US-China competition looms large in Senate confirmation hearings

WASHINGTON – Competition between the United States and China loomed large on Tuesday’s (Jan 19) Senate hearings of President-elect Joe Biden’s picks for the top foreign relations, treasury and defence Cabinet posts, signalling that at least some of the Trump administration’s hard line against Beijing will continue under the Biden administration.

Secretary of State nominee Antony Blinken told a Senate panel that China poses the most significant challenge of any nation state to the United States.

China under President Xi Jinping had “become more assertive in making clear that they seek to become the leading country in the world”, he said.

“There are rising adversarial aspects to the relationship, certainly competitive ones, and still some cooperative ones when it is in our mutual interests,” said Mr Blinken, an experienced career diplomat who rose to the State Department’s second-highest post under the Obama administration.

In response to questions from senators, Mr Blinken said his plan to deal with China involved tapping on America’s sources of strength.

This included working with allies instead of denigrating them, leading in international institutions instead of ceding terrain to China, standing against human rights abuses in Xinjiang and democracy erosion in Hong Kong, and investments in America’s military to deter Chinese aggression.

Mr Blinken said America and China were engaged in a high-stakes rivalry to shape the norms and standards that other countries ascribed to, and that America had an obligation to make sure its model carried the day.

“There’s an increasing divide between technodemocracies, that is, technologically-sophisticated countries that are also democracies, and technoautocracies like China,” Mr Blinken said.

“Whether the technodemocracies or technoautocracies are the ones that get to define how technology is used…is going to go a long way in shaping the next decades.”

Mr Blinken also said that America’s commitment to making sure that Taiwan has the ability to defend itself against aggression will “absolutely endure” in the Biden administration.

He added that he also wanted to see Taiwan play a greater role around the world, including becoming a member of international organisations that admits non-states as members, and participating in groupings that did not admit non-state members in other ways.

In his prepared remarks, Mr Blinken vowed that America would reclaim its global leadership mantle under his watch.

Washington would “outcompete China” while revitalising core alliances and teaming up to tackle common challenges with other countries, all the while acting with humility and confidence, he said.

“America at its best still has a greater ability than any country on earth to mobilise others for the greater good,” said Mr Blinken, whose vision of American diplomacy was a marked change from outgoing President Donald Trump’s “America First” policy.

Earlier on Tuesday morning, Treasury Secretary nominee Janet Yellen said that China “is clearly our most important strategic competitor”.

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The US needs to take on China’s abusive trade and economic practices, she said at her Senate confirmation hearing.

“China is undercutting American companies by dumping products, erecting trade barriers and giving illegal subsidies to corporations. It’s been stealing intellectual property and engaging in practices that give it an unfair technological advantage, including forced technology transfers,” said Ms Yellen, the former chairman of the Federal Reserve.

“These practices, including China’s low labour and environmental standards, are practices that we’re prepared to use the full array of tools to address,” she added.

If confirmed, part of her job will be to decide whether to continue the Trump administration’s actions against China, including tariffs on Chinese goods, blacklisting military-linked Chinese companies from US stock exchanges, and banning Chinese social media apps over national security concerns.

Secretary of Defence nominee Lloyd Austin also addressed the challenge of China, saying that he would work closely with the State Department.

“Globally, I understand that Asia must be the focus of our effort, and I see China in particular as a pacing challenge for the department,” said Mr Austin, a retired general who focused mostly on the Middle East during his career and oversaw the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq.

Their statements come as outgoing Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called China’s treatment of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang a “genocide”, adding that its policies of forced labour, concentration camps, and restrictions on freedom of religion constituted crimes against humanity.

The designation, made on Mr Pompeo’s last full day in office, will anger Beijing and may pave the way for further sanctions by the US.

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In response to questions from senators, Mr Blinken said he agreed with Mr Pompeo that China’s policies regarding Uighur Muslims amounted to an effort to commit genocide.

He said that the US should respond by looking to make sure it was neither importing products made with forced labour from Xinjiang, nor exporting technologies and tools that could be used to further their repression.

Congress has passed some legislation to that effect, he noted.

There have been no announcements yet on when the Senate panels will vote on confirming Mr Biden’s nominees. His hope for speedy confirmations could be delayed or complicated by the Senate’s impending impeachment trial of Mr Trump.

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