Memo 09.15.2022 15 minutes

Weakness on China

Beijing Celebrates The 60th Anniversary Of New China

The Biden administration has adopted a posture of compliance and appeasement toward Beijing.

Two years into the Biden administration the public has a solid foundation to judge its approach to the threat posed by the People’s Republic of China (PRC), especially compared to the previous administration. Trump was the first president to take major and sustained steps to combat the China threat. In contrast, Biden’s declaratory policies sound strong, but in practice, Biden and his advisers seek to return to the policies of engagement and accommodation that defined the approaches of U.S. presidents since Nixon. Because the PRC’s threat is metastatic expansion and overt belligerence, attempts to return to these failed policies will only accelerate the PRC’s aggression and narrow the window of opportunity that the U.S. possesses to defeat the PRC threat.

While there have been a few overt and dramatic reversals of Trump’s policies to combat the CCP threat, most notably, the Department of Justice’s termination of the China Initiative to catch Chinese spies in the United States, most of the changes have been more subtle. Fundamentally, Biden’s volte-face is an effort quietly to change the priorities of Departments, to de-funding and de-emphasizing Trump’s measures in a practical sense even if they are not formally eliminated. While these reversals have affected the entire government, we center on its impact on defense and homeland security.

Soft Defense Policy

Biden is weakening the U.S. extended deterrent in the Indo-Pacific, and thus emboldening the PRC. A major step of the Trump administration’s 2018 Nuclear Posture Review was to call for a replacement of the Tomahawk Land Attack Missile-Nuclear (TLAM-N), which was eliminated under the Obama Administration, with the Submarine Launched Cruise Missile-Nuclear (SLCM-N). But now, other than a small amount of R&D, funding for SLCM-N has almost been eliminated so the program is de facto stalled. This weakens the ability of the U.S. to have a tactical or theater nuclear retaliatory capability below strategic forces, and so diminishes the credibility of the U.S. extended deterrent.

The Biden administration sent the USS RONALD REAGAN Carriers Strike Group (CSG) to the Persian Gulf, where it had not been deployed since 2003. This deployment away from the Indo-Pacific weakened the U.S. extended deterrent and signaled that the American naval commitment to the Indo-Pacific is not as important as the 30-year U.S. commitment to the Middle East, where the U.S. had consistently maintained a 1.0 CSG presence. This is precisely the wrong message to combat the growth of the PRC’s power and heighten the U.S. conventional extended deterrent.

While the Biden administration has sustained monthly Taiwan Strait transits, it appears they have de-emphasized South China Sea (SCS) Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPS), or at least the scope and reporting about them. It is essential to call attention to these FONOPS to convey that the U.S. does not accept the PRC’s efforts to control the SCS and so coerce the U.S., its allies, and other states out of the SCS.

Additionally, the United States Navy budget submission plans to decommission 39 ships and send our fleet size down to 280 ships from Trump’s trajectory of 297 and upward. By extension, this reduced USN budget does not just impact the number of ships, but a host of other programs, including those that are in development. Once again, this is a weakening of U.S. power projection capabilities and so the U.S. extended deterrent.

Moreover, Biden has not provided the unclassified reports from the Department of Defense about the PRC’s aggressive actions in the SCS as required by the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) of 2019. The PRC continues to build and develop its military and intelligence bases in the SCS. Not revealing these developments emboldens the PRC and weakens the U.S. position.

Crucially, the Biden administration has walked back the previous administration’s declarations regarding the PRC in major policy documents such as the 2017 National Security Strategy, the publicly released summary of the 2018 National Defense Strategy, and the 2020 Strategic Approach to the PRC. These strategy documents accurately identified the PRC as a strategic competitor. Instead, the current administration typically refers to the PRC as a “pacing threat,” which obscures the reality of the PRC as the only rival to the U.S. position in the world and a direct threat to its interests and the safety of all Americans.

The previous administration recognized that the source of trouble is the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) not the Chinese people. Trump officials, most notably National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien, Deputy National Security Advisor Matt Pottinger, Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo advanced this theme. The Biden administration has not forcefully and consistently identified the CCP has the existential enemy of the United States and the source of evil for its population and the citizens of the world. The performance of Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan at the 2021 meeting with Chinese officials in Anchorage was humiliating for the United States. In Anchorage, a Chinese official berated Blinken and Sullivan for racism, while the Biden officials implicitly accepted the spurious charges by not walking out of the meeting. Their pathetic performance signaled weakness and a tacit acceptance of the charge.

Lamentably, since Biden has been in office there has been such a level of strategic malpractice that it compels the conclusion that the administration does not perceive the PRC to be the existential enemy of the United States, but a partner with whom the U.S. can work.

In the wake of the January 2022 volcanic eruption and tsunami in Tonga, the Humanitarian Assistance/Disaster Relief effort was a notably weak response. Biden failed to send any big deck amphibious ships to Tonga when they were at sea off Okinawa. Seizing the opportunity to act boldly when the U.S. would not, the PRC sent big deck relief immediately. This was a clear failure of leadership that reverberated in the South Pacific—which has become an area of competition between the PRC and the U.S. and its allies.

There have been no combined responses to the Sino-Russian operations surrounding Japan. At a minimum, there should be combined USN-JMSDF naval and air operations in the East China Sea in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the PRC’s coercive actions against Taiwan.

Also, the administration twice delayed Minuteman III Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) tests. Once in April after the Russian invasion of Ukraine had commenced, and then in August when China was coercing Taiwan in the wake of the visit by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Given the expansion of China’s military capabilities, the Biden Administration has not addressed Guam’s vulnerability to attack through an integrated air and missile system to defend the U.S. territory. At a time when attention is focused on Taiwan due to the danger of a Chinese attack, few on the U.S. mainland may appreciate the danger to Guam, about 1,700 miles east of Taiwan. Guam is directly threatened by China’s military power projection capabilities as Beijing expands its Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) capabilities. The intent of this expansion is to deny the U.S. and its allies the ability to defend its interests, including the defense of its states, territories, and allies.

Guam is valuable for U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy, first, because it is a key component of its logistical infrastructure which, in turn, permits Washington’s power projection in the region. Ammunition and fuels storage are particularly important. Second, it is also home to major military instillations, including the Guam naval base for Pacific fleet submarines and Andersen Air Force base, from which bombers and fighters may project power into the western Pacific. The island provides all-domain communications nodes for operations in the Indo-Pacific and also hosts training facilities and offers staging for joint force operations. Beijing’s ability to threaten Guam is worsened by the expansion of China’s sphere of influence to the east and south of Taiwan and the Philippines, increasing Guam’s vulnerability and posing a direct threat to the U.S. territory.

This expansion includes the PRC’s increasing influence in the Solomon Islands. Of acute concern is the April 2022 security cooperation agreement between Honiara and Beijing that will allow Chinese port visits, logistical replenishments, and—tellingly—for China to dispatch police or the military to protect its people or major projects. This agreement places Chinese military power about 1,200 miles from Australia’s northern coast. China’s close relationship with Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare compels the conclusion that Canberra and Washington have thus far allowed Chinese influence to go unchecked. In August, the U.S. Coast Guard revealed that the Solomon Islands did not respond to a U.S. Coast Guard cutter’s request for normal refueling and provisioning—in effect, denying a port visit and revealing the deepening ties between Honiara and Beijing.

Also notable is the PRC’s plan to refurbish and expand a runway on Canton Island in the archipelago nation of Kiribati, which lies just 1,800 miles from Hawaii and about 4,000 from Guam. The Chinese presence there might expand from airport infrastructure into a military base, just as the Cubans did in Grenada before the U.S. invasion in 1983. But Kiribati is not alone. Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Vanuatu, and Tonga also have come under Chinese pressure to advance China’s sphere of influence in Melanesia and Polynesia. By outflanking Guam, China increases its ability to sever the sealines of communication between the U.S. and Australia, a threat that Japan was never able to accomplish during World War II.

Also jeopardized are the lines of communication with Japan and to Taiwan. Guam needs an expanded integrated air- and missile defenses now to address the all-azimuth threat it faces. The U.S. also must work with governments in Melanesia and Polynesia, as well as with Australia, France, New Zealand, and Taiwan, to stop and reverse China’s advance in the Indo-Pacific. The Biden administration must create a viable integrated air and missile defense for Guam and work with partner governments to defeat China’s expansion in the Pacific.

Homeland Insecurity

In the realm of homeland security, the Biden administration has reversed Trump’s policies with equally damaging consequences for the national security of the United States. Most significantly, the government has thrown open the southern border of the United States, permitting the entry of millions of migrants. This revolutionary step affects every aspect of American life—society, economics, politics, security, culture, and the birthright of American citizens. In practical effect, it will have an impact equivalent to the most significant events in American history. In an immediate sense, it has perverted and distorted the Department of Homeland Security so that it is hard pressed to fulfill its missions.

The Biden administration has failed to sustain successful measures to protect the U.S. homeland. The U.S. Customs and Immigration Service (USCIS) is stretched thin due to Biden’s open borders policy. As a result, its ability to police Chinese students and others conducting Operation Fox Hunt—the PRC’s campaign to target the CCP’s enemies in America, even U.S. citizens and permanent residents—is reduced.

There is also insufficient oversight of EB5 Immigrant Investor Program visas, which are administered by USCIS for investors to acquire permanent residency. This lack of oversight makes the program subject to abuse by China to plant intelligence agents or facilitate intelligence collection against the U.S.

Infrastructure security is a major component of DHS’s mission and Biden has reversed significant progress made under the previous administration. On his first day in office, Biden suspended Trump’s Executive Order 13920, which concerned securing the U.S. bulk-power system. This order had declared “a national emergency with respect to the threat to the United States bulk power system,” and warned “that foreign adversaries are increasingly creating and exploiting vulnerabilities in the United States bulk-power system.” Trump had issued E.O. 13920 to remedy supply chain vulnerabilities that exist because the regulators for the bulk power system—The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC)—have, for years, refused to create or enforce effective regulations with respect to the supply chain and cybersecurity.

The action was also in response to the discovery in 2019 of hardware back doors built into Chinese-made transformers that are critical to the grid’s operations. According to Latham Saddler, the former Director of Intelligence Programs at the National Security Council in Trump Administration, “they found hardware that was put into that that had the ability for somebody in China to switch it off.”

Notifications to businesses regarding interactions with Chinese entities has been reduced. During the Trump administration, in late December 2020, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) released a significant but largely overlooked advisory to American businesses warning of the risks associated with the use of data services and equipment from firms with ties to the People’s Republic of China. The advisory noted that these links present a major threat to data security for the U.S. government, business, and people, as China will have the ability to access data covertly through entities influenced or controlled by China. The advisory highlighted the persistent and increasing risk of Chinese government-sponsored data theft due to newly enacted PRC laws, specifically, the PRC National Intelligence Law of 2017, Data Security Law of 2020, and Cryptology Law of 2020. These laws compel PRC businesses and citizens—including through academic institutions, research service providers, and investors—to support and facilitate China’s government access to the collection, transmission, and storage of data. This directive violates the letter or intent of U.S. and international law and accepted policies. Companies may be required to store data within PRC borders and to permit access by the Chinese government to data under the pretense of national security.

Consequently, China’s sponsored data theft not only accelerates the reduction of foreign competitors’ domestic market share, but accelerates China’s technological dominance in critical markets which have long been dominated by the U.S. and European firms—including aerospace, semiconductors, robotics, artificial intelligence systems, biometrics, cyber intelligence, genomics, pharmaceutical medicines, and sustainable/green energy materials.

The advisory should be heeded not only by U.S. firms but those outside of the United States as well. Due to China’s laws and policies, any entity interacting with Chinese firms assumes the risk of officially sanctioned intellectual property theft, data theft, and exploitation. Even if U.S. firms do not trade with China, the fact that other businesses, such as European or Japanese that do trade with PRC entities, which do thus introduce the risk of indirect theft. The economic, legal, political, and human rights consequences of this are yet to be realized by American firms and the American people.

The Trump administration’s DHS’s warning was stark: all firms, people, or entities that choose to use data services and equipment from Chinese firms, or store data on software or equipment developed by such firms, should be aware of the economic, reputational, and legal risks associated with doing business with these firms. The Biden administration has not matched the same urgency to inform U.S. entities and the American people of these risks.

This is evidenced in the respective administrations’ consideration of TikTok. The Trump administration targeted it as a threat for stealing personal and professional data from its U.S. users and, no doubt, in light of its warnings, would have brought greater pressure to bear against the app’s owners while discouraging its use. Biden has backed away from identifying TikTok as a threat.

Finally, the Trump administration released the DHS Strategic Action Plan to Counter the Threat Posed by the People’s Republic of China: Defending the Homeland in an Era of Great Power Competition. This report advanced measures to strengthen border security and immigration, trade and economic security, cybersecurity and critical infrastructure, and maritime security. The Biden administration appears to be diametrically opposed to following the Strategic Action Plan’s provisions in each of these areas. Trump’s DHS identified measures to ensure the effective removal of PRC nationals from the United States, increased screening and vetting of PRC visa and immigration benefits, facilitated greater coordination among law enforcement to hinder illicit PRC pathways into the U.S, and to identify PRC human rights abusers. The Biden administration has been reluctant to implement the specific recommendations identified in the report, nor has it updated the report or issued a new assessment.

The Biden administration has retreated on the China threat. Trump undertook many steps to address the danger of the PRC to U.S. global interests and the American homeland. He recognized that the PRC could be defeated without kinetic war by acting against it now to cut it off from its American sources of finance, trade, and technology.

Despite its rhetoric, the Biden administrations actions are clear. That is, the PRC remains a “pacing challenge” but not an enemy of the United States. This insouciance is strategic malpractice. It is responsible for allowing the PRC threat to become existential to the U.S. Moreover, it is culpable for not permitting the U.S. to target the CCP’s legitimacy and governance of China so that the Chinese people would have a government that respected human rights. Unless corrected, it will permit the PRC’s influence and power to grow steadily to a point where deterrence fails, and the U.S. is compelled to defend itself and its allies and partners in a kinetic war with the PRC.

The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.

The American Mind is a publication of the Claremont Institute, a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization, dedicated to restoring the principles of the American Founding to their rightful, preeminent authority in our national life. Interested in supporting our work? Gifts to the Claremont Institute are tax-deductible.

Suggested reading from the editors
M10 Achilles IIC on tank cemetery

Hollowed Out

The armed forces are now a vehicle for the advancement of an agenda of social justice.

to the newsletter