President Biden has provided insight into his two-hour telephone conversation last week with Chinese leader Xi Jinping. At a CNN town hall, Anderson Cooper asked Biden about the Uighurs and China’s human rights record.
“We must speak up for human rights. It’s who we are,” Biden said. “My comment to him was, and I know him well, and he knows me well. … The central principle of Xi Jinping is that there must be a united, tightly-controlled China. And he uses his rationale for the things he does based on that. I pointed out to him, no American president can be sustained as a president if he doesn’t reflect the values of the United States. And so the idea I’m not going to speak out against what he’s doing in Hong Kong, what he’s doing with the Uighurs in Western mountains of China, and Taiwan, the ‘One China’ policy, by making it forceful.”
Apparently, the rapport established when both men were second in line for national leadership has survived Biden’s calling Xi ” a thug” during the campaign. Biden explained Xi’s position: “He gets it. Culturally, there are different norms in each country and their leaders are expected to follow.” Translation: thuggishness is expected of a Chinese communist ruler.
Cooper pressed Biden: “When you talked to him, though, about human rights abuses, is that as far as it goes in terms of the U.S., or is there any actual repercussions for China?”
Biden answered: “Well, there will be repercussions for China and he knows that. What I’m doing is making clear that we, in fact, are going to continue to reassert our role as spokespersons for human rights at the U.N. and other agencies that have an impact on their attitude. China is trying very hard to become the world leader … and to be able to do that they have to gain the confidence of other countries. And as long as they’re engaged in activity that is contrary to basic human rights, it’s going to be hard for them to do that. But it’s much more complicated. I shouldn’t try to talk China policy in 10 minutes on television.” (President Trump expressed a similar reservation.)
The Biden administration seemed to be confronting a monumental political dilemma: bring criminal charges against Chinese leaders, potentially including Xi, or ignore a massive moral challenge from China and stand accused, even by Biden-friendly media, of extreme human rights hypocrisy.
But suddenly, Biden was thrown a lifeline with the disclosure of a State Department legal dissent that began under Trump. Though both Biden and Secretary Antony Blinken have called China’s Uighur persecution “genocide,” State’s lawyers demurred. They argue the mass rapes, forced abortions and sterilizations, and abominable conditions in China’s concentration camps are more aptly described as “crimes against humanity” – a slightly less pejorative label that incurs no formal obligations to act under international or U.S. humanitarian law.
That escape hatch makes it even less likely that Biden’s “repercussions” for China will be more than ritualistic condemnation. That is far better than Trump’s reported endorsement of the Xinjiang camps as an acceptable price to pay for a trade deal. But it is not nearly commensurate with former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s historic genocide finding.
On other China issues, neither Cooper nor audience members asked Biden to reveal more on his extended conversation with Xi – how, for example, the two engaged on the potentially explosive issue of Taiwan. Biden tweeted earlier that he cautioned Xi on China’s “coercion of Taiwan.” Beijing’s readout of their phone conversation said Xi called “the Taiwan question China’s internal affair.”
Did Biden repudiate or reinforce Trump’s stern private warning of an appropriate U.S. response to Chinese aggression against Taiwan? If so, did Xi invoke the call of a Chinese admiral to “sink one or two U.S. aircraft carriers and kill 5,000 to 10,000 American sailors” or a Chinese general’s apocalyptic warning of nuclear attacks on “hundreds of American cities“?
Did Biden demand that Xi reprimand and rein in his subordinates’ barbaric threats? Did he tell Xi that, rather than “independence means war,” as China’s defense spokesman warned last month, America’s position is that war means independence? That is, not only will the U.S. come to Taiwan’s defense, but it will officially recognize it as a separate sovereign state.
That would dispense finally with Beijing’s false “One China principle” that Taiwan is or ever has been part of communist China. It also would abandon America’s flaccid “One China policy” that “acknowledges” Beijing’s position as long as unification is done peacefully. China’s escalating threats and expanding rehearsals to attack Taiwan have destroyed the precondition for America’s switch of diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing. Threats of force also violate Article I of the United Nations Charter.
Biden, like all of his predecessors, is reluctant to utter publicly four little words with enormous moral and geostrategic consequence – “America will defend Taiwan” – which Trump only implied in a Fox News interview. By contrast, since the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, bipartisan Congresses have pressed Democratic and Republican administrations to be more forthright in supporting Taiwan’s democratic security.
Congress is now considering the Taiwan Invasion Prevention Act (TIPA), which “establishes a limited authorization for the President to use military force for the specific purpose of securing and protecting Taiwan against armed attack.” TIPA would end U.S. strategic ambiguity and help dissuade China from preparing for actual conflict. The House passed it in 2020, but Trump, preoccupied with the pandemic, economy and reelection, did nothing to advance it.
Biden, with control of both chambers and bipartisan congressional consensus, can reduce the risk of Beijing’s calamitous miscalculation by supporting strategic clarity on Taiwan. It would strengthen his hand for the next conversation with Xi.
Jen Psaki, Biden’s press secretary, said on Feb. 16: “I can assure you this president is not looking to the previous president for guidance on his foreign policy.” But the administration should avoid a wholesale rejection of its predecessor’s policies merely for the sake of being “not-Trump.” Biden would benefit by building on what Trump’s national security team – if not always Trump himself – got right about China.
Policy differences and mixed signals are not unique to the Trump administration. In addition to divisions over Uighur genocide, the State Department has derailed Biden’s opposition to Russia’s oil pipeline to Germany.
Joseph Bosco served as China country director for the secretary of Defense from 2005 to 2006 and as Asia-Pacific director of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief from 2009 to 2010. He is a nonresident fellow at the Institute for Corean-American Studies and a member of the advisory board of the Global Taiwan Institute.