For months, activists have been scratching their heads over the fate of a bill aimed at curtailing imports made with forced labor by Uyghurs that has garnered broad bipartisan support as the White House remains mute.
Like legislation last year targeting Chinese officials responsible for detaining ethnic Uyghurs in forced labor camps in Xinjiang, the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act passed the Senate unanimously. Instead of landing on the president’s desk, the bill has gone nowhere.
In press briefings, the White House has declined to say whether President Joe Biden supports the bill, and officials did not respond to questions about whether the administration was advocating for it or against it on Capitol Hill. Many view the legislation as an obstacle to cooperation with China, which has bristled at outside criticism of its treatment of Uyghurs, though the White House has disputed this.
The Biden administration seeks Beijing’s cooperation to slow temperature increases that scientists say will fuel extreme weather patterns, droughts, hurricanes, water, and food scarcity. Analysts said Washington’s push to bring China on board with its ambitious climate goals is coming at a cost.
In July, a turf war began to play out inside the administration, driving a wedge that placed aides focused on competition with Beijing to one side. “On the other side of that are people who have different policy equities like climate change, and they see the Chinese Communist Party not as a competitor, but as a necessary partner,” said Michael Sobolik, a fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council. “The frontline of this is climate change and the genocide in Xinjiang targeting Uyghur Muslims.”
Much of the world’s polysilicon, a key solar cell component, is produced in Xinjiang, and the Biden administration views solar panels as an essential tool in the green energy transition.
“That specific turf war, John Kerry’s faction won,” Sobolik said. “And they have only been getting stronger through August, September, and into October.”
Biden’s envoy on the issue, former Secretary of State John Kerry, and, increasingly, Jake Sullivan, his top national security adviser, is leaning on the House of Representatives, and Speaker Nancy Pelosi specifically, to not move legislation that penalizes China for forced labor of Uyghurs.
Biden’s advisers have pushed congressional leadership to stop floor action in the chamber “for the sake of appeasing Beijing,” sources told the American Prospect . Spokespeople for Sullivan and the State Department denied the Prospect’s report.
Administration officials, including at the National Security Council, have been “crippled” by their principals, a source told the Washington Examiner, a direction cast from the top. “It’s going right back to, again, John Kerry, President Biden himself, unfortunately, and now Jake Sullivan’s name is being tossed into the mix.”
Sullivan has defended the administration’s position and repeatedly said that it has no intention of cooling pressure on Beijing, including threats to Taiwan , its crackdown on Hong Kong, the mass detention and sterilization of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang province, and cybercrime.
“We are not in the business of trading cooperation with China on climate change as a favor that Beijing is doing for the United States,” Sullivan said during a meeting with his Chinese counterpart in Zurich this month.
He had delivered the same message during a security conference in April, adding that “the jury is very much out” on whether China would fully cooperate.
This week, ahead of Biden’s visit to two multilateral summits focused on climate, Sullivan said the administration could respond to Chinese aggression and human rights abuses while still fulfilling its green energy ambitions.
“The president is determined to produce an outcome in which we can both get the solar deployment we need, and we can stand up unapologetically and unequivocally to China,” he told reporters at the White House. “There is no reason that the United States or any other country should be forced to choose between these two issues.”
Biden will soon meet with leaders from 200 countries in Glasgow for the United Nations climate summit known as COP26, one key absence has been noted. The leader of the world’s largest carbon emitter, Chinese President Xi Jinping.
How Washington navigates this is unclear. The solar supply chain is deeply embedded in Xinjiang and China broadly, where government subsidies have helped decimate U.S. panel manufacturers, despite Trump-era tariffs.
And Kerry’s deputy, Jonathan Pershing, seemed to agree, telling lawmakers that the U.S. needs five to 10 years to move the global solar panel supply chain out of Xinjiang, according to notes from a meeting with Pershing that the Washington Post reviewed, adding that “Pershing said the administration wants flexibility in the legislation to manage a transition.”
Said Sobolik, “The implication of that is, ‘Do not sanction these Chinese companies for forced labor yet, we need five to 10 years to help our companies get out of this supply chains, and then we can crack down on these companies.’”
He added, “The real-world response to that is Uyghurs do not have the luxury of waiting five to 10 years. They’re undergoing a genocide right now and to bring it home, I don’t think the United States has five to 10 years either,” where Washington’s geopolitical concerns are at stake. “It’s one thing for people to say we don’t have to choose, but in reality, they are choosing.”
Advocates who have pressed for action on human rights issues in China are worried.
“We are watching with extreme concern,” said Julie Millsap, public affairs and advocacy director for the Campaign for Uyghurs. Millsap said advocates had noticed a shift in the rhetoric used by the president and some lawmakers to describe the situation in Xinjiang province.
Millsap praised the Biden administration for drawing attention to the issues but said in recent weeks there was a change in tone. “Most significantly, there’s been quite a drop in willingness on the part of many legislators, and in fact President Biden himself, in using the term ’genocide,’” she said. “Previously, that was something that even on the campaign trail, the Biden team was affirming and reiterating.”
Biden’s softer stance shouldn’t come as a surprise.
From the very beginning of his administration, the president has argued for a flexible approach, allowing the United States to “compete and cooperate with China simultaneously as needed,” Sobolik said. “It’s not like this is something going on with Biden’s deputies exclusively — he set up this dichotomy from the get-go.”
Author : Katherine Doyle
Source : Washington Examiner : Tensions emerge between Biden climate goals and Uyghur forced labor crackdown