Biden bets delaying sanctions and minimizing espionage will improve relations with China

The Biden administration has delayed punitive economic measures against China and downplayed Beijing’s increased intelligence gathering to avoid undermining its efforts to revive diplomatic talks between the two governments, according to former US officials, aides Congress, Western diplomats and regional experts.

From planned curbs on investment in China to declassifying intelligence about the origins of the coronavirus, the administration has “slowed down” some decisions in recent months as officials sought to mend relations with Beijing, the sources said. The major diplomatic effort culminates this weekend with the postponed visit of Secretary of State Antony Blinken to Beijing.

“They want to calm the waters with China,” said a former U.S. official familiar with the administration’s deliberations.

Since the United States shot down a Chinese balloon in February, the White House has made it a priority to ensure that Blinken’s visit continues, along with other potential trips to Beijing by Cabinet members, including including the secretaries of commerce and the treasury, said former congressional officials and aides.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi shakes hands with Secretary of State Antony Blinken during a meeting on the Indonesian resort island of Bali in July 2022. (Stefani Reynolds/AP File)

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi shakes hands with Secretary of State Antony Blinken during a meeting on the Indonesian resort island of Bali in July 2022. (Stefani Reynolds/AP File)

The administration also appeared to dodge questions about China’s surveillance efforts targeting the United States to keep the door open for high-level talks between Cabinet officials and their Chinese counterparts.

Biden administration officials have denied delaying actions against China and continuing to impose sanctions on Chinese organizations in recent months as well as operating military aircraft and warships in the region.

“In the past few months alone, we have taken action against PRC (People’s Republic of China) entities involved in human rights abuses, forced labor, non-proliferation and supporting China’s war. Russia in Ukraine,” said Adam Hodge, acting spokesman for the White House National Security Council.

“We have continued to defend freedom of navigation in the region by flying, sailing and operating wherever international law permits. We will continue to take additional measures in the coming period in the areas of economy, technology, security and other areas to advance our interests and values.

But administration officials have not provided any public update since a Chinese surveillance balloon flew across the United States before being shot down by a US fighter jet in February. The balloon’s flight prompted the administration to cancel a planned trip by Blinken to China in February.

A recently completed investigation of the balloon’s wreckage revealed that Beijing’s capabilities are far more sophisticated than the United States believed, said a current senior US official and a former senior US official briefed on the findings. “Their abilities are significant,” said one of the officials, “better than we thought.”

The analysis, conducted by the FBI, involved reconstructing the balloon, which Biden recently described as “carrying two freight cars’ worth of spy equipment” as it hovered over the United States. for nearly a week before being shot on February 4. The administration also did not release additional details of previous Chinese balloon flights.

Asked why the administration has not released more information about the balloon, the administration official said: “I would not anticipate the release of sensitive information regarding the analysis of the debris from the ball.”

On Thursday, 19 Republican senators wrote to Biden decrying what they called the administration’s lack of transparency over the balloon episode.

“While four months have passed since a Chinese surveillance balloon was cleared over the United States, your administration has yet to provide the American people with a full account of how this platform of ‘Espionage was allowed to pass through the sovereign territory of the United States, what the balloon was carrying, and what it collected during its mission,’ said the senators, who included Roger Wicker, R-Miss., Distinguished member of the House Armed Services Committee, and Marco Rubio, R-Fla., Vice Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Image: (AP file)

Image: (AP file)

China said the airship was a civilian balloon used for weather research.

The White House last week first described a Wall Street Journal report on a Chinese electronic surveillance post in Cuba as “inaccurate”, but days later said Beijing had a eavesdropping facility in Cuba. Cuba since 2019 and that China was seeking to expand its intelligence gathering efforts in the region. The administration declined to elaborate on China’s surveillance activities in Cuba.

The administration is also set to miss a congressional deadline that expires Sunday to declassify documents related to the origins of Covid-19. Republican lawmakers have accused the White House of dragging their feet on the issue.

They say the administration’s approach is wrong and that China is not refraining from retaliatory measures against the United States, including imposing sanctions on the American technology company Micron Technology.

“The United States can no longer afford to continue chasing Chinese leaders for meetings and should not delay competitive actions to do so,” said Sen. James Risch of Idaho, the most Republican in the of the Foreign Relations Committee. For their part, the Chinese do not “sustain” any harsh measures directed against the United States, he said.

Blinken is due to arrive in Beijing on Sunday, when the deadline to declassify COVID-19 documents expires. China’s response to the virus outbreak is a topic both governments would prefer to avoid at public events during Blinken’s visit.

US intelligence agencies are divided on whether the coronavirus emerged due to natural causes or an accidental leak from a lab in Wuhan.

An administration official said the office of the Director of National Intelligence is currently conducting a “cautious declassification process” and that “shedding light on the origins of Covid-19 remains a priority for the President and the United States.” . They did not say when the administration will declassify the documents.

When Biden met Chinese President Xi Jinping in Bali in November, his first meeting with Xi since being elected president, the two agreed that Blinken would visit China this year. But the Chinese balloon flight upended those plans, with Blinken canceling just days before her scheduled departure. Since then, the White House has worked to get the relationship back on track.

Before Biden met Xi, his administration rocked Beijing in October when it imposed unprecedented export controls meant to block China’s access to sophisticated chip-making tools that Washington says could be used by the Chinese army. Japan and the Netherlands say they are adopting similar restrictions.

The administration was expected to follow up with more restrictions on U.S.-made semiconductor technology, as well as a new executive order on any U.S. investment related to China’s defense industry. But he hasn’t moved on yet.

“We’ve been waiting over a year for outbound investment regulations and a number of other technology or export control measures, and we haven’t seen them yet,” said Council researcher David Sacks. on Think tank on external relations. “So the question is why?”

The administration official said: “This is not a diplomatic decision, as it stands there are still political elements to be worked out for these two actions. “

Sacks said the administration appears to be postponing some action and toning down its rhetoric to keep the door open for diplomacy, but it may be sending the wrong signal to China. Chinese officials could see the prospect of dialogue as a tool to secure concessions, making meetings subordinate to Washington and not angering Beijing, he said.

“If China assesses that the Biden administration is willing to compromise here, that it will basically continue the dialogue and set it aside while the dialogue is ongoing, then it is happy to manipulate that in its favor and keep shackling the United States and doing conditional dialogue,” Sacks said.

Emily Benson, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank, said the first export restrictions last year caused some consternation in private industry. Plans to extend these restrictions have been the subject of internal debate within the administration and lengthy discussions with allied governments. The administration is also aware of Blinken’s upcoming visit, she said.

“Announcing new restrictive measures before a meeting could completely derail the meeting,” Benson said.

She said the administration, as a result, has faced “a complicated mix of domestic political pressures and foreign diplomatic considerations” as it tries to find the perfect time to unveil the new measures, she said. declared.

The administration is clearly delaying the issuance of the executive order on investment restrictions to avoid friction with China before Blinken arrives, as well as a likely trip by Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, possibly during the summer, according to a person regularly informed by the administration and a former civil servant.

The administration’s supporters argue that delaying certain actions is a useful tactic to achieve a bigger goal – lowering the temperature between two superpowers to avoid potential conflict.

“The United States really wants to restart the dialogue and not let things slide any further,” said a former congressional official.

The measures the White House postponed do not represent major concessions, the former congressional official said, and overall US policy toward China has not changed, including viewing Beijing as a competitor that must be countered and deterred.

It’s not realistic to fight over every disagreement, this person added. “When every problem is a problem, you have to choose.”

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