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Protocol | China

Biden’s plan for Chinese tech companies? It could look a lot like Trump’s.

Experts expect more polish and less chaos from the new administration, but a multilateral approach could make life harder.

Gina Raimondo

Commerce secretary nominee Gina Raimondo pledged at her confirmation hearing Tuesday to take "aggressive trade enforcement actions to combat unfair trade practices from China."

Photo: Jonathan Ernst/Getty Images

If Tencent, Alibaba, ByteDance and Huawei thought they were going to have an easier go of it once Donald Trump left the White House, they may be in for a rude awakening.

President Joe Biden's team has resisted offering specifics about how it plans to approach China's tech giants after four years of hawkish, and oftentimes chaotic, relations under Trump; White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki says the new administration is currently conducting an interagency review as it seeks to develop a holistic China policy.

But experts expect President Biden's China strategy to look like a more polished and multilateral version of Trump's as his team pushes forward a slew of policies aimed at curtailing the power and influence of Chinese tech companies in the U.S.

"Biden is most likely, on the technology front, going to keep things the way the Trump administration has made them," said Abishur Prakash, a geopolitics expert at the Center for Innovating the Future. "Whether it's regarding Alipay, whether it's regarding TikTok, whether it's regarding Chinese STEM students — across the board holistically, there's not a lot of space for change."

Biden, in the coming weeks and months, will make decisions about which Trump-era policies he wants to keep in place and which he wants to change or rebrand. For instance, the Commerce Department did not immediately respond to questions about whether it is moving forward with Trump's eleventh-hour executive order banning U.S. transactions with eight Chinese apps, including Ant Group's Alipay and Tencent's WeChat Pay. And officials have not yet said whether they plan to move forward with shelved plans to blacklist Alibaba, Tencent and Baidu or follow through with the TikTok ban.

But Commerce secretary nominee Gina Raimondo pledged at her confirmation hearing Tuesday to take "aggressive trade enforcement actions to combat unfair trade practices from China," and she said she intends to "use the full toolkit at my disposal, to the fullest extent possible, to protect Americans and our network from Chinese interference or any kind of backdoor influence." She named Huawei and ZTE in particular.

Psaki said the new administration plans to hold China "accountable."

"Technology ... is of course at the center of U.S.-China competition," Psaki said on Monday. "China has been willing to do whatever it takes to gain a technological advantage — stealing intellectual property, engaging in industrial espionage and forcing technology transfer." She added: "The president's view is we need to play a better defense, which must include holding China accountable for its unfair and illegal practices and making sure that American technologies aren't facilitating China's military build-up."

That strategy will also involve shoring up U.S. manufacturing, an effort Biden kickstarted this week with his "Buy American" executive order, which directs federal agencies to purchase products and services from U.S. workers and businesses. The effect of that order on tech's supply chains will be minimal, experts said, but the philosophy behind it will be key over the next four years. "One of the things you're going to see early on [in Biden's presidency] is a focus on investing domestically in our people, in our economy, in our democracy," said Brian Deese, incoming director of the National Economic Council, at a tech conference earlier this month.

Influential leaders, including former Google CEO Eric Schmidt, are calling for the "bifurcation" of the U.S. and Chinese sectors in a new report this week, advocating for the U.S. to invest in domestic infrastructure as well as "ally-centric production."

The Biden approach to Chinese technology issues will be different than Trump's in at least one key area: Biden officials have said they plan to work with other Western democracies to create a united front against China's influence. "Whether the techno democracies or the techno autocracies are the ones that get to define how technology is used — the technology that dominates all of our lives — I think is going to go a long way to shaping the next decades," Anthony Blinken, who was confirmed Tuesday as secretary of state, said last week.

Martijn Rasser, a senior fellow with the Center for a New American Security, predicts that the Biden administration will "rebrand" former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's "Clean Networks" initiative, which asked U.S. allies to join a pledge excluding apps and carriers owned by Chinese firms.

"By and large, a lot of our allies have already signed up for Clean Networks or at least expressed general agreement with the goals and principles of it," Rasser said. "It's more so how it's packaged, how it's portrayed in diplomatic exchanges and so forth. I think that's where the biggest change will be, not so much the substance or the goals."

Meanwhile, the Chinese government is engaged in its own antitrust crackdown against the tech giants, proposing a new set of regulations aimed at curtailing their monopoly power. "If you're Alibaba or Tencent or Huawei or Baidu, you're already under siege at home," Prakash said. "You're already rethinking your corporate strategies, rethinking how do you expand and do anything."

And that pressure will only be compounded as the U.S. turns to allies including Japan, Australia and the EU to encourage them to stave off the growing influence of the Chinese tech giants. "If there is a unified approach by the leading democracies, that would be a significant headwind for these companies because then any growth that they would have outside of China [is] not in the most interesting markets," said Rasser. He named South America, Pakistan and Nigeria as a few places where they could expand, but he said that potential would be limited. The push could force the huge Chinese conglomerates to look more like "very large regional companies," he said.

And Biden likely won't choose to take on the companies one by one, predicted Adam Segal, chair in emerging technologies and national security at the Council on Foreign Relations. Instead, his administration will focus on particular industries, like semiconductors, and national security risks, like data privacy.

"The [Biden administration] will try to create a more coherent, focused domestic set of regulations that also includes the Chinese firms and other international firms as opposed to going ad hoc, whack-a-mole on specific Chinese firms," Segal said.

In other words, Biden probably won't be waging a PR battle against TikTok anytime soon.

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