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'More than words': Democrats, Republicans hope Biden will take a harder line on China as summit begins

“We inherited a very challenging situation from not just the previous administration, but going back a long way,” one Biden official said.
Image: Xi Jinping, Joe Biden
Chinese President Xi Jinping and then-Vice President Joe Biden walk down the red carpet on the tarmac during an arrival ceremony at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., on Sept. 24, 2015.Carolyn Kaster / AP file

WASHINGTON — As the Biden administration holds its highest-level meetings with China since taking office, it enjoys broad bipartisan support for taking a tough stance toward Beijing but also faces skepticism about whether the talks will bring real policy changes.

President Joe Biden, whom Chinese President Xi Jinping has called an "old friend," finds himself at a crossroads in U.S. policy as top officials gather in Alaska for a two-day summit. American public opinion is overwhelmingly supportive of a confrontational posture toward China. And both Democrats and Republicans now describe China as a dire threat, pushing legislation to impose more sanctions on Beijing over human rights abuses and protect U.S. companies against China's trade practices.

The Biden administration plans to use that rare consensus as leverage when Secretary of State Antony Blinken and national security adviser Jake Sullivan meet Thursday and Friday in Anchorage with China's top diplomat, Yang Jiechi, and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi.

Senior administration officials said the U.S. plans to outline some specific areas where China must take steps to change course before the relationship can move forward in a substantive way. The chief points of tension from the U.S. side include China's increasingly aggressive military posture in the region, cyber intrusions and intellectual property theft, trade and economic practices, and human rights abuses, including actions in Hong Kong and the Xinjiang region.

"What we're looking for is more than words," a senior administration official said.

Some officials and lawmakers in Congress say they're looking for the same from Biden.

"The new administration has in some of their early guidance elevated China. So, it's there, at least on paper," a senior intelligence official who is an expert in Chinese military capabilities told NBC News. "So, I'm hopeful that we don't spend a lot of time continuing to diagnose the problem, but we start to get active in executing solutions out here."

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said Wednesday on Fox News that Biden's China strategy is "something that bears watching" and his fear is Beijing will "lure us into a deal that we think is so important that we can't have China walk from it. And then, they'll start insisting on us to stop talking about Hong Kong, stop talking about Taiwan, stop talking about the Muslims [in] labor camps, stop talking about these sorts of things."

President Donald Trump brought unpredictability to the world stage. Biden does not, and he's dropped some of his predecessor's harsh language toward Beijing while picking up a harder line on human rights. But he hasn't dropped the Trump policies. Trump's controversial tariffs on Chinese goods, for instance, remain in place. That policy, like others, is still under review, administration officials said.

Still, even current senior administration officials who served in the Obama administration concede that the problems in the U.S. relationship with China stretch back farther than Trump.

"We inherited a very challenging situation from not just the previous administration, but going back a long way," one of them said.

In the run-up to the meeting in Alaska, the Biden administration sent an unmistakable signal to China that it would take a tough line with Beijing and back up U.S. allies in Asia.

During a visit to Japan, Blinken warned against "coercion and aggression" by Beijing and vowed that the U.S. would "push back if necessary." Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, who joined Blinken for talks with Japanese counterparts in Tokyo, cited China's "destabilizing actions" in the East and South China seas.

"They're making it very, very clear that they don't trust China," said Michael Green, who oversaw China policy in the George W. Bush administration.

The messaging and symbolism by the Biden administration this week, with high-profile visits to staunch U.S. allies Japan and South Korea, appeared aimed at conveying to China that there would be no return to a more conciliatory tone employed by the Obama administration, and that Washington would rally allies to confront Beijing, according to Green, now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank.

The talks in Alaska are "not going to be a love fest," Green said.

Senior administration officials briefing reporters in advance of the Anchorage meetings said they don't anticipate any policy pronouncements after the meetings, which they described as a one-off, not the beginning of a dialogue process with the Chinese. And they said there will be no joint statement from the two countries afterward, though such statements are customary for high-level diplomatic talks.

Instead, they said the goal is to get a sense of where the Chinese stand on key issues so they can take stock once returning home as Biden finalizes his broader China strategy. Notably, the officials did not cite China's handling of Covid-19 as a top concern.

Image: Secretary of State Antony Blinken testifies before House Foreign Affairs Committee
Secretary of State Antony Blinken testifies before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs on the Biden administration's priorities for U.S. foreign policy on March 10, 2021.Ken Cedeno / Pool via Reuters

The gathering in Anchorage follows recent congressional hearings in Washington, during which a top military commander and experts warned that the United States was at risk of losing its military and technological edge to Beijing, and that China was out to undermine the international, rule-based order.

The head of U.S. forces in the Pacific, Adm. Philip Davidson, told senators last week that the U.S. military's superiority was eroding in the face of China's massive arms buildup, and that there was a risk Beijing could try to seize Taiwan by force within six years.

Experts also told lawmakers that China is using its economic power to punish or coerce other governments, including Australia. Beijing has imposed tariffs on a growing list of imports from Australia after Canberra called for an international inquiry into how China handled the outbreak of the coronavirus.

Image: Jake Sullivan
National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan speaks during the daily press briefing in the Brady Briefing Room of the White House on March 12, 2021.Olivier Douliery / AFP - Getty Images

In separate interviews with NBC News in recent days, two senior intelligence officials said they believed the U.S. government needs to significantly reorient its priorities to deal with what they see as an unparalleled strategic threat from China, including moving intelligence and military resources from the Middle East to the Pacific theater. Each said he saw signs that the Biden administration was prepared to do that.

One of them noted the Obama administration tried to "pivot" to a focus on Asia, but "it never got executed because we were still deeply involved in Afghanistan and Iraq."

"Now I think it's become much more urgent, much more serious. We really do need to get out of the Middle East," the official said. "We need to think about warfare with China because China is the only country that has the ability to comprehensively challenge the United States."