President Joe Biden’s recent second meeting with Chinese Communist Party leader Xi Jinping failed before it even began.
Long before Biden patted the communist dictator on the back Nov. 15 and ushered him into suburban San Francisco’s Filoli estate, his administration’s commitment to “zombie engagement” with China ensured a victory for Xi and the CCP.
Biden’s opening remarks stuck to the same script his Cabinet officials have used for months on their visits to China. He told Xi he wants to avoid “miscommunication” and “manage [competition] responsibly” so that it does not “veer into conflict.”
However, tensions between the United States and China aren’t the result of inadequate communication or poor management by the Trump administration. They are the product of deliberate, malign behavior by Xi and the CCP.
Washington has a bad habit of treating the CCP like a passive entity with no agency of its own: If the party is acting recklessly, the thinking goes, it must be a failure of U.S. diplomacy. Similarly, the Biden administration views wooing the CCP diplomatically as “responsible,” while confronting national security threats from China is deemed “irresponsible,” as it risks angering Beijing.
This approach is a recipe for disaster.
In just the past few months, well after Biden began sending Cabinet officials to bow in Beijing, the CCP continued to step up its aggressiontoward Taiwan, deliberately caused near-collisions with U.S. military craft, caused an actual collision with a Philippine navy ship conducting a resupply mission, and used sonar to injure Australian sailors trying to fix a propellor in international waters.
These aren’t accidents or miscommunications, but deliberate acts of aggression to advance CCP goals and pressure a risk-averse administration.
After the CCP sent a spy balloon over the continental United States earlier this year, the administration “held back human rights-related sanctions, export controls and other sensitive actions to try to limit damage to the U.S.-China relationship.”
Months later, the administration bafflingly sent officials on a diplomatic visit to Beijing on the anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.
It’s now clear that months of concessions to Beijing and the humiliation of America’s top national security officials supplicating to Xi have been a net negative for American national security.
The administration argues that it also took important national security actions toward China earlier in Biden’s term, including an executive order to monitor and restrict investments in China, and the expansion of export restrictions on semiconductors. But this was hardly a profile in courage, as the administration significantly delayed the former and refused to do the latter until the measures were discussed with Beijing.
Even more concerningly, the Biden administration has restarted several recurring dialogues with the CCP without registering any tangible wins or concessions.
The CCP uses these bureaucratic boondoggles to delay and deter the U.S. from taking national security actions, such as sanctions. The CCP is also fond of terminating these dialogues as a means to punish U.S. officials, and did so in August 2022, when it cut off virtually all diplomatic cooperation to protest a visit to Taiwan by then-Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
The Biden administration seems intent on handing the lash back to the CCP—practically asking for more punishment.
It gets worse.
The Biden administration lifted human rights sanctions on an organization accused of involvement in the CCP’s genocide against Uyghurs in return for a CCP pledge to resume bilateral cooperation on fentanyl. (For context, more than 70,000 Americans are dying of fentanyl overdoses per year, and the vast majority of the ingredients to make fentanyl are coming from China.)
While the media are describing this quid pro quo as a “fentanyl deal,” a “deal” implies concessions from both sides. But whereas the U.S. has actually lifted sanctions on the Chinese Institute of Forensic Science, the CCP has offered little more than hollow pledges on fentanyl, issuing a “warning” to drug manufacturers.
Recall that Beijing made similar pledges to the Trump administration to crack down on fentanyl exports, after which the U.S. fentanyl epidemic only worsened.
The White House has also played up “the resumption of high-level military-to-military communication” as a summit victory. Like fentanyl enforcement, this would be helpful—if the CCP actually follows through. But for decades, Beijing has refused to use these channels to actually deescalate tensions.
The “resumption” of nonfunctioning communication isn’t a victory. Xi needs to prove his commanders will actually answer the phone and be empowered to resolve crises.
As a result, any such agreement with Xi must be presumed worthless until proven otherwise.
He has consistently lied to the U.S. and world about his military and economic ambitions. Biden should know this, as he was in the White House in 2015 when Xi falsely promised in the Rose Garden not to militarize the South China Sea and to stop China’s cyberespionage activities.
Almost a decade later, it strains credulity to take Xi at his word and to advertise handshake deals with the Chinese leader as “progress.”
Biden might have hoped the meeting would be good reelection politics, but it turned out to be a giveaway to Xi. Biden left suburban San Francisco with Xi’s promises. In return, Xi got a year of reduced pressure, new nonmilitary dialogues, sanctions lifted, advance warning of U.S. actions, and reduced U.S. Navy presence around Taiwan—not to mention the $40,000-per-plate private-sector dinner Xi used to propagandize to the willing ears of the pro-China lobby.
Facing economic challenges at home and a U.S. Congress increasingly focused on checking his malign ambitions, Xi might finally be on the back foot. This wasn’t the time to throw him a lifeline for free, but to keep up the pressure until the CCP meaningfully changes its behavior.
On that count, the summit failed resoundingly. Until the Biden administration recognizes this reality, it will be up to Congress and the states to confront the CCP.
Reproduced with permission. Original here.
Bryan Burack is a senior policy adviser for China and the Indo-Pacific at The Heritage Foundation.