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Biden's lost opportunity to reset Beijing relations

By LIA ZHU in San Francisco | China Daily | Updated: 2022-01-21 09:41

Chinese and US flags flutter outside the building of an American company in Beijing, on Jan 21, 2021. [Photo/Agencies]

US leader fails to chart new course, with likely blowback on nation, experts say

When Joe Biden took office a year ago, he had an opportunity to reset relations between the United States and China. But one year into his presidency, his administration has largely maintained the China policies from the time of his predecessor, Donald Trump.

Though the Biden administration has toned down the anti-China rhetoric associated with Trump, it has expanded economic sanctions and tightened export restrictions on Chinese technology companies, and continued prosecuting scientists of Chinese heritage on so-called national security grounds.

Under Trump, Chinese companies were put on blacklists that prevent US companies from selling software and components to those on the lists without first obtaining a US government license. The Biden administration has made it harder to get such a license.

Biden's squandered opportunity to recast the bilateral relationship has prompted at least observers to say that the US will lose out with its pursuit of shortsighted policies. George Koo, a retired international business adviser in Silicon Valley, said the US government's hostility against Chinese scholars teaching or conducting research in the country was akin to "cutting our own nose to spite our face".

Another observer, former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd, said: "By the time we had a new administration coming to office one year ago, I should say, the relationship was genuinely in free fall." But he notes that "strategic competition remains in place" despite the change in administration.

As for the blacklists affecting Chinese companies, the Biden administration has maintained them and added its own. Throughout last year, Chinese companies and research institutes were added to the blacklists of US agencies, including the departments of commerce, treasury and defense.

In March, Huawei, ZTE and three other Chinese companies were added to a new blacklist published by the US telecom regulator, the Federal Communications Commission, on "national security concerns".

New blacklists

The US Commerce Department in April added seven Chinese supercomputing entities to its blacklist, known as the Entity List, citing national security concerns. In November, a dozen more Chinese entities, including eight technology entities, were placed on the Entity List for the same reasons. Last month, 34 more Chinese entities and research institutes were added to the list.

Just last month, the US Department of Treasury put SenseTime, a Chinese artificial intelligence company, on its investment blacklist for alleged human rights abuses. Days after that move, the department put another eight Chinese technology firms, including top drone maker DJI, on the investment blacklist because of similar concerns.

The Biden administration also has been promoting the so-called Chips Act, which includes $52 billion in federal investment to boost the nation's capabilities in the design and manufacturing of semiconductors. Industry experts have said it's impossible to decouple the US chip industry from its strategic rival given the global nature of the semiconductor industry.

In 2021, prosecutions of academics and researchers with Chinese ties also continued. The US Justice Department has recently updated the online information sheet of the so-called China Initiative, highlighting dozens of cases. It shows that Biden has vigorously continued the program launched by Trump.

Despite loud calls for the Biden administration to rescind the initiative, Attorney General Merrick Garland has reaffirmed to Congress his commitment to combating "Chinese espionage" and "intellectual property theft".

Statistics on prosecutions under the "China Initiative"-recently compiled by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology-suggest that the US Justice Department has aggressively broadened its focus over time, to the point of prosecuting cases that it eventually dropped or were dismissed.

The targeting of Chinese scientists and the bias exhibited in describing all Chinese as spies will result in the US losing out, Koo said.

"Because the greatest source of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) graduates are coming from China," he said.

Rudd, who is now president and CEO of the Asia Society, said that since Biden took office, the US' overall strategic competitive race with China has continued apace. He was speaking at a recent conference examining Biden's China policies.

During Trump's time in office, all guardrails around the bilateral relationship slowly fell away, said Rudd.

He said Biden's priority is to rebuild the nation's economic infrastructure and the critical industries lie in information technology and the US' "historical competitive advantage" in semiconductors.

"As we move into the second year of the Biden ministration, rebuilding America at home is the cornerstone of US strategy in dealing with China," he said.

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