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Amid Rising Tension with Beijing, US Creates 'China House'

By Liyuan Lu June 15, 2022

Amid tensions in bilateral relations, the U.S. State Department is creating a new entity known as "China House" to better track what China is doing around the world.

At a just-concluded security conference in Singapore, Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe said it's up to the United States to improve bilateral relations

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin noted the "alarming" increase in unsafe and unprofessional encounters between Chinese planes and vessels and those of other countries.

The China House project reflects U.S. concern about what Secretary of State Antony Blinken described last month as Beijing's emergence as "the most serious long-term challenge to the rules-based order."

A State Department spokesperson declined to provide details about the status of China House, describing it as "a department-wide integrated team that will coordinate and implement our policy across issues and regions."

"We will continue and accelerate efforts to integrate PRC expertise and resources in this new central policy coordination hub," the spokesperson, who declined to be named, told VOA last week.

'We are watching'

In an email to VOA Mandarin, Liu Pengyu, spokesperson for the Chinese embassy in Washington, said, "The key for the China-U.S. relationship to walk out of the predicament is for the U.S. side to abandon its mania for zero-sum games, give up its obsession with encircling and containing China and stop undermining China-U.S. relations.

"We have noted that Secretary Blinken said in his speech that the U.S. is not looking for conflict or a new Cold War with China; it doesn't seek to block China from its role as a major power, nor to stop China from growing its economy; and it wants to coexist peacefully with China. We are watching what the U.S. will do."

Hu Xijin, the former editor-in-chief of the Global Times and an influential special commentator for the publication, downplayed the China House with a signed piece that boiled down to "so what?"

The new entity will track Beijing's activities by adding 20 to 30 additional regional China "watch" officers, "a category of officials first created during the Trump administration to track Beijing's activities around the world under the State Department's regional bureaus," according to an article published in Foreign Policy last September, before the China House initiative became official.

China House was officially announced on May 26 amid a U.S. ramp up in its diplomatic efforts to address growing rivalry with China.

Washington has been homing in on the small island nations in the Indo-Pacific and Asia Pacific since China launched a more aggressive diplomatic outreach in recent years.

In May, China's foreign minister, Wang Yi, completed a 10-day tour of eight nations in the South Pacific after signing a security agreement with the Solomon Islands in April.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern urged U.S. President Joe Biden at a White House meeting on May 31 to engage more with Pacific Island states in response.

In Washington, local lore has long stated that nothing better indicates an issue's importance than the creation of a new agency for it. Some former U.S. government officials and experts on Sino-U.S. relations say they believe that with the creation of the China House, the Biden administration is taking a stand on the future relationship with China.

Offering a perspective on that relationship is Douglas Paal, a non-resident scholar at the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

"I think the administration is trying to respond to public and internal assessments that China is our greatest challenge in the new era," said Paal in a Skype interview with VOA Mandarin.

"And they want to show Congress, the public, that they're effectively preparing and dealing with it by throwing resources, especially human resources, into the mix to show the world how to get the best outcome for the U.S. in its rising confrontation period of competition with China," he added. Paal has also served as director of the American Institute in Taiwan, the de facto U.S. embassy there.

Zack Cooper, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, told VOA Mandarin in an email, "I think the administration is trying to show its seriousness on China."

"I don't think the new bureaucracies are going to make it more difficult to coordinate - they could make it easier," said Cooper. "But it really depends on whether these teams have substantial increases in staff and resources. If so, they will more likely be an asset than an impediment, in my view."

After the Biden administration came to power, the State Department provided Chinese translations of the administration's policy statements, memoranda of meetings and important speeches on its website. In addition, the State Department designated staff to run its Chinese blog and write articles about all aspects of the United States.

"The obvious need for U.S. diplomacy to keep up with China's emergence as a global power has broad bipartisan support," Patrick Cronin, Asia-Pacific security chair at Hudson Institute, told VOA Mandarin. "The creation of China House, which represents a growing team of diplomatic professionals following China's multi-faceted activities in all regions of the globe, will strengthen U.S. foreign policy in dealing with Chinese officials and international actors who must contend with Beijing's policies."

Miles Yu, a senior fellow and director of the China Center at Hudson Institute, told VOA Mandarin last September that, "This is a welcome initiative, and it is long overdue. This reflects the reality of China's increased weight in America's foreign policy."

Dean Cheng, a senior research fellow from the conservative Heritage Foundation, says he thinks the U.S. needs a ring of China experts that extends beyond the State Department.

"What I would actually prefer to see if you're going to establish a China House is a State Department that convenes a group of China experts that includes China experts from the Department of the Treasury, the Department of Commerce, OSTP (the Office of Science and Technology Policy), NASA, because China is a comprehensive power that poses a comprehensive challenge," Cheng told VOA Mandarin.

"The State Department needs to think beyond diplomacy and summits and all that sort of thing, to also think about trade, to think about investment, to think about Chinese investment in the United States as well as Western investment in China," he added. "It is vitally necessary to have that cross dialogue."

Cheng says he thinks the Treasury and the Commerce departments should lead the effort in countering China.

"China is not at this point likely to go to war with the United States or even go to war leading to American intervention such as over Taiwan, but it is every day an economic competitor, financial competitor, technological competitor with the United States," he said. "So it might do us a lot of good to have that be our leading edge in terms of how we think about countering China."

Adrianna Zhang and Nike Ching contributed to this report.

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