and the release of reports and other information.
  • 16 actions by the Department of Homeland Security, including blocking the import of items made through forced labor and the release of reports and statements.
  • 24 actions by the Treasury Department, including sanctions.
  • 13 actions by the Commerce Department, including export controls, additions to the entities list and advisories.
  • 3 actions by the U.S. Trade Representative's office, including the release of reports and a public statement.
  • 2 actions by the Energy Department, including designating China as a "foreign adversary."
  • 2 actions by the Export-Import Bank of the United States.
  • 6 actions by the Federal Communications Commission, including designating Huawei and ZTE as national security threats.
  • 1 action by the Agriculture Department, an interim report on agricultural trade with China.
  • 1 action by the National Security Agency, a cybersecurity advisory regarding China-linked cyber actors.
  • 1 action by the Education Department, a letter sent to university officials regarding Confucius Institutes.
  • 2 actions by the Labor Department, including a letter and a list of goods made with forced labor.

Some actions have been criticized as counterproductive and damaging to U.S. values, such as restrictions placed on Chinese journalists and the U.S. withdrawal from the World Health Organization, in part due to China's influence over the organization.

In 2020, the Trump administration also levied sanctions on 90 Chinese entities or individuals, comprising 11.5% of total U.S. sanctions designations last year, according to data compiled by the Center for a New American Security.

4. Interview: John Demers on the DOJ China Initiative

Assistant Attorney General John Demers speaks at a press conference on Oct. 19, 2020. Photo credit: Andrew Harnik/Getty Images.

John Demers, the assistant attorney general at the Department of Justice's National Security Division who leads the department's China Initiative, spoke with Axios about his view on the initiative's progress since its launch in 2018 and what he hopes to see in the coming year as Biden assumes office.

The big picture: The China Initiative made headlines with dozens of major indictments but also sparked controversy over its targeting of scientists with links to the Chinese government.

Background: Amid rising concern about China's economic espionage and intelligence activities, the Trump administration's newly declassified Indo-Pacific strategy, approved in February 2018, called for the U.S. to "expand and prioritize U.S. intelligence and law enforcement activities that counter Chinese influence operations."

  • The Justice Department launched the China Initiative in November 2018.
  • Trump appointed Demers to lead the National Security Division, and then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions tapped him to lead the China Initiative.
  • The initiative aimed to disrupt these activities and to help educate the American public regarding the extent of China's covert activities in the U.S.
  • Five years ago, there was a large gap between what was known within the U.S. government regarding China's covert activities in the U.S. and what the American public knew. That gap has now narrowed considerably.

What Demers sees at the China Initiative's successes:

  • “I think we’ve been most successful in terms of economic espionage, theft of intellectual property and the university side. I think we’ve made the most difference in terms of educating the public in those areas."
  • Demers also says the initiative has been successful in "showing the plethora of malign Chinese activity in the U.S," including political, economic and cyber espionage; Operation Fox Hunt; and the Thousand Talents program.

What Demers believes still needs to be done:

  • "The piece where I still think we have work to do ... is on the foreign influence side. That’s where we need to start bringing some cases."
  • Specifically, that means bringing "FARA [Foreign Agents Registration Act] and 951 cases that involve individuals here in the U.S. who are promoting Chinese bullet points on behalf of China without saying that that’s what they are doing."
  • "We’ve been talking about Chinese foreign influence, but again, we lack some stories to tell on that to drive home to the public and to disrupt" those activities.

What Demers hopes to see from the Biden administration:

  • Demers said he hopes Biden will support the Department of Justice in continuing to pursue the goal of "confronting malign Chinese behavior here in the U.S."
  • "To the extent that I’ve talked on the Hill or testified, I find bipartisan support for what the department has done. I don’t think this has been, on the law enforcement side, a particularly partisan issue."

Go deeper: Ratcliffe's long-term China play

5. Biden's Cabinet and top China picks

Chart: Danielle Alberti/Axios

Early indicators suggest the Biden administration may continue to pursue a robust China strategy that reaches across multiple government departments and agencies.

Why it matters: Though the Trump administration's approach to China was often controversial, there is broad bipartisan agreement that China poses a major challenge to U.S. interests and values.

Biden's picks for China-related National Security Council positions so far include:

  • Kurt Campbell — Indo-Pacific coordinator.
  • Laura Rosenberger — senior China director.
  • Rush Doshi — senior China director.
  • Shanthi Kalathil — democracy and human rights coordinator.
  • Tarun Chhabra — senior director for technology and national security.

Campbell is a veteran former State Department official whose position as Indo-Pacific coordinator, combined with his known aplomb in working through bureaucracy, suggests part of his mandate will include organizing China policy across different government departments.

  • These choices have been popular among China watchers concerned about China's malign influence activities abroad — and at least one is already viewed with trepidation in Beijing:
Twitter screenshot

For a preview of how Biden's team might pursue a post-Trump China policy, read this recent Foreign Affairs article by Campbell and Doshi, called "How America can shore up Asian order." In the article, Campbell and Doshi prescribe:

  • A balance of power in the Indo-Pacific.
  • A regional order that Indo-Pacific states recognize as legitimate.
  • A coalition to address China’s challenge to the above two.

Go deeper: Trump leaves Biden tough choices for his own China playbook

6. 1 useful thing: Trump-era strategy documents all in one place

Taiwan-based writer Tanner Greer has compiled the Trump administration's major China strategy documents in a useful thread. Have at it, policy wonks!

Tweet from Tanner Greer