Joe Biden’s commerce secretary pick backs tariffs and export limits against Chinese firms

Robert Delaney
·5-min read

US President Joe Biden’s nominee to head the country’s Commerce Department told senators on Tuesday that she would use punitive tariffs and export restrictions against China, but stopped short of a specific commitment to keep existing sanctions against Huawei Technologies in place.

“China‘s actions have been anticompetitive, hurtful to American workers and businesses, coercive and … culpable for atrocious human rights abuses, so whether it‘s the ‘entity list’ or tariffs or countervailing duties, I intend to use all those tools to the fullest extent possible,” Gina Raimondo, currently the governor of Rhode Island, testified remotely during her confirmation hearing in the Senate.

Wilbur Ross, the commerce secretary during the Trump administration, put Huawei on an “entity list” in May 2019, citing national security concerns, a move that prevented US suppliers from selling goods and technology to the company without a special licence.

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Other Chinese companies on the list include Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corporation (SMIC) and the drone maker DJI Technology.

When Senator Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican known for his strident anti-China stance, pressed Raimondo for assurances she would not remove Huawei from the list, the nominee committed only to “review the policy, consult with you, consult with industry, consult with our allies and make an assessment as to what‘s best for American national and economic security”.

US Senator Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas, is seen during the confirmation hearing Tuesday by the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee on Raimondo's nomination. Photo: EPA-EFE
US Senator Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas, is seen during the confirmation hearing Tuesday by the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee on Raimondo's nomination. Photo: EPA-EFE

The response prompted an outcry from Senator Ben Sasse, Republican of Nebraska, who issued a statement questioning Raimondo’s stance.

“This is ridiculous,” Sasse said. “Huawei didn’t change because America has a new president. Huawei is still the Chinese Communist Party’s tech puppet and a serious threat to national security.

“Tough talk on China is empty if you let Huawei out of the box,” he added.

However, Raimondo repeatedly emphasised to Cruz and other senators questioning her a commitment to safeguarding against possible national security threats posed by the use of Chinese telecommunications equipment.

Sanctions on China likely to remain: Hong Kong’s American Chamber of Commerce

“There‘s an opportunity to move forward in 5G and create great innovation and jobs, but we can’t have the Chinese or really anyone having a back door into our network and compromising in any way our national or economic security,” she said.

“I will use the full toolkit at my disposal to the fullest extent possible to protect Americans and our network from Chinese interference or any kind of back door influence into our network, and that’s Huawei, ZTE, or any other company.”

Comments by numerous Biden administration officials less than a week into his tenure have suggested that the new president will not diverge substantially from the view that Beijing presents a threat to US national security requiring more vigilance than when Biden was vice-president during the administration of Barack Obama from 2009 to 2017.

Antony Blinken, who was confirmed by the Senate as the new US Secretary of State on Tuesday shortly after Raimondo’s hearing, suggested during his testimony last week that he agreed with former president Donald Trump’s “tougher approach to China”.

“I disagree very much with the way that he went about it in a number of areas, but the basic principle was the right one, and I think that’s actually helpful to our foreign policy,” he said.

Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, said on Monday that Biden “will take a multilateral approach to engaging with China, and that includes evaluating the tariffs currently in place, and he wants to ensure that we take any steps in coordination with our allies and partners, and with Democrats and Republicans in Congress”.

Raimondo’s position at Tuesday’s hearing is not necessarily indicative of how she will proceed towards Huawei or China generally, said Anthony Kim, research manager at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington think tank.

Raimondo, he noted, is a relative newcomer in terms of foreign policy and will need to defer to Blinken and others in the Biden administration.

“We should view today’s comment as her own, before the whole entire government agency coordination,” Kim said. “This is not a position of the Biden administration at this point, so I think we’ll have to wait and see.

“The Commerce Department cannot and will not alone decide what the new, official policy towards China is; that will be closely coordinated with the State Department” as well as the National Security Council (NSC), he noted.

Blinken — who during the Obama administration first served as Vice-President Biden’s national security adviser and then as as deputy secretary of state — and Jake Sullivan, who Biden appointed to lead the NSC, hold similar views about China.

Sullivan said in a CNN interview earlier this month that the Biden administration would recognise China as a serious strategic competitor to the US.

He also said Biden would work out the economic differences between the US and its European allies to improve their relations and jointly counter China on multiple fronts, from trade and technology, to the military and human rights.

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