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Biden admin blasts China for 'cynical' Inauguration Day sanctions on Trump officials

Speaking after the rebuke from Washington, China's foreign ministry said Thursday that "if both countries work together, better angels in the U.S.-China relations could defeat evil forces."
Image: People look at a TV screen showing news of President Joe Biden after his inauguration, in Hong Kong
People in Hong Kong watch at a TV screen on Thursday showing news of President Joe Biden after his inauguration.Tyrone Siu / Reuters

That didn't take long.

Within hours of President Joe Biden's inauguration, his foreign policy team began wrangling with one of the administration's biggest challenges: China.

The U.S. labeled as "unproductive and cynical" a slew of sanctions China imposed on outgoing Donald Trump officials just as the inauguration was taking place.

"Imposing these sanctions on Inauguration Day is seemingly an attempt to play to partisan divides," Emily Horne, a spokeswoman for President Biden's National Security Council, told Reuters on Wednesday. "President Biden looks forward to working with leaders in both parties to position America to out-compete China."

China responded by criticizing the outgoing administration, and calling for healing and better relations between the two countries — even using a line from Biden's inauguration speech.

"I believe if both countries work together, better angels in the U.S.-China relations could defeat evil forces," China's Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said at a press briefing on Thursday.

In his speech emphasizing the need for unity to triumph over division, Biden on Wednesday said: "Through struggle, sacrifice and setbacks, our better angels have always prevailed," — a phrase borrowed from Abraham Lincoln's 1861 inaugural address.

The rhetorical exchange follows four years of worsened U.S.-China relations, with Trump and members of his team blaming the Covid-19 pandemic on China, using racist terms to describe the virus and criticizing Beijing's treatment of Hong Kong protesters and its Uighur Muslim minority.

During this time, the countries — the world's two largest economies — also became locked in a damaging trade war.

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Taiwan's de facto ambassador to Washington attended Biden's inauguration with an official invitation, a first, which could indicate the new president will continue with Trump's increased support for the self-governed island that Beijing claims as part of China.

However, while it has signaled that it will maintain pressure on Beijing, Biden's team is widely expected to take a more traditional, diplomatic and multilateral approach than Trump's did.

China placed sanctions on 28 Trump officials on Wednesday, including former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Trump's trade adviser Peter Navarro and Alex Azar, the Health and Human Services Secretary. The measures bar travel to Hong Kong, Macao or mainland China, and restrict any organizations they run from doing business there, according to a statement from China's Foreign Ministry.

In his final weeks in office, Pompeo unleashed a barrage of measures against China, and said Tuesday that Beijing had committed "genocide and crimes against humanity" against its Uighur Muslim population.

China has repeatedly rejected accusations of abuse in its Xinjiang region, where the United Nations says at least 1 million Uighurs and other Muslims have been detained in camps.

Biden's choice to succeed Pompeo, Antony Blinken, said Tuesday he agreed with Pompeo's assessment. He told his Senate confirmation hearing there was "no doubt" China posed the most significant challenge to the United States of any nation.

Reuters contributed to this report.