President-elect Joe Biden's nominee for Secretary of Defense Retired Army General Lloyd Austin answers questions during his confirmation before the Senate Armed Services Committee at the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill on January 19, 2021, in Washington, DC. Photo: AFP/Greg Nash-Pool/Getty Images

With Democrats in charge of both houses of the US Congress, newly-inaugurated President Joseph Biden is looking at swift confirmation of all his top national security nominees.

Retired General Lloyd Austin is expected to secure a special congressional waiver, which will allow him to take over the Pentagon’s leadership despite his relatively recent retirement from military service.

Following four years of acrimonious relations with the former Trump administration, China’s Ambassador to the US, Cui Tiankai, announced on Twitter that China “looks forward to working with the new administration to promote sound & steady development of China-US relations and jointly address global challenges in public health, climate change & growth.”

In a subtle warning to the new American government, China also announced unprecedented sanctions against a number of top officials from the Trump administration, who “planned, promoted and executed a series of crazy moves, gravely interfered in China’s internal affairs, undermined China’s interests, offended the Chinese people, and seriously disrupted China-US relations.” 

Among those on China’s latest sanctions list was former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who oversaw a “New Cold War” with Beijing and, on his final day in office, accused China of committing genocide against the Uighur minority in Xinjiang.

By all indications, Biden’s “big four” nominees are expected to continue Trump’s tough strategy against China, from high tech competition to maritime disputes in Asia, but with major tactical tweaks, namely greater reliance on global allies, international law and multilateral diplomacy.

During his confirmation hearing this week, Secretary of State nominee and Biden’s long-time adviser Antony Blinken highlighted bipartisan consensus on China, which signals both policy continuity as well as raising the chances of swift confirmation by lawmakers from both parties.

“I think what we’ve seen in recent years, particularly since the rise of Xi Jinping as leader, has been that the hiding and biding has gone away,” Antony Blinken told lawmakers during his Senate confirmation hearing this week.

Antony Blinken during his confirmation hearing to be secretary of state before the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee on January 19, 2021, in Washington. Photo: AFP/Alex Edelman/Getty Images

‘An effort to commit genocide’

“I also believe that President Trump was right in taking a tougher approach to China,” declared Blinken, although he made it clear there will be major tactical changes under the new administration.

“I disagree very much with the way that he [Trump] went about it in a number of areas, but the basic principle was the right one, and I think that’s actually helpful to our foreign policy,” he added, emphasizing that the previous administration rightly broke with self-defeating strategic taboos following decades of failed engagement policy towards Beijing.

Blinken also publicly endorsed Pompeo’s last act – the characterization of China’s mass atrocities in Xinjiang as a form of genocide. “That would be my judgment as well,” Blinken said during exchanges with longtime Trump ally and Republican stalwart Senator Lindsey Graham.

“Forcing men, women and children into concentration camps, trying to in effect re-educate them to be adherents to the ideology of the Chinese Communist Party, all of that speaks to an effort to commit genocide,” he added, while also signaling continuity with the Trump administration on other contentious areas including how democracy is being “trampled” in Hong Kong.

Meanwhile, Biden’s nominee for Director of National Intelligence, Avril Haines, lambasted China’s “assertive and aggressive” policieas and called for a tough stance by America.

During her hearing at the Senate Intelligence Committee, the national intelligence chief nominee promised her commitment to proactively monitor Chinese influence and deploy America’s formidable intelligence resources to counter China’s “unfair, illegal, aggressive and coercive actions, as well as its human rights violations.”

In another sign of a likely continuity with Trump’s China policy, including on trade and big tech issues, Janet Yellen, a former Federal Reserves chief and the nominee to run the Treasury Department, lambasted China’s “horrendous human rights abuses” and accused the Asian power of widespread intellectual property theft against America.

“China is clearly our most important strategic competitor,” Yellen said during her confirmation hearing. “China is undercutting American companies by dumping products, erecting trade barriers and giving illegal subsidies to corporations … [and] been stealing intellectual property and engaging in practices that give it an unfair technological advantage, including forced technology transfers,” she added.

Incoming US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has her work cut out for her when it comes to challenging China. Photo: AFP

Coordinated sanctions

“[These] are practices that we’re prepared to use the full array of tools to address,” warned Yellen during her confirmation hearing, signaling her commitment “to take on China’s abusive, unfair and illegal practices.”

As treasury secretary, Yellen will have immense prerogative over initiating targeted and coordinated sanctions, likely in tandem with European and Japanese partners, against Chinese companies involved in predatory investment and business practices.

The first female US treasury secretary will be instrumental to the Biden administration’s goal of creating a mega “tech alliance” against China, a major departure from the Trump administration’s policy incoherence and unprecedented spats with allies across the world.

Biden’s likely most consequential appointee, however, will likely be his defense secretary, who will oversee America’s behemoth military and globe-spanning defense alliances over the succeeding years.

President Biden has directly requested Congress to grant a special waiver, the second in just four years, for the former retired general to become defense secretary, characterizing Lloyd Austin as “uniquely qualified” for the job amid an unprecedented crisis in American politics and foreign policy.

The 46th US president personally vouched for his defense secretary pick, highlighting his commitment “to remain accountable to the American people” given concerns over how “civilian control … has been stressed the last four years.”

“This was not a post he sought,” Biden said ahead of Austin’s confirmation hearings, “but I sought him.”

Even those opposed to the issuance of special waivers for recently-retired generals such as Senator Tammy Duckworth (Democrat-Illinois) have praised Austin as “an excellent [choice for] secretary of defense.”

During his confirmation hearing, Austin, who formerly oversaw US-led coalition forces’ successful operations against Islamic State across the Middle East, characterized China as “the most significant threat going forward because China is ascending” as opposed to Russia and other American adversaries.

US Army (retired) General Lloyd Austin speaks after being formally nominated to be Secretary of the Department of Defense by US President-elect Joe Biden on December 09, 2020, in Wilmington, Delaware. Photo: AFP/Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Narrowing military gap

Asked about the Trump administration’s National Defense Strategy (2017), which openly embraced “great power competition” with China, Austin characterized the document as “absolutely on track for today’s challenges,” although he signaled his commitment to “work to update the strategy and work within the confines of the guidance and the policy issued by the next administration.”

Recognizing the narrowing military gap between the US and China, Biden’s defense chief pick called for a proactive military strategy with a focus on next-generation technologies, including “the use of quantum computing, the use of AI, the advent of connected battlefields, the space-based platforms” as a “credible deterrent” that allows the US to “to hold large pieces of Chinese military inventory at risk.”

He also signaled his qualified support for the previous administration’s 30-year naval modernization plan unveiled in December, which calls for 405 manned ships by 2051.

“So I look forward to getting on the ground and – if confirmed – and working with the leadership of the navy to better understand the requirements and how we’re going to support those requirements,” Austin added. “And also I look forward to working with this body to make sure that we have the right resources to support that requirement.”

But the former general also emphasized the need for strong alliances and robust defense diplomacy, especially with key allies and new major partners such as India, which shares similar threat perceptions with China.

“I would further operationalize India’s ‘Major Defense Partner’ status and continue to build upon existing strong defense cooperation to ensure the US and Indian militaries can collaborate to address shared interests,” Austin said.

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