The State Department delayed imposing sanctions, export controls, and other measures on China after the Chinese military brazenly flew its large spy balloon over Alaska, Canada and the lower 48 states in late January and early February.
The postponement of these measures, reported by Reuters on May 11, will almost certainly strengthen, legitimize, and embolden the most hostile elements in senior Communist Party circles.
These hostile elements, thanks to the State Department, now have additional incentives to engage in belligerent conduct, and, in light of Washington's craven behavior, every nation that looks to America for security has to be extremely concerned.
"Guidance from S is to push non-balloon actions to the right so we can focus on symmetric and calibrated response," wrote Rick Waters, deputy assistant secretary of state for China and Taiwan, in a February 6 email. "We can visit other actions in a few weeks."
In plain English, Waters informed subordinates that Secretary of State Antony Blinken— referred to as "S" — had delayed already-planned actions to avoid increasing tensions with China. Beijing had expressed anger for the shooting down of the balloon two days before the Waters message.
Those planned actions included export-control licensing rules for Huawei Technologies and sanctions on China's officials for repression of Uyghurs. Reuters reported that these China measures "have yet to be revived."
Why did the Biden administration delay taking action? It is still devoted to policies that have failed for three decades. "The recent revelation that senior State Department officials purposefully directed the postponement of actions against China following the discovery, and eventual shootdown, of a probable PLA reconnaissance balloon reflects a return to the ideology of engagement at all costs," James Fanell of the Geneva Centre for Security Policy told Gatestone.
Specifically, State Department officials believe that maintaining lines of communication is critical and apparently worried that after the balloon incident, China would cut them off indefinitely. Reuters reports that Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, generally responsible for the China portfolio, was especially keen on rescheduling Blinken's visit to Beijing, which he had to postpone due to the balloon incursion. In short, China has successfully intimidated the American government.
Defenders of the State Department's postponement of the Huawei and Uyghur measures have suggested that Washington will gain support among fence-sitting countries by showing that the United States was doing all it could to accommodate Beijing, ultimately making China appear the recalcitrant party.
Such an argument might have made sense three decades ago, but certainly not at this late date. If countries by now do not perceive the danger posed by China, they never will. The way to obtain that consensus is Reagan-style American leadership — and American coercive diplomacy. Both, at the moment, are in short supply.
Lowest common denominator solutions — the inevitable result of consensus building — do not work when danger is imminent. Now, Ukraine has become a great-power battleground, China and Russia are rapidly destabilizing North Africa, and the world looks as if it is just one conflict away from global war.
Unfortunately, China cannot stop talking about war and is fast making preparations for it. Chinese President Xi Jinping is implementing the largest military buildup since the Second World War; he is trying to sanctions-proof China; he is stockpiling grain and taking control of all agriculture; he is surveying America for nuclear weapons strikes; and, most ominously, he is mobilizing China's civilians for battle. China's military has, Cultural Revolution-style, launched a purge of officers opposed to war. The recent death sentence handed down to retired Air Force General Liu Yazhou, who had argued against an invasion of Taiwan, is of particular concern.
We are running out of time. There is, however, almost no sense of urgency in Biden's Washington and in the most senior levels of the Pentagon.
Biden, stuck in the post-Cold War glow of the 1990s, seems to think he has plenty of time to straighten matters out. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan had more than 10 hours of meetings with China's top diplomat, Wang Yi, in Vienna on the 10th and 11th of this month. The free-wheeling discussions have restarted what Washington Post columnist David Ignatius approvingly called "constructive engagement."
"Biden's opening to China has been motivated by one simple idea: The United States doesn't want to start a new Cold War," Ignatius writes. "Biden took too long to implement this insight, bowing to the new conventional wisdom in Washington that the more strident the confrontation with China, the better. But he seems to have found his voice."
Beijing, unfortunately, is merely playing the same old game of three decades: holding out the prospect of talks in order to get American presidents to delay taking action. Dialogue with a cynical Beijing is almost always fruitless. At this moment, China is trying to prevent both the G7, which will meet in Hiroshima starting May 19th, from taking action against Beijing's coercive economic diplomacy and the Biden administration from issuing long-awaited rules prohibiting investment into Chinese technology sectors.
Xi appears to believe he has no reason to work "constructively" with America. "Change is coming that hasn't happened in 100 years," he proclaimed on March 22 while bidding farewell to Vladimir Putin in Moscow after their 40th in-person chat. "And we are driving this change together."
Whether or not America is finished as a great power as Xi insists — I believe he is dead wrong — we are in the middle of events history will remember. Once again, Western democracies are not recognizing threats and acting with the speed and determination required.
The Biden administration is even moving in the wrong direction. "The Chinese Communist Party spent the past 30 years digging their talons into America's flesh, and a return to engagement will make getting rid of Beijing's influence even more painful," said Fanell, also a former U.S. Navy captain who served as Director of Intelligence and Information Operations at the U.S. Pacific Fleet. "We are told there is a bipartisan consensus about confronting China today within the U.S. Congress, but this will be increasingly hard to implement if the executive branch returns to this failed engagement policy."
China has completely intimidated the Biden administration. Americans — and others around the world — must worry what happens next.
Gordon G. Chang is the author of The Coming Collapse of China, a Gatestone Institute distinguished senior fellow, and a member of its Advisory Board.