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Minutes after Joe Biden was sworn in as the 46th President of the United States, Beijing issued sanctions against former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and 27 figures tied to the now-disbanded Trump administration, slamming them for their “selfish political interests, prejudice, and hatred against China.”
“China has decided to sanction 28 persons who have seriously violated China’s sovereignty and who have been mainly responsible for such U.S. moves on China-related issues,” China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement, which was issued at shortly after midnight local time.
Besides Pompeo, the list of 28 includes Trump confidant and China hawk Peter Navarro and former national security advisers Robert O’Brien, Matthew Pottinger, and John Bolton, as well as Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign head Stephen Bannon, who also has ties to Chinese fugitive Guo Wengui.
The ministry listed only 10 of the 28 it intends to sanction, but notable exceptions seem to be U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, who headed up trade war negotiations with China, and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who led a campaign of increased scrutiny on U.S.-listed Chinese stocks.
“These individuals and their immediate family members are prohibited from entering the mainland, Hong Kong, and Macao of China. They and companies and institutions associated with them are also restricted from doing business with China,” the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said.
By far the most prominent figure on the list is Pompeo, who fostered an increasingly confrontational stance toward China during his time in office. On Tuesday, a day before Biden’s inauguration, Pompeo issued a statement that designated Beijing’s oppression of ethnic Uighurs in Xinjiang province a genocide, making the U.S. the first nation to do so officially.
But even before Pompeo officially issued the “genocide” determination, China’s Foreign Ministry had vowed on Monday to sanction U.S. officials over “nasty behavior” regarding Taiwan. Washington had lifted curbs on exchanges between officials from the U.S. and Taiwan—a government the U.S. doesn’t officially recognize and which China claims as its own—provoking the response.
“Sanctioning these U.S. officials when they are already out the door will have little effect in practice,” says Noah Barkin, managing editor at China-focused advisory firm Rhodium Group. “It’s a symbolic gesture which underscores just how low U.S.-China relations have sunk.”
But since the sanctions also restrict companies “associated” with the individuals named from doing business in China, some of the onetime Trump associates could find future career paths blocked because of potential employers’ concerns about upsetting Beijing.
At the same time, the sanctions could bolster the individuals’ political standing among other China hawks at home. John Bolton, for example, has already mocked the sanction against him and said he will “accept this prestigious recognition of my unrelenting efforts to defend American freedom.”
Although exchanges between Washington and Beijing are likely to be less bombastic under a Biden administration, there’s no indication from Biden or his team that relations will return to a pre-Trump normal. In fact, Biden’s nominee for Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Tuesday that he supported Pompeo’s finding.
Last year, Biden’s campaign laid out a series of multibillion-dollar initiatives, billed under titles like Innovate in America and Buy American, that specifically target making the U.S. economy less “dependent on China.”
“President Biden has made it clear that he will not move quickly to eliminate the tariffs imposed on imports from China, or the tech-related measures,” says David Dollar, a senior fellow at think tank the Brookings Institution.
In fact, Dollar doesn’t think China will be much of a focus for Biden at all in the first year of his presidency, as the new President grapples with the coronavirus and the post-pandemic economy. But the sanctions on Trump’s outgoing officials have set Biden-Beijing relations off on the wrong foot.
“Imposing these sanctions on Inauguration Day is seemingly an attempt to play to partisan divides,” Biden’s National Security Council spokeswoman Emily Horne told Reuters on Wednesday, calling the move “unproductive and cynical.”
“President Biden looks forward to working with leaders in both parties to position America to outcompete China,” Horne said.