The Platform

Katie Ricks

President Joe Biden’s approach to China is a self-created contradiction. On the one hand, Biden has emphasized that the U.S. will contend with China’s Communist Party (CCP) when required, describing the contest in harsh terms: democracy versus authoritarianism. On the other hand, Biden has declared climate change to be the “number one issue facing humanity”-one that requires a coordinated global response from the world’s major polluters, including Beijing.

This strategy, by all accounts, is more challenging than anything Biden’s predecessors attempted. Rather than choosing between engagement (as was the policy of the majority of American presidents from Nixon to Obama) and confrontation (as was the case during Trump’s final year in office), Biden is theoretically dividing the difference and developing a strategy that combines the best of both worlds. In practice, such a gambit, however, is prone to becoming hopelessly mired in paradoxes.

Consider the administration’s most recent excursion into human rights restrictions against China in response to the mistreatment of Uyghur Muslims. The White House said last month that it would essentially impose an import embargo on Hoshine Silicon Industry, the world’s largest manufacturer of metallurgical-grade silicon and a solar industry powerhouse, due to its use of Uyghur forced labor.

That is perfectly appropriate. However, the United States is concurrently absolving numerous other firms of the same offense. According to recent research from Sheffield Hallam University, the extensive use of state-sponsored labor programs in the Uyghur region makes it virtually impossible to avoid raw materials extracted by forced labor if they are acquired in Xinjiang under the current system. In other words, all businesses operating in Xinjiang are very certainly involved.

That is scarcely news to the Biden administration, which is allegedly engaged in a contentious interagency battle over the issue between its national security and climate change divisions. The latter’s argument, that a complete restriction on solar imports from Xinjiang would jeopardize Biden’s primary policy objective, appeared to prevail.

Nonetheless, Biden’s willingness to take the initiative ahead of the United States’ friends and partners was a silver lining. Perhaps his move reflected a greater willingness to fight the CCP alone when required, as the Trump administration did during 2019 and 2020.

Senior administration officials, on the other hand, have quickly ruled out that idea. According to an unidentified Biden source quoted in the Wall Street Journal, “our focus is on transitioning from unilateral action, which has characterized U.S. policy for the previous four years, to truly collaborating with our allies.”

The message is clear: if punishing foreign corporations jeopardizes the climate agenda or annoys important friends, the Biden administration is likely to reconsider. Meanwhile, left-wing groups have been ready to push Biden in this direction. Over 40 progressive organizations urged President Biden last week to “eschew the mainstream adversarial approach to U.S.-China relations and instead emphasize collaboration with China to solve the existential danger posed by the climate crisis.”

All of which underscores the president’s current dilemma: how to tackle the CCP’s human rights violations while his domestic constituency demands the exact opposite. Biden’s recent statements indicate that he may attempt to square the circle by imposing symbolic sanctions that tick the box without upsetting the status quo.

However, doing so risks overlooking the CCP’s vulnerabilities, particularly in relation to Xinjiang. Washington could shut off half of the CCP’s Belt and Road Initiative trade channels with some inventive penalties for their ties to the ongoing Uyghur genocide. However, progressives are ready to forego such influence in favor of another climate pact with Beijing.

The entire event demonstrates how Biden’s China strategy risks becoming entangled. While global challenges such as climate change necessitate diplomacy and international remedies, great power rivalry is mostly dependent on the strength and consistency of the United States. By remaining silent on other Xinjiang offenders, the administration has conveyed a clear message that climate change, not human rights, is the administration’s focus.

Isaac Silvermann is one of Europe's young and respected analysts of international affairs. He hails from Sweden where he studied political science and graduated with a Master's degree from Mittuniversitetet in 2006. Isaac worked as a foreign policy advisor for two MPs and nowadays is a lobbyist and author. He is also the author of 'Let Me Explain 1948 - 2021'. Isaac possesses an abiding interest in the art and craft of foreign policy and international relations.