The Biden administration on Friday will launch “China House,” the centerpiece of its effort to strengthen its diplomatic heft in its global rivalry with Beijing, according to plans shared with POLITICO.
The State Department-based unit is designed to eliminate silos among sometimes redundant government bodies, giving U.S. officials from within State and beyond a central clearinghouse to share information and shape policy on China, State officials said in an exclusive preview.
The establishment of China House reflects the sense inside President Joe Biden’s team that the existing U.S. bureaucracy isn’t nimble enough to combat the multitude of challenges from communist-led China — ranging from trade to military power.
While it is essentially an internal reorganization, the creation of the unit has faced hurdles. Sen. Jim Risch of Idaho, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, refused to sign off on the proposal for months, with his spokesperson saying it was structured as a “bureaucratic power grab.”
China House — formally known as the Office of China Coordination — replaces the China Desk in the State Department’s East Asian and Pacific Affairs bureau. The new entity will employ roughly 60 to 70 personnel, including liaisons from other parts of the department such as the Africa and Latin America bureaus, as well as people detailed from other U.S. departments and agencies who may focus on topics such as technology or economic policy.
“The sheer scale, scope, complexity and stakes of the China challenge required us to think, collaborate, organize and act differently,” a senior State Department official said. “It could not be managed alone through the bilateral desk approach.” The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the discussion involved sensitive diplomatic matters.
“China House will deepen our capacity to share information, sharpen our messaging, and adjust to breaking developments in real-time,” Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman is due to tell State Department staffers on Friday, according to a draft note.
China is already investing heavily in its own diplomatic machine. It now has more diplomatic facilities overseas than the United States, according to one survey. Beijing’s spending on diplomacy has also soared in recent years and analysts say that has helped boost the quality and assertiveness of its diplomats.
U.S. spending on diplomacy, meanwhile, has remained effectively flat, as has the size of the U.S. Foreign Service, while funding, security and other factors have stymied America’s diplomatic presence.
The State Department plans won’t require new funding. Officials building it said they hope it will allow them to overcome bureaucratic hurdles that have excluded key personnel from policymaking processes and prevented information and analysis from reaching relevant diplomatic outposts and government agencies.
“The fact that we’re going to have a single, secure facility where the vast majority of people can be in at one time and participate in one conversation — I can’t overestimate to you how important that is,” the senior State Department official said. “We have not traditionally brought up our teams across the department in this way to do this kind of work.”
The State Department plan is somewhat analogous to the CIA’s creation of a China Mission Center as the spy agency expands its focus on the Asian giant. Both entities are designed to be centralized hubs to steer funding, resources and personnel to track China’s expanding global footprint.
China House will be physically located inside the State Department’s headquarters in Foggy Bottom. It will have three main teams: one focused on traditional bilateral affairs; one that deals with strategic communications; and one dubbed a “global” team, which focuses on Chinese activity beyond China. A deputy assistant secretary, Rick Waters, will oversee China House as its inaugural coordinator, reporting to Assistant Secretary of State Dan Kritenbrink as well as Sherman, who oversees a high-level strategy group on China.
Former State Department officials, though broadly supportive of the need for greater resources targeting China, have warned that the China House may create a new layer of bureaucracy that will impede rather than improve efficient and timely State Department monitoring and analysis of Beijing’s activities.
Risch, at least, has been convinced otherwise. This month he announced that the State Department had made changes or pledges that allayed his concerns about its structure or who was in charge. For instance, the department agreed it would not give certain China House-related authorities to people who were not confirmed by the Senate, according to Risch.
Although they were eager to promote their plans for China House, State Department officials stressed that the overall U.S. strategy toward Beijing was about more than one unit. China House is “not the solution to upping the State Department’s game on China … it’s just part of a broader effort,” the official said.
Other steps being taken by the United States include promising to focus more on the economic side of diplomacy, an area the Chinese government prioritizes. They also include posting “regional China officers” throughout the world to monitor Chinese activity.
A test of China House’s success will be if “ambassadors in the field say, ‘I can plug in, access and benefit from the work of China House in my day to day work ‘ [whether they’re] in Riyadh, [United Arab Emirates], or South Africa,” the senior State Department official said.