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CvT: A Shrinking Toolbox on US-China Human Rights Issues

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With the arrival of a new presidential administration, many pundits have been predicting a return to traditional American values in US diplomacy. However, the reality is that there will be little room for change in US policy regarding human rights or democracy, even with Biden in the White House. Institutionally, there has been a general tendency for Congress to be the focal point of human rights as opposed to the executive branch, which inherently limits Biden’s ability to single-handedly address meaningful policy change.

Meanwhile, given China’s lofty view of itself as unchallengeable in the international community due to its overwhelming role in the global economy as well as having recently become a moderately prosperous country, it is unlikely that Biden would be able to push human rights and collaboration with China simultaneously, leaving the new administration choosing between cooperation on areas like environmental sustainability and trade or human rights issues.

Limitations of US institutions

The Executive Branch’s disposal of a vast byzantine institution that spreads foreign policy across multiple departments and regulatory agencies acts as a retardant to changes from the status quo on specific issues, such as human rights, while allowing it to become an expert in all areas. By contrast, Congress has an extremely limited number of broadly specialized congressional staffers, and is beholden to the congressional calendar when enacting policy. Congress is naturally more inclined to prioritize human rights as it lacks the direction to specialize in value-based issues rather than areas with strong technical substance.

Meanwhile, a bolder China has emerged

Given the expansive nature of the US-China relationship, the Biden Administration will have to take all of its agencies’ views and interests into account when making decisions that could lead to complications for other departments. Nominally, Biden desires to cooperate with China where bilateral interests most align, with the prominent area being climate change. However, today’s China is much more self-confident and has more political heft than in previous decades. Unlike previous Chinese leaders like Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao who highly prioritized the US-China relationship for the sake of economic development, Xi Jinping has shown a greater willingness to tolerate friction and even de-prioritize the US-China relationship in times of disagreement.

As such, a US diplomatic tit-for-tat over human rights would be likely to further entrench the ill-will and hostility that has characterized the US-China relationship over the past four years, putting out of reach any political hopes for improvement between the two powers. Meanwhile, the broad mandate and interests of the executive branch means that Biden will have his hands tied when addressing China on its human rights issues—at least in the earlier days of his presidency—leaving the foreign affairs committees in Congress to continue drawing from an increasingly empty toolbox with which to approach human rights issues.

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