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Biden administration to take considered approach to Chinese tech companies

Image credit: Dreamtimes/Reuters

US President Joe Biden has announced a new taskforce within the Pentagon to review US defence policy regarding China, including how to proceed from the Trump administration’s approach to Chinese tech companies.

Former US President Donald Trump took a confrontational approach to China, frequently targeting its most influential technology companies – such as ZTE, Huawei, Tencent, and ByteDance – with trade restrictions via executive order. It is yet to be seen whether Biden’s relationship with Beijing will be any less frosty.

Speaking at the Pentagon, Biden said that the new taskforce would “look at our strategy and operational concepts, technology, and force posture”.

The taskforce has 15 military and civilian members, is led by Pentagon official Ely Ratner, and will coordinate with China policy reviews being undertaken in other branches of the administration. The Pentagon said that it does not anticipate a public report on the review, although Congress will be briefed on its conclusions.

A senior official commented during a separate briefing that the administration will consider “new targeted restrictions” on certain sensitive technology exports to China in cooperation with allies, and will not roll back trade tariffs introduced by the previous administration without conducting “intense consultation and review” with these allies.

“We are maintaining those tariffs while we conduct our review because we’re not going to act precipitously,” he said. “President Biden’s major criticism of the Trump strategy here was not that he wasn’t getting tough on China on trade, but that he was doing so alone while also fighting our allies.”

One of the areas of “continuity” would be that the government will not permit highly sensitive technology to be provided to advance China’s military capabilities, he added.

He said that Biden would work constructively with Republicans to boost public investment in technology sectors crucial to US interests, such as semiconductors, AI, and biotechnology: all areas that the Chinese government hopes to stimulate.

While it would appear that the hard line taken against Chinese telecommunications giants like Huawei and ZTE will not be shifting any time soon, the Biden administration is backing away from his predecessor’s efforts to block social media platform TikTok, owned by Beijing-based ByteDance, or force the sale of its assets to US companies. The new President has asked that a court postpones a legal dispute over the issue during the national security review.

Meanwhile, the proposed US takeover of TikTok’s US operations by Oracle and Walmart – who would take over management of US user data – has reportedly been shelved “indefinitely”.

According to Samm Sacks, China expert at Yale Law School, the Biden administration appears to be taking time to lay out a clear set of criteria to evaluate which technology companies pose a legitimate threat to national security.

“I don’t think they see TikTok itself as high-priority issue,” she said. “This one-off ban on a rotating cast of Chinese tech companies, that’s not likely to continue.”

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