Transpacifica is back. What’s next in China policy? 2020.11.13

Welcome back to Transpacifica—the successor to U.S.–China Week. It has been more than two years since this newsletter went on hiatus, and obviously it’s been an eventful interlude in U.S.–China relations and technology policy.

Now is an ideal time to get back at it. The outcome of the U.S. election raises huge questions about continuities and discontinuities in U.S. policy toward China, and tracking the possible, probable, and problematic is more fun with friends. Meanwhile, my day job—leading the DigiChina project and writing and editing on Chinese technology policy—is in a newly steady state, having moved headquarters to the Cyber Policy Center at Stanford University’s Freeman Spogli Institute, where I am now a research scholar.

Most of the people receiving this message were with me for at least part of the three-year run of U.S.–China Week, which covered the full range of issues in bilateral ties from 2015–18. I remain grateful for everyone’s engagement, whether as readers, commenters, occasional tipsters, or indeed detractors, and I learned a great deal. I expect Transpacifica to come out every 2–4 weeks going forward and to cover U.S.–China relations with particular attention to technology issues, which have only become more prominent in the relationship over the last five years.

I’m looking forward to following along with you. For this first return, a welcome back issue in four parts.

As always: Please encourage friends and colleagues to subscribe to the Transpacifica newsletter; here is the web version of this message, ideal for sharing on social media; and you can follow me on Twitter at @gwbstr. Please send your comments, quibbles, and suggestions to [email protected].

1. Biden transition signals about China policy

There are a few elements of conventional wisdom that are likely to be correct about how President-elect Joe Biden’s team will make policy choices regarding China.

First, and most fundamentally, we can expect a much higher degree of policy coordination within the administration. While differences of opinion and clashes of approach will still occur, Biden’s team will largely handle them internally. This may not sound profound, but in key areas such as trade and economic negotiations, this means the U.S. side will no longer be constantly undermining itself. The president will not be getting into spats with his own staff over the structure of agreements in front of the Chinese delegation and the press. Second, the Biden team will work hard to coordinate its China priorities with allies, and to roll back policies that antagonize erstwhile U.S. friends.

Relevant personnel listed in the Transition’s Agency Review Teams suggest continuity with Biden’s Obama administration teams, with two former Biden deputy national security advisers listed by the transition: Jeff Prescott heads the National Security Council effort, and Eli Ratner is a member of the Defense Department team. Kelly Magsamen, a former principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs, is also on the NSC team. Mark Wu, a Harvard Law professor who has written on “The ‘China, Inc.’ Challenge to Global Trade Governance,” is on the team for the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, where he previously worked. We shall see how their efforts and the related appointments unfold.

Meanwhile: Doug Fuller separately provides a rumor that “Biden administration has decided to appoint someone very close to the American semiconductor industry as the head of the Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Industry and Security (BIS),” and says the pick “portends radical scaling back of the semiconductor controls aimed at Huawei and other companies.”

Other good reading on Biden and China:

2. Reprieve for TikTok

WSJ reports: “The Commerce Department said Thursday it wouldn’t enforce its order that would have effectively forced the Chinese-owned TikTok video-sharing app to shut down.” The news came just as the order was to take effect, and after a federal judge had issued a preliminary injunction preventing the TikTok ban pending the outcome of a case that challenged the Trump effort on free speech grounds. The fate of the shotgun marriage of TikTok, Oracle, and Walmart remains unclear.

I have argued in MIT Technology Review that “the Trump administration’s actions against the two Chinese-owned social-media platforms are driven more by politics and an effort to seem tough on China than by actual privacy, safety, or national security concerns.” The strongest evidence for this, in my view, is that the bans on TikTok and WeChat were announced in an attention-getting way with new and not very carefully-prepared executive orders, and without any attention to smaller or non-Chinese platforms that pose huge privacy or national security challenges in the way they handle user data. “The true scandal,” I argued, “is not that the Chinese government might exploit personal data—a well-documented and unsurprising move from a major intelligence apparatus. It’s that doing so is so easy for them and many others, and will remain so even if TikTok and WeChat are banned.” Short of comprehensive privacy and data security regulation, this will remain the case.

The prospects for TikTok and WeChat bans between now and Inauguration Day, as well as afterward, are still uncertain, but many are reading the administration’s posture as essentially a lack of interest in pursuing the matter further. That may be, but what the Trump administration might do on China issues in its remaining days is far from certain, which leads us to…

3. Trumpworld’s parting shots on China

Donald Trump remains the U.S. president, and while he seems distracted by denial over the election outcomes and a fundamentally anti-democratic need to stoke doubts about the clear Biden win, many of his staff appear to have unfinished work.

Already it seemed Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and others were motivated to change facts on the ground as much as possible before a potential loss of power, moving to entrench broad conflict between the United States and China. (The White House released a PDF “book” of administration speeches that have in part served this effort. For some reason, it omitted one of the most sensible speeches from the administration, by Assistant Secretary of State David R. Stilwell last December, that is worth reading even if I don’t endorse it 100 percent.)

This week it was an expansion of U.S. efforts to deny military-industrial complex–linked Chinese firms access to U.S. financial markets. There are about 12 weeks left. The Biden team cannot be at all certain just yet what they will start with in January.

4. Mapping the sprawling China policy agenda

A few days ago, I started making a list of questions, choices, and challenges the incoming U.S. administration faces when it comes to China. Emily Rauhala of the Washington Post had already started a thread.

Here, with minimal commentary, in no particular order, and with plenty missing, is a selection. Forgive the morass, but I think it’s worth showing that there is a morass:

  • What does a Biden administration’s return to climate action look like in bilateral ties?
  • Is there good work toward a “Phase Two” deal that can be adapted to something in the Biden administration?
    • Will the Biden administration unilaterally rescind any of the tariffs they would never have implemented in the first place?
  • Will the U.S. government take action, after all, against TikTok and/or WeChat?
  • What will be the U.S. posture toward Huawei?
    • Does it remain cut off from key U.S. components?
    • Will its executive Meng Wanzhou remain in extradition proceedings in Canada, and will China continue to hold hostage two Canadians—Michael Korvig and Michael Spavor?
    • How much pressure will the U.S. government exert on foreign governments to avoid using Huawei hardware?
  • What becomes of the State Department’s “Clean” initiative, in which the only things deemed unclean are Chinese things, tying some legitimate questions about tech security and governance to a maximalist frame and familiar racist trope against Chinese people?
  • Will anything serious come of the discussions about democratic alliances on technology such as the D-10?
  • What becomes of the 2019 executive order on supply chain security, which Samm Sacks and I wrote about for Slate?
  • How will the U.S. government handle industrial policy on things like 5G?
  • What becomes of the semiconductor standoff?
  • What will be the U.S. posture toward the terrible human rights abuses in Xinjiang?
    • Continued or additional sanctions?
    • Increased openness to Uyghur or other targeted peoples seeking asylum in the United States?
    • A 2022 Beijing Olympics boycott?
    • Speak strongly and change little?
  • What will be the U.S. posture toward the Chinese government’s ending of the one country, two systems arrangement in Hong Kong?
    • Open to asylum seekers from Hong Kong?
    • How to treat the Hong Kong territory in immigration and market designations
  • Is anyone paying any attention to human rights issues in Tibet anymore?
  • Are Chinese students again welcome in the United States?
    • Changes in limits on STEM visas?
    • Changes in time limitations for student visas across all countries?
  • What becomes of the Justice Department’s China Initiative? (Read Maggie Lewis on this.)
  • What will the Biden administration’s posture toward Taiwan look like?
    • More arms sales?
    • What kinds of government-to-government engagement?
  • Will U.S. and Chinese journalists and media workers get back to work in each other’s countries?
  • Is there more financial market disentanglement to come, or are the delisting debates dying?
  • Remember the South China Sea?
  • What on earth is going to happen with North Korea?

OK, friends: What are we missing?

Drop me a line at [email protected], and tell your friends to subscribe today. It’s great to be back.

About Transpacifica

The Transpacifica newsletter is produced by me, Graham Webster, a research scholar at Stanford University’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies and editor of the DigiChina project at the Stanford Cyber Policy Center. I launched Transpacifica as a blog on the U.S.–Japan–China triangle in 2006, and this newsletter is the successor to the U.S.–China Week newsletter that ran for three years from 2015–2018. Beginning in November 2020, it will appear about once or twice a month, delivered by free e-mail subscription. The opinions expressed here are my own, and I reserve the right to change my mind.

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