Yesterday, Assistant Attorney General for the National Security Division Matthew G. Olsen announced that an anti-economic espionage program launched in 2018 called the “China Initiative” would cease to exist. This is a welcome development but falls woefully short of addressing the complex ways that anti-China sentiment is metastasizing in the United States under the banner of national security.
A systematic assessment of the damage — both direct and indirect — that Asian American researchers faced due to the China Initiative is needed. In the immediate term, the Justice Department should begin an educational program for its employees about the history of discrimination against Asian Americans, especially during times of overheated rhetoric against Asian countries. Call it “the Vincent Chin Initiative,” named after the 27-year-old Chinese American who was beaten to death by auto workers frustrated by job losses from Japan’s car industry.
To be clear, there are legitimate threats China poses to the United States, such as government-backed industrial espionage, intellectual property theft, and covert disinformation campaigns. But stoking fear and suspicion about China’s threat could lead to worst-case scenario assumptions about anyone connected to China and reduce space for cooperation in areas of bilateral interest, such as addressing the planetary threat of climate change.
While the China Initiative’s aim may have been to combat Chinese economic espionage and threats to U.S. national security, it evolved into institutionalized racial profiling of people of Chinese heritage. Before long, members of Congress, Asian American organizations, and numerousacademics were demanding that the Initiative end due to concerns about discrimination against Asian scientists and the chilling effect that it had on academic research.
Given this context, yesterday’s announcement that the DOJ would terminate the China Initiative is good news. In his remarks at the National Security Institute, Olsen condemned the “narrative of intolerance and bias” fueled by the China Initiative. Noting that he began his career in the civil rights division at DOJ, Olsen expressed “concern that DOJ had lower standards for people with ties to China.” He said that the nature of today’s threats to the United States demands a “broader approach,” rather than country-specific — something that others at the Quincy Institute have recommended in the context of human rights promotion. Olsen justified the decision to end the China Initiative to consultations with members of Congress, members of the scientific and academic communities, and the Asian American community, affirming the importance of public participation in federal policymaking.
At times, Olsen sounded as though he was preemptively addressing critics who might describe the decision to end the China Initiative as being “too soft” on Beijing. Indeed, he repeatedly used sweeping terms such as “malign influence” to describe China’s threat to the United States without explaining what the term means or how it affects Americans. At one point during the speech, Olsen defended the China Initiative, stating that he “saw no indication that DOJ's decision was based on bias or prejudice.”
According to an investigation conducted by MIT Technology Review, DOJ never “officially defined the China Initiative or explained what leads it to label a case as part of the initiative.” The Initiative strayed from its primary goal of curbing economic espionage to “research integrity” issues such as disclosing foreign affiliations on forms. Many cases have turned out to have little connection to national security or industrial espionage, and nearly 90 percent of the defendants charged under the China Initiative were found to be of Chinese heritage. By evading responsibility for mistakes made by the initiative, Olsen undermined his own assertion that the Justice Department has recognized the implications of its past actions and are seeking to avoid the same mistakes going forward.
Olsen also endorsed FBI Director Christopher Wray’s speech last month on countering the threat from China. This is somewhat troubling, as Wray had offered an overblown assessment of the extent and nature of the threat from China. According to Wray, American “economic security and our freedoms” were on the line and China has the capacity to undermine us from within, making it far more insidious and ubiquitous.
To his credit, Wray added this disclaimer in his remarks: “The Chinese government and the Chinese Communist Party pose the threat we’re focused on countering — not the Chinese people, and certainly not Chinese Americans, who are themselves frequently victims of the Chinese government’s lawless aggression.” Perhaps such sentiments will dampen some people’s paranoia about China, but it seems hardly enough to counterbalance the highly emotive and zero-sum language used to describe China’s threat, which feeds the “evil China” narrative and fuels anti-Asian hate. Seen in this context, Attorney General for the State of Connecticut William Tong’s recent comment at Committee of 100 that he is “routinely accused on social media for being a PRC agent” because of the atmosphere of paranoia created by the China Initiative seems hardly surprising.
Perhaps a bellwether of things to come is a forthcoming FBI documentary titled, “Made in Beijing: The Plan for Global Market Domination.” In the trailer, which feels more like a spy thriller than a government documentary, China is depicted as a behemoth obsessed with stealing America’s R&D and technology. The audience is the hardworking American worker, asking "If China worked this hard to steal a corn seed, how hard would they work to steal what you produce?" The film then says "It is the Chinese government's long-term strategy that they want to eventually put you out of business.” At a time of unprecedented personal loss due to COVID-19, such personalized, fear-based language will likely fan the flame of anti-China hate and may lead to more racial profiling of Asian Americans.
Last Saturday marked the 80th anniversary of the signing of Executive Order 9066 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. One hundred twenty thousand Japanese Americans, most of whom were born in the United States, were stripped of their constitutionally-protected civil rights. As President Biden observed, “The incarceration of Japanese Americans 80 years ago is a reminder to us today of the tragic consequences we invite when we allow racism, fear, and xenophobia to fester.”
President Biden’s historically-conscious attitude needs to trickle down to the national security apparatus. For the Justice Department, that means being careful not to inflate China’s threat, whether it is under the banner of China Initiative or under a more amorphous framework. DOJ can lead the federal government by instituting a new “Vincent Chin Initiative” to educate its workforce on false espionage cases and the rising anti-Asian hate since the start of the pandemic. It could hold regular panels with experts and Asian American scholars to explore how language used by public officials could fuel hate and lead to narrow framing of issues.
The story of Vincent Chin’s tragic murder provides a window into what Asian Americans are living through right now. For it is only when we understand how anti-Asian hate took hold within our democratic system in the past that we can avoid its resurgence.
Jessica J. Lee was formerly senior research fellow on East Asia at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. She is an expert in U.S. foreign policy toward East Asia, legislative affairs, and transpartisan coalition-building.Jessica’s analysis has been featured in The Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, The National Interest, USA Today, the Washington Times, The Nation, Arms Control Today, and Quincy Institute’s news platform Responsible Statecraft. She has testified before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission and co-authored several Quincy Briefs and Reports, including Toward an Inclusive & Balanced Regional Order: A New U.S. Strategy in East Asia, Beyond Deterrence: A Peace Game Exercise for the Korean Peninsula,, The Folly of Pushing South Korea Toward a China Containment Strategy, and Active Denial: A Roadmap to a More Effective, Stabilizing, and Sustainable U.S. Defense Strategy in Asia.Jessica is a non-resident senior associate fellow at the Asia Pacific Leadership Network, a term member of the Council on Foreign Relations, a member of National Committee on U.S.-China Relations, a member of the National Committee on North Korea, and a 2021-2022 Arms Control Negotiation Academy Fellow with the Negotiation Task Force at Harvard University. She serves on the board of the U.S. nonprofit exchange program between U.S. and East Asian college students called International Student Conferences.Previously, Jessica led the Council of Korean Americans, a national leadership organization for Americans of Korean descent. Prior to CKA, Jessica was a Resident Fellow at the Pacific Forum and a senior manager at The Asia Group, LLC. She began her career on Capitol Hill, where she served as a professional staff member handling the Asia region for the chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, and as a senior legislative assistant on international security and trade for a member of Congress on the Ways and Means Committee. Jessica holds a B.A. in Political Science from Wellesley College and an A.M. in Regional Studies-East Asia from Harvard University. She has advanced proficiency in Korean.
Ukraine would consider inviting Russian officials to a peace summit to discuss Kyiv’s proposal for a negotiated end to the war, according to Andriy Yermak, the Ukrainian president’s chief of staff.
“There can be a situation in which we together invite representatives of the Russian Federation, where they will be presented with the plan in case whoever is representing the aggressor country at that time will want to genuinely end this war and return to a just peace,” Yermak said over the weekend, noting that one more round of talks without Russia will first be held in Switzerland.
The comment represents a subtle shift in Ukrainian messaging about talks. Kyiv has long argued that it would never negotiate with Russian President Vladimir Putin, yet there is no reason to believe Putin will leave power any time soon. That realization — along with Ukraine’s increasingly perilous position on the battlefield — may have helped force Kyiv to reconsider its hard line on talking with the widely reviled Russian leader.
Zelensky hinted at a potential mediator for talks following a visit this week to Saudi Arabia. The leader “noted in particular Saudi Arabia’s strivings to help in restoring a just peace in Ukraine,” according to a statement from Ukrainian officials. “Saudi Arabia’s leadership can help find a just solution.”
Russia, for its part, has signaled that it is open to peace talks of some sort, though both Kyiv and Moscow insist that any negotiations would have to be conducted on their terms. The gaps between the negotiating positions of the two countries remain substantial, with each laying claim to roughly 18% of the territory that made up pre-2014 Ukraine.
Ukraine’s shift is a sign of just how dire the situation is becoming for its armed forces, which recently made a hasty retreat from Avdiivka, a small but strategically important town near Donetsk. After months of wrangling, the U.S. Congress has still not approved new military aid for Ukraine, and Kyiv now says its troops are having to ration ammunition as their stockpiles dwindle.
Zelensky said Sunday that he expects Russia to mount a new offensive as soon as late May. It’s unclear whether Ukrainian troops are prepared to stop such a move.
Even the Black Sea corridor — a narrow strip of the waterway through which Ukraine exports much of its grain — could be under threat. “I think the route will be closed...because to defend it, it's also about some ammunition, some air defense, and some other systems” that are now in short supply, said Zelensky.
As storm clouds gather, it’s time to push for peace talks before Russia regains the upper hand, argue Anatol Lieven and George Beebe of the Quincy Institute, which publishes Responsible Statecraft.
“Complete victory for Ukraine is now an obvious impossibility,” Lieven and Beebe wrote this week. “Any end to the fighting will therefore end in some form of compromise, and the longer we wait, the worse the terms of that compromise will be for Ukraine, and the greater the dangers will be for our countries and the world.”
In other diplomatic news related to the war in Ukraine:
— Hungary finally signed off on Sweden’s bid to join NATO after the Swedish prime minister met with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in Budapest, according to Deutsche Welle. What did Orban get for all the foot dragging? Apparently just four Swedish fighter jets of the same model that it has been purchasing for years. The prime minister blamed his party for the slow-rolling, saying in a radio interview prior to the parliamentary vote that he had persuaded his partisans to drop their opposition to Sweden’s accession.
— French President Emmanuel Macron sent allies scrambling Tuesday when he floated the idea of sending NATO troops to Ukraine, according to the BBC. Leaders from Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy, Poland, and other NATO states quickly swatted down the idea that the alliance (or any individual members thereof) would consider joining the war directly. Russia said direct conflict with NATO would be an “inevitability” if the bloc sent troops into Ukraine.
— On Wednesday, Zelensky attended a summit in Albania aimed at bolstering Balkan support for Ukraine’s fight against Russia, according to AP News. The Ukrainian leader said all states in the region are “worthy” of becoming members of NATO and the European Union, which “have provided Europe with the longest and most reliable era of security and economic development.”
— Western officials were in talks with the Kremlin for a prisoner swap involving Russian dissident Alexei Navalny prior to his death in a Russian prison camp in February, though no formal offer had yet been made, according to Politico. This account contrasts with the one given by Navalny’s allies, who claimed that Putin had killed the opposition leader in order to sabotage discussions that were nearing a deal. Navalny’s sudden death has led to speculation about whether Russian officials may have assassinated him, though no proof has yet surfaced to back up this claim. There is, however, little doubt that the broader deterioration of the dissident’s health was related to the harsh conditions he was held under.
U.S. State Department news:
In a Tuesday press conference, State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said the situation on the frontlines in Ukraine is “extremely serious.” “We have seen Ukrainian frontline troops who don’t have the ammo they need to repel Russian aggression. They’re still fighting bravely. They’re still fighting courageously,” Miller said. “They still have armor and weapons and ammunition they can use, but they’re having to ration it now because the United States Congress has failed to act.”
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Janet Yellen, United States Secretary of the Treasury. (Reuters)
On Tuesday, U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen strongly endorsed efforts to tap frozen Russian central bank assets in order to continue to fund Ukraine.
“There is a strong international law, economic and moral case for moving forward,” with giving the assets, which were frozen by international sanctions following Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, to Kyiv, she said to reporters before a G7 meeting in San Paulo.
Furthermore on Wednesday, White House national security communications adviser John Kirby urged the use of these assets to assist the Ukrainian military.
This adds momentum to increasing efforts on Capitol Hill to monetize the frozen assets to assist the beleaguered country, including through the “REPO Act,” a U.S. Senate bill which was criticized by Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in a recent article here in Responsible Statecraft. As Paul pointed out, spending these assets would violate international law and norms by the outright seizure of sovereign Russian assets.
In the long term, this will do even more to undermine global faith in the U.S.-led and Western-centric international financial system. Doubts about the system and pressures to find an alternative are already heightened due to the freezing of Russian overseas financial holdings in the first place, as well as the frequent use of unilateral sanctions by the U.S. to impose its will and values on other countries.
The amount of money involved here is considerable. Over $300 billion in Russian assets was frozen, mostly held in European banks. For comparison, that’s about the same amount as the entirety of Western aid committed from all sources to Ukraine since the beginning of the war in 2022 — around $310 billion, including the recent $54 billion in 4-year assistance just approved by the EU.
Thus, converting all of the Russian assets to assistance for Ukraine could in theory fully finance a continuing war in Ukraine for years to come. As political support for open-ended Ukraine aid wanes in both the U.S. and Europe, large-scale use of this financing method also holds the promise of an administrative end-run around the political system.
But there are also considerable potential downsides, particularly in Europe. European financial institutions hold the overwhelming majority of frozen Russian assets, and any form of confiscation could be a major blow to confidence in these entities. In addition, European corporations have significant assets stranded in Russia which Moscow could seize in retaliation for the confiscation of its foreign assets.
Another major issue is that using assets to finance an ongoing conflict will forfeit their use as leverage in any peace settlement, and the rebuilding of Ukraine. The World Bank now estimates post-war rebuilding costs for Ukraine of nearly $500 billion. If the West can offer a compromise to Russia in which frozen assets are used to pay part of these costs, rather than demanding new Russian financing for massive reparations, this could be an important incentive for negotiations.
In contrast, monetizing the assets outside of a peace process could signal that the West intends to continue the conflict indefinitely.
In combination with aggressive new U.S. sanctions announced last week on Russia and on third party countries that continue to deal with Russia, the new push for confiscation of Russian assets is more evidence that the U.S. and EU intend to intensify the conflict with Moscow using administrative mechanisms that won’t rely on support from the political system or the people within them.
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Activist Layla Elabed speaks during an uncommitted vote election night gathering as Democrats and Republicans hold their Michigan presidential primary election, in Dearborn, Michigan, U.S. February 27, 2024. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook
A protest vote in Michigan against President Joe Biden’s handling of the war in Gaza dramatically exceeded expectations Tuesday, highlighting the possibility that his stance on the conflict could cost him the presidency in November.
More than 100,000 Michiganders voted “uncommitted” in yesterday’s presidential primary, earning 13.3% of the tally with most votes counted and blasting past organizers’ goal of 10,000 protest votes. Biden won the primary handily with 81% of the total tally.
The results suggest that Biden could lose Michigan in this year’s election if he continues to back Israel’s campaign to the hilt. In 2020, he won the state by 150,000 votes while polls predicted he would win by a much larger margin. This year, early polls show a slight lead for Trump in the battleground state, which he won in 2016 by fewer than 11,000 votes.
“The war on Gaza is a deep moral issue and the lack of attention and empathy for this perspective from the administration is breaking apart the fragile coalition we built to elect Joe Biden in 2020,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), a progressive leader who has called for a ceasefire in Gaza, as votes came in last night.
Biden still has “a little bit of time to change this dynamic,” Jayapal told CNN, but “it has to be a dramatic policy and rhetorical shift from the president on this issue and a new strategy to rebuild a real partnership with progressives in multiple communities who are absolutely key to winning the election.”
Rep. Ro Khanna, a prominent Biden ally, told Semafor the vote is a “wake-up call” for the White House on Gaza.
The “uncommitted” option won outright in Dearborn, a Detroit suburb with a famously large Arab American population. The protest vote also gained notable traction in college towns, signaling Biden’s weakness among young voters across the country. “Uncommitted” received at least 8% of votes in every county in Michigan with more than 95% of votes tallied.
The uncommitted campaign drew backing from prominent Democrats in Michigan, including Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and state Rep. Abraham Aiyash, who is the majority leader in the Michigan House. Former Reps. Andy Levin and Beto O’Rourke, who served as a representative from Texas, also lent their support to the effort.
“Our movement emerged victorious tonight and massively surpassed our expectations,” said Listen to Michigan, the organization behind the campaign, in a statement last night. “Tens of thousands of Michigan Democrats, many of whom [...] voted for Biden in 2020, are uncommitted to his re-election due to the war in Gaza.”
Biden did not make reference to the uncommitted movement in his victory speech, but reports indicate that his campaign is spooked by the effort. Prior to Tuesday’s vote, White House officials met with Arab and Muslim leaders in Michigan to try to assuage their concerns about the war, which has left about 30,000 Palestinians dead and many more injured. (More than 1,100 Israelis died during Hamas’s Oct. 7 attacks last year.)
The president argues that his support for Israel has made it possible for him to guide the direction of the war to the extent possible, though his critics note that, despite some symbolic and rhetorical moves, he has stopped far short of holding back U.S. weapons or supporting multilateral efforts to demand a ceasefire.
Campaigners now hope the “uncommitted” effort will spread to other states. Minnesota, which will hold its primaries next week, is an early target.
“If you think this will stop with Michigan you are either the president or paid to flatter him,” said Alex Sammon, a politics writer at Slate.
Meanwhile in the Republican primary, former President Donald Trump fended off a challenge from former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley. With 94% of votes in, Trump came away with 68% of the vote, while Haley scored around 27%.