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Biden nominees hype China threat on Capitol Hill

Rahm Emanuel and Nicholas Burns had an opportunity to rein in Congress's thirst for conflict with Beijing, but they took the bait instead.

Analysis | Asia-Pacific

As has now become commonplace for serving and prospective U.S. officials when appearing before the Congress, ambassador-designees Rahm Emanuel (for Japan) and Nicholas Burns (for China) focused their testimonies on Capitol Hill this week primarily on the threats China poses to the United States, offering no more than a vague nod in the direction of cooperation.

Their prepared testimony and responses to questions were almost all about zero-sum competition and rivalry with Beijing, building stronger anti-China blocs (centered on the U.S.-Japan alliance), and dealing from a position of strength. 

There was no mention of the obvious workings of an interactive, negative dynamic between Washington and Beijing involving ever-greater levels of worst case assessments on both sides. And there was little or no hint of policy priorities and an overall strategy for the region, beyond countering China and strengthening alliances for that purpose. 

On Taiwan, Burns stated that the United States “cannot trust China on Taiwan,” but neglected to mention that the same holds true for China with regard to the United States. Both sides are focusing on what each regard as resolute deterrence actions, with little in the way of credible reassurances. This just leads to more deterrence efforts and drives us toward confrontation and possible conflict. 

Burns’ call to deepen security cooperation and expand arms provisions to Taiwan might bring smiles to the faces of many lawmakers, but it will not stabilize Taiwan. Deterrence is certainly needed, but so too are genuinely credible actions in support of the One China policy.

To his credit, Burns did not make China out to be a behemoth bent on destroying everything, as many in Congress insist. But his correct analysis on this point was still leveraged toward encouraging competition; Burns implied that China’s less-than-gargantuan size would make it easier to defeat Beijing in great power competition. 

Unfortunately Emanuel towed the congressional line on China even more than Burns did, defining the U.S.-Japan relationship as almost entirely for the purpose of countering China. He mistakenly suggested that Asian states want Washington to weigh in more heavily in opposing Beijing. In reality they want the United States to play a more active role by both balancing against China where needed while increasing common incentives in support of an inclusive, more cooperative regional order that includes China. That’s why few Asian countries have gotten behind the Quad concept: they do not necessarily want to join an anti-China bloc.

While it is understandable that administration nominees seeking congressional approval want to avoid alienating many members of Congress in their thirst to “get China,” it is distressing nonetheless to see two key Asia nominees pandering to the worst congressional instincts while offering little in the way of balanced strategic assessments.

Rahm Emanuel, left, is greeted by R. Nicholas Burns, right, as he arrives for a Senate Committee on Foreign Relations hearing for his nomination to be Ambassador to Japan in the Dirksen Senate Office Building in Washington, DC, Wednesday, October 20, 2021. Credit: Rod Lamkey / CNP/Sipa USANo Use Germany.
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