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What to Make of Pompeo’s Parting Moves Regarding China
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What to Make of Pompeo’s Parting Moves Regarding China

The State Department lifted restrictions on some interactions with Taiwan. How will the Biden administration proceed?

During times like these it may be difficult to think about foreign affairs. But America’s rivals and enemies certainly won’t pause their agendas simply because we are embroiled in domestic political discord. The Trump administration didn’t stop making foreign policy moves in its final days either, even after the president and his supporters incited a riot at the Capitol on January  6. 

The State Department, under Secretary Mike Pompeo, has been especially busy. Pompeo has positioned himself as an unwavering Trump loyalist. He likely hopes to inherit Trump’s political base for the 2024 presidential election, assuming Trump himself doesn’t run again. So, Pompeo’s actions these past few weeks are about both policy and political jockeying.

Some of his big-ticket items have involved China. Pompeo has been among the most vocal champions of the idea that the U.S. has entered a period of “great power competition” (GPC) with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and Russia. He isn’t the only official to spearhead the U.S. government’s repositioning. Some within the national security bureaucracy had been pushing this concept even before the Trump administration. But Pompeo has often been out in front as the face of GPC. 

On January 9, Pompeo announced that the State Department was lifting a set of “complex internal restrictions” that were devised to limit “our diplomats, servicemembers, and other officials’ interactions with their Taiwanese counterparts.” These self-imposed rules were intended to allay Beijing’s concerns that the U.S. would recognize Taiwan as an independent state. 

The U.S. has performed a diplomatic dance on this issue for decades, officially recognizing only “One China,” under Beijing’s rule, while merely acknowledging that the Chinese government considers Taiwan to be a part of that single sovereign state. The U.S. has maintained unofficial diplomatic and military relations with Taiwan. But this has always involved some sleight of hand.  For instance, Trump administration officials boast that the U.S. has sold more arms to Taiwan in recent years than ever before—$15 billion worth of arms in four years, as compared to $14 billion worth in the previous eight years. 

Naturally, the CCP bristled at Pompeo’s announcement. “China rejects and condemns the U.S. move,” Zhao Lijian, a CCP foreign ministry spokesperson, said on Jan. 11. “We advise Mr. Pompeo and his likes to recognize the historical trend, stop manipulating Taiwan-related issues, stop retrogressive acts and stop going further down the wrong and dangerous path, otherwise they will be harshly punished by history,” Zhao added. 

Pompeo’s last-minute decision to break with longstanding diplomatic practice may make some sense. But if it was so urgent to lift the State Department’s rules of diplomatic engagement with Taiwan, then why wasn’t it done sooner? The timing of his announcement—less than two weeks before a new administration was set to take power—could be perceived as a political move intended to put the Biden team in a bind. However, Biden’s nominee for secretary of state, Anthony Blinken, seems to be open to the diplomatic course change, explaining at his Senate confirmation hearing that he is open to greater engagement with Taiwan.  

America’s relationship with Taiwan wasn’t the only GPC-related issue on the State Department’s agenda in the closing days of the Trump administration.

Despite institutional resistance in Washington, some senior officials continued to press the theory that the virus causing COVID-19 escaped from the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV). On January 15, the State Department released a “fact sheet” that is intended to highlight this hypothesis once again. It is, I must stress, a hypothesis. The “fact sheet” itself notes that the U.S. government “does not know exactly where, when, or how the COVID-19 virus—known as SARS-CoV-2—was transmitted initially to humans.”

The “fact sheet” draws attention to reports that “several researchers inside the WIV became sick in autumn 2019 … with symptoms consistent with both COVID-19 and common seasonal illnesses.” While this is a somewhat ambiguous allegation, it draws into question Chinese denials regarding possible early infections at the Wuhan lab. The State Department also pointed to suspicious experiments,  “secret military activity” at the lab and the CCP’s actions prohibiting any independent inquiry into COVID-19’s origin. 

As I’ve written previously, the origin of COVID-19 has both scientific and political ramifications. While we must admit our ignorance, the Biden team would be foolish to drop the matter altogether. The CCP clearly sees it as an ongoing liability in its attempt to transform the world order, as some of its prospective partners may doubt China’s reliability in the wake of a worldwide pandemic that started on its soil and for which we still have so many unanswered questions.

Again, the Chinese foreign ministry’s reaction to the “fact sheet” was telling. During a press conference on January 18, Hua Chunying, another CCP spokesperson, claimed it is “filled with conspiracy theor[ies] and lies.” She alleged it was merely an attempt to deflect attention from the failures of “certain American politicians” who “have been fumbling through their pandemic responses.” Hua claimed the fact sheet was an example of “Last-day Madness”—a reference to the last days of the Trump administration—and dismissed Pompeo as “Mr. Liar.” 

All that said, Hua couldn’t provide any answers on the origin of the virus that caused COVID-19. She could only deflect.

Finally, on January 19, Pompeo formally accused the CCP of committing “genocide” against ethnic minorities in the Xinjiang region of Western China. The CCP’s campaign of oppression against the Uighurs, as well as ethnic Kazakhs and Kyrgyz, has been amply documented. Pompeo pointed to the CCP’s totalitarian policies, including torture, forced sterilizations and abortions, reeducation camps and the like. 

Despite the last-minute nature of Pompeo’s accusation, the Biden team will likely continue to press the case. “That would be my judgment as well,” Blinken responded Tuesday when asked during his confirmation hearing if he thought Pompeo was right. “Forcing men, women, and children into concentration camps, trying to in effect reeducate them to be adherents to the Chinese Communist Party all of that speaks to an effort to commit genocide.”

Politics aside, the challenges posed by the CCP remain formidable. And the ball is now in the Biden team’s hands.  

Tom Joscelyn is a senior fellow at Just Security.