Last week’s visit to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) by the former U.S. Secretary of State and the Biden administration’s Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, John F. Kerry, represents the end of the beginning of a series of high-level Biden administration visits with Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leaders. The purpose of these visits that started with current Secretary of State Antony Blinken in June and included the kowtowing visit by U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Janet Yellen can best be described as the unashamed resumption of the Kissinger School of Engagement with the PRC.
Given the PRC’s threat to U.S. national interests and the American homeland, including the death of 100,000 Americans from PRC-supplied fentanyl and other expression of unilateral aggression by the CCP in its pursuit of its so-called Great Rejuvenation of China, it is hard to fathom why the Biden administration would reverse course from the Trump era policy of Great Power competition to embrace unconditional engagement.
While there are various hypotheses regarding the answer to that question, from being compromised by the CCP to seeking personal wealth, a partial answer is best found in the statements from those making the trips.
For instance, Secretary Blinken stated at the Aspen Security Forum in Colorado on July 21 that “I think these contacts, these communications are essential, and, in fact, it would be irresponsible not to pursue them.”
A strange assertion, considering Blinken made this statement after the PRC had deployed a spy balloon over America, had the PLA harass U.S. ships and aircraft in the Taiwan Strait and South China Sea, respectively, and just this past week PRC hackers had broken into the emails of other senior U.S. government officials.
Secretary Yellen was not to be outdone. In June before her trip to China she stated that “it would be disastrous for us to attempt to decouple from China,” adding that “I certainly do not think it is in our interest to stifle the economic progress of the Chinese people.” Then while in China, Yellen said it is “in the best interests of both countries to make sure we have direct and clear lines of communication at senior levels.”
Yet those who make such assertions never provide any proof that such dialogue has in the past made relations with the PRC more stable or that the PRC has moderated their behavior and reduced tensions in the region or across the globe. This lack of empirical evidence in support of dialogue is worrisome given the evidence that over the past 30 years of dialogue the PRC became more bellicose and threatening than ever before in its relatively short history.
Yet there is another more fundamental element to the “Engagement” school of thought that needs to be understood and that is the notion of “compartmentalization.” Biden administration officials appear to believe naively that a strategy of engagement and dialogue will get the CCP to “compartmentalize” key issues, such as arms control, climate strategy or fentanyl production from the PRC’s larger national strategic goals.
For instance, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan in his June 2, 2023, Arms Control Association speech noted the PRC is on track by 2035 “to have as many as 1,500 nuclear warheads” which he admitted was destabilizing international relations. Yet, this fact only moved Sullivan to make this revealing acknowledgement: “We have not yet seen a willingness from the PRC to compartmentalize strategic stability from broader issues of the relationship.”
The notion that an American National Security Advisor would even entertain the belief that the CCP would “compartmentalize” arms control separately from their larger strategic goal of the Great Rejuvenation of China seems hard to comprehend, especially given prior administrations, like the George W. Bush administration having failed to get Beijing to explain their nuclear command and control doctrine almost two decades ago.
Or consider Climate Czar John F. Kerry while in Beijing asking PRC Vice President Han Zheng to consider climate change as a “free-standing” issue. Like other Biden administration “engagement” enthusiasts, Kerry naively believed that if he characterized climate change as a “universal threat” the CCP would have no other choice than to treat this as a separate issue from all other US-PRC diplomatic tensions.
Not surprisingly for those who understand great power politics, the PRC’s response to Kerry’s meetings was predictable, as noted in Global Times: “The atmosphere of climate change cooperation hinges on the climate of Sino-American ties; and it is such ties that truly decide whether the cooperation expressions both sides have agreed on can be fully implemented.” Or “in other words, cooperation between China and the U.S. in addressing climate change cannot exist independently as an oasis in the desert; it is closely related to the overall atmosphere of China-U.S. relations.”
This kind of naivety in diplomacy demonstrates a fundamental lack of education and understanding of America’s national interests and of the central tenets of the communism, specifically communism with Chinese characteristics. The result is that this administration does not perceive the PRC to be the enemy of the U.S.
As such, it is not surprising these U.S. officials do not defend America’s interests and those of our allies with this kind of utopian world view. Americans should not forget this started in March 2021 when Blinken went to Alaska and sat there for 20 minutes as the PRC’s senior diplomat Yang Jiechi publicly berated Blinken and Sullivan on American soil.
The Biden administration’s dialogue with the PRC has been maladroit. It signals the willingness of these officials to humiliate the United States in the face of its enemy. Americans have never witnessed this type of behavior from their officials. The Engagement school produces this unseemly and truly bizarre behavior, it would be Pythonesque if it were not so deadly serious because it does not place America’s interests above all else. Engagement promises lucre for officials like Blinken, Yellen, and Kerry. They might be considering PRC funding for their favored projects once they are out of office. They might have no problem with their expressions of subordination to the PRC or worry about how U.S. allies and partners perceive these actions, and how their willingness to engage in demonstrations of U.S. humiliation aid the Chinese Communist Party. They will receive personal praise from a legion of likeminded Engagers, but in the end American national security interests will pay the price.
James Fanell is a government fellow at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy, a retired captain in the U.S. Navy and a former director of intelligence and information operations for the U.S. Pacific Fleet. Bradley A. Thayer is Director of China Policy at the Center for Security Policy. He is the coauthor with Lianchao Han of Understanding the China Threat.