Yellen's China speech sets up tests for US policy
And why climate doesn't get 'will-not-compromise' status
Thanks for reading Here It Comes, my newsletter on the interactions between US-China relations, technology in China, and climate change. All-access subscriptions are free. Readers who especially wish to support this effort, and have the means, can contribute directly through a paid subscription. I’m grateful for your attention either way. –Graham Webster
US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen today delivered the latest major speech from the Biden administration on China policy.
In terms of news, the speech was thin: Amidst renewed reports that an executive order may soon be issued to require national security reviews of outbound US investments in China, Yellen merely says they’re thinking about it:
“[W]e are considering a program to restrict certain U.S. outbound investments in specific sensitive technologies with significant national security implications.”
In other previously reported news, Yellen says “I plan to travel to China at the appropriate time,” speaks positively about her interactions with Liu He, and says she looks forward to working with her new counterpart.
The speech is more forward-leaning in setting out principles by which the administration “will” act—and therefore by which its actions might reasonably be judged. So here are some tests Yellen sets up for the administration, and some questions about their shape.
Note: This post is based on the prepared text of the speech; I have not checked it against the speech as delivered.
The Two Will-Not-Compromises: national security and human rights
National Security: Yellen sets up national security as a realm in which “[w]e will not compromise on these concerns, even when they force trade-offs with our economic interests.” The national security section spends most of its time on “safeguarding certain technologies from the PRC’s military and security apparatus.” (A section threatening “severe” consequences if China provides Russia with “material support or assistance with sanctions evasion” is the balance.)
The speech twice emphasizes, in the future tense, that actions on technology controls will be narrow. It is in this context that she raises the newsworthy topic of outbound export controls. Any such regime, and any broader “national security actions in the economic sphere,” Yellen promises, will be guided by the following principles:
First, these actions will be narrowly scoped and targeted to clear objectives. They will be calibrated to mitigate spillovers into other areas. Second, it is vital that these tools are easily understood and enforceable. And they must be readily adaptable when circumstances change. Third, when possible, we will engage and coordinate with our allies and partners in the design and execution of our policies.
In addition, communication is essential to mitigating the risk of misunderstanding and unintended escalation. When we take national security actions, we will continue to outline our policy reasoning to other countries. We will listen and address concerns about unintended consequences.
This is a pretty high standard, and reasonable people will disagree on whether the administration’s actions so far have met it. You can see the narrow scope and clear objective approach in the sanctioning of sub-units of broader firms, but perhaps not in the Biden administration’s continuation of Trump administration policies barring graduates of entire universities from study in the United States.
Most prominently, there is broad debate as to whether last year’s restrictions blocking Chinese access to the most advanced semicondutors and the tools to build an independent chip capability are narrowly scoped and targeted to clear objectives, while mitigating spillovers. The action came in the context of a declared policy that, in the words of National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, “Given the foundational nature of certain technologies, such as advanced logic and memory chips, we must maintain as large of a lead as possible.” Whether one favors the chip policy or not, it’s hard to find the narrow part of a policy to comprehensively cap another country (not just its military) in foundational technologies at a given plateau for as long as possible.
Human Rights: “Like national security,” Yellen says, “we will not compromise on the protection of human rights.” Again, technology is a focus. Policy details are fewer, referencing sanctions on “regional officials and companies for a range of human rights abuses” and import restrictions connected to forced labor in Xinjiang.
So Yellen has set up some tests for the administration going forward:
Will national security measures be narrow and linked to clear objectives?
Will national security measures be “easily understood and enforceable,” as opposed to intricate (like many narrow, calibrated measures might naturally be) or impossible to carry out due to targets beyond US reach?
Will US policy be responsive to the concerns of other countries?
No compromise on human rights sounds righteous. But will US policy stop at no economic or other cost to protect human rights?
Rules, rules, rules—fair rules
The Biden administration, like its Democratic Party forebears the Clinton campaign and the Obama administration, is rhetorically and—to varying degrees in the honest convictions of its key officials—obsessed with rules. Yellen thus says in two different ways that a “growing China that plays by [international/the] rules,” is good for the United States. She also sticks up for “our vision for an open, fair, and rules-based economic order” as well as repeating the true if worn US line that China has thrived economically in what US officials style as the “rules-based global economy.”
Far beyond economics, and well before the Trump-era punctuation of US-China equilibrium, a focus on rules has raised the question not only of whether their proponents were actually rules-bound in their behavior but whether the rules are fair. Yellen adopts traditional US positions that intellectual property theft, “non-market tools,” non-reciprocal market access barriers, and tech transfer for market access do not meet the “fair” standard. Again, people disagree on what’s fair, but this is standard US positioning.
This section is less explicit in outlining specific principles, but it does set broad tests for Biden administration action:
Will the US effectively support a system of rules and abide by its limits? (If so, does this include the WTO, where Trump-era measures the Biden administration has continued are broadly out of line?)
Is the US government interested in a rules-based system, or in others following specific rules favored by the US?
Not a test, but a question: How open are US policymakers to reexamining, at a time when existing institutions are challenged or moribund, what indeed makes a system of rules fair?
‘Leading together’: An olive branch?
A striking heading in Yellen’s prepared remarks would seem to extend a more open hand: “LEADING TOGETHER ON GLOBAL CHALLENGES.” I’m not sure what to make of the fact that this is a heading and not necessarily something the secretary would say out loud while delivering the speech—but “leading together,” a phrase not repeated again in the body text, is really striking to me from a US official. (If I’m just not remembering this being a common rhetorical turn, by all means let me know.) It sounds banal: Of course both governments have a leadership role in the world. But US officials are often reflexively allergic to the idea of Chinese leadership, even in contexts where the content of the leadership is benign. To many, the idea smacks of US decline, multipolarity (as a swear word), surrender of US primacy, etc.
Yellen covers cooperation on helping “emerging markets and developing countries facing debt distress” and on climate change. It is on climate, Yellen comes closest to rendering the “leading together” phrase in the body text: “We have a joint responsibility to lead the way.” The rest of the climate language balances cheering joint agreements in Paris and Glasgow with frustrated-sounding demands that China live up to those agreements. There’s justification for frustration, but this section feels dialed in to avoid the political perception that the Biden team would sacrifice being tough for cooperation with China on climate.
Some tests for US policy implied under these sections:
Yellen criticizes China for being slow to move on debt relief; will US officials praise and reinforce actions if and when Chinese entities do take such actions?
Will the US actually, as Yellen promises and no doubt hopes, “do its part” on climate?
Why isn’t climate a will-not-compromise?
This is a post about a speech, not really about underlying realities. But there’s a rhetorical puzzle here that reflects something much deeper. Yellen talks tough about “national security” and “human rights,” saying these interests cannot be compromised and implicitly inviting observers or real world actors to test how bright that line is. A few paragraphs later, she references the “existential challenge of climate change.” How—literally, on Earth—is climate not a will-not-compromise issue? It doesn’t even need to be listed separately: National security and human rights face their greatest perils in the medium- to long-term from this challenge. As a close reader of US China speeches for many years, I would propose two explanations.
The first is that, despite ample and increasingly politically salient evidence, many Washington actors are convinced that truly transformative climate action just isn’t happening. Some believe this because they think it shouldn’t happen, because they think climate change is a hoax, etc. But I think more just see it as a non-starter due to politics; Congress is what it is, and it’s not “serious” to imagine otherwise. Therefore, ¯\_(ツ)_/¯: Whether or not climate change poses the most impactful risks to US security, economic, and human-scale interests—it’s seen as a political reality that it won’t or can’t be dealt with as such.
The second is more China-specific: There is a legacy of frustration among Democratic officials who saw Obama-era efforts to reach a breakthrough with China in international climate negotiations as a barrier to urgently needed actions on Chinese national security threats and economic frictions. Some still reflexively see any invocation of cooperation, negotiation, or joint work with China on climate as handing Beijing officials something they can hold hostage when the US government wants to push it on other matters: Watch your economic or maritime security or human rights demands, or else we’ll blow up the climate talks. Add to this the deep fear of being attacked as soft on China in local and national campaigns, and there’s a strong instinct to avoid linking climate to more traditionally core issues.
The first reason explains why, at a deep level, many officials who actually get the existential threat point are practically unable to act like they get it. The second explains why, rhetorically, a speech like this runs away from linking climate to the politically mainstream matters of national security and human rights. Yet running away from reality rhetorically further reinforces the sense of helplessness. And at some point, leaders must lead. I don’t mean to pick on Yellen here, who is doing what’s normal and anyway is not responsible for these administration-wide choices, but something’s got to give.
About Here It Comes
Here it Comes is written by me, Graham Webster, a research scholar and editor-in-chief of the DigiChina Project at the Stanford Cyber Policy Center. It is the successor to my earlier newsletter efforts U.S.–China Week and Transpacifica. Here It Comes is an exploration of the onslaught of interactions between US-China relations, technology in China, and climate change. The opinions expressed here are my own, and I reserve the right to change my mind.