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The State Department’s Complex Role in Making China Policy

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Trans-Pacific View | Politics

The State Department’s Complex Role in Making China Policy

As China emerges as a strategic competitor to the United States, its issues have transcended the traditional spheres of policymaking.

The State Department’s Complex Role in Making China Policy
Credit: U.S. State Department photo

“Politics stops at the water’s edge.” The famous maxim coined by U.S. Senator Arthur Vandenberg appears to have waned in influence in modern U.S. foreign policy. This is especially evident in the policymaking process toward China, where not only do inter- and intra-party conflicts often pervade the discourse, but bureaucratic politics also play an increasingly prominent role.

As China emerges as a strategic competitor to the United States, its issues have transcended the traditional spheres of policymaking, such as the State and Defense Departments, the intelligence community, and various economic bodies. Consequently, the landscape of actors engaged in China-U.S. relations has significantly diversified and expanded over the past few years.

For instance, the National Security Council (NSC) has steadily expanded its China-focused staff from the Obama administration through to the Biden administration. In December 2022, the State Department established the Office of China Coordination, colloquially referred to as the “China House,” reminiscent of the Cold War-era “Soviet House.” Similarly, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) initiated organizational changes with the creation of the China Mission Center (CMC), indicating a heightened prioritization of China within the intelligence community. Additionally, the Department of Justice (DOJ) launched the China Initiative in 2018, aimed at countering economic and national security threats posed by China, particularly in critical infrastructure and the private sector.

While the proliferation of China-focused agencies may enhance Washington’s capacity to manage policymaking concerning China, it also presents challenges in bureaucratic coordination, potentially leading to conflicts of jurisdiction. For example, when the State Department proposed the establishment of its China House Program in 2022, questions arose regarding its necessity and potential redundancy in light of existing initiatives such as the CIA’s China Mission Center. Concerns were also raised about the potential for the China House to add another layer of bureaucracy to an already complex system.

As the United States’ chief diplomatic institution, the State Department not only grapples with internal bureaucratic hurdles, but also encounters external conflicts with other federal agencies. In 2023, amid Washington’s efforts to ease tensions with China, bureaucratic wrangling – albeit being relatively civil and subtle – emerged between the State Department, Department of Commerce, and Department of the Treasury regarding which department leader should be the first choice for a Cabinet-level meeting with their Chinese counterpart.

A more notable instance occurred in 2021 when the State Department clashed with the FBI and the DOJ over the handling of a sensitive situation involving Chinese officials traveling in the United States. While the FBI and the DOJ sought to escalate actions against those Chinese officials, especially when the case of exiled Chinese businessman Guo Wengui added to the tensions between the two nations, the State Department advocated for a less confrontational approach, citing concerns about potential repercussions for U.S. personnel in China. State Department officials further criticized the FBI for not obtaining permission from them before initially engaging with the Chinese official.

The State Department’s bureaucratic dynamics regarding China include interactions not only with other federal agencies, but also with its direct superior: the White House. At times, these tensions manifest in a passive-aggressive fashion, as the State Department, after all, operates under the authority of the president. For example, during President George H. W. Bush’s tenure, his personal interest in China significantly shaped his China policy. Despite Bush’s proactive approach to promoting China-U.S. relations, his pragmatic and hardheaded secretary of state, James Baker, did not share his superior’s fondness for China. Baker regarded China-related issues as potential political liabilities, even before the 1989 Tiananmen Square incident and far more so afterward. Aware that China policy was tightly managed by the White House, Baker opted to distance himself from most China-related matters.

It is important to note that although diplomacy is often perceived as the art of avoiding conflict, the State Department is not always as dovish, just as the Pentagon is not perpetually hawkish. Diplomats, like soldiers, are tasked with advancing national interests, and they can demonstrate assertiveness even in the face of bureaucratic politics before crafting grand strategies. 

Seasoned politicians like former Secretary of State Colin Powell understand the power wielded by Cabinet secretaries. Their influence lies not only in their public persona, but also in their capacity to exert pressure on the president. Although clashes like the State Department’s dispute with the DOJ over presidential power in foreign affairs do not happen every day, differences in approaches to human rights issues often serve as flashpoints in the State Department’s disagreements with the White House, particularly concerning China.

In 1994, advocates for maintaining human rights conditions on Most-Favored-Nation (MFN) treatment for China found themselves marginalized within the Clinton administration and primarily centered in the State Department. Facing pressure to balance increasing domestic economic interest in accessing the Chinese market and human rights concerns, President Bill Clinton devised a plan to eventually decouple MFN treatment for China from U.S. evaluations of Chinese human rights practices while wrenching concessions from China to improve its human rights conditions.

Nevertheless, shortly before Warren Christopher’s inaugural visit to China as secretary of state, a meeting between China’s prominent democracy advocate, Wei Jingsheng, and Assistant Secretary of State John Shattuck infuriated Beijing. Despite the controversy, Christopher proceeded with his visit to Beijing, but only found himself on the defensive throughout the three-day trip. The ensuing uproar overshadowed the limited concessions he secured from Beijing. 

Clinton, distressed by the public criticism of his China policy sparked by the Christopher episode, refrained from supporting his secretary of state in public and expressed his disappointment with the trip to reporters.

Today, while the State Department under the leadership of Antony Blinken is rarely out of step with the White House on China, subtle bureaucratic politics still occur, such as the State Department’s vocal demand for more funding devoted to China issues from the White House. Against the backdrop of a waning anti-China sentiment in Washington, the State Department is expected to face greater challenges in balancing the White House’s policy shift and the divergent agendas of other federal agencies. With an increasing number of players in the game, bureaucratic politics will only become a larger concern for the State Department in the making of China policy.