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State Department Plans ‘China House’ to Counter Beijing

Some fear larger State Department China desk could be a “massive bureaucratic blob.”

By , Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter, and , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
The U.S. State Department
The U.S. State Department is seen in Washington on Nov. 29, 2010. Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty Images

The U.S. State Department is planning to expand the number of officials dedicated to monitoring China, a bid to track Beijing’s growing footprint in key countries around the world. The changes, which could include adding between 20 to 30 staff members, would include a boost for 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. 

The effort to carve out a more central China desk at State, termed “China House” by some in Washington, follows a move at the U.S. Defense Department to create a central hub to handle Washington and Beijing’s military relationship. The State Department initiative would add officers in both Washington as well as to embassies around the world to monitor China’s activities in specific countries, according to current and former officials familiar with the matter.

One official said the State Department is also looking at adding more staff to track China’s procurement of emerging technologies and efforts to tackle climate change. A State Department spokesperson declined to comment.

The U.S. State Department is planning to expand the number of officials dedicated to monitoring China, a bid to track Beijing’s growing footprint in key countries around the world. The changes, which could include adding between 20 to 30 staff members, would include a boost for 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. 

The effort to carve out a more central China desk at State, termed “China House” by some in Washington, follows a move at the U.S. Defense Department to create a central hub to handle Washington and Beijing’s military relationship. The State Department initiative would add officers in both Washington as well as to embassies around the world to monitor China’s activities in specific countries, according to current and former officials familiar with the matter.

One official said the State Department is also looking at adding more staff to track China’s procurement of emerging technologies and efforts to tackle climate change. A State Department spokesperson declined to comment.

Changes at Foggy Bottom come as U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration seeks to pivot away from two decades of costly Middle East wars to long-term global competition with China. In his debut presidential address at the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday, Biden vowed to “compete vigorously” with other major powers but said Washington was “not seeking a new Cold War or a world divided into rigid blocs.” He did not mention China by name.

The first cadre of China officers at the State Department was deployed in 2019. But the advent of the program caused infighting during the early years of the Trump administration, one former senior Trump administration official told Foreign Policy. Some senior diplomats who opposed a more confrontational approach to China pushed back on the idea of designating “China watch officers.” Susan Thornton, the former top acting State Department envoy for East Asia from 2017 to 2018, called the program a “bad idea.”

The program “takes people assigned to embassies around the world and tasks them with ‘watching’ what China is doing in that country,” Thornton said. “It gives rise to the kind of hype and distortions that we see now around Chinese activities, which is why I thought it was a bad idea.”

“This isn’t the only or even the main impetus for current distortion, but it’s a contributor,” she added.

After Thornton’s departure, the program advanced as the State Department tried to catch up with the Justice Department and the Treasury Department, which were ramping up efforts to target sanctions more effectively against China and blunt Chinese espionage operations. The CIA has also weighed plans to establish its own special unit to address Chinese espionage, Bloomberg reported in August, shedding light on how U.S. national security bureaucracies are adapting to a new era of U.S. geopolitical competition with Beijing. 

“If you’re building sanctions packages against Chinese targets, you need to be able to do it. If you’re trying to sort through intel to tell you whether a United Front organization is structured this way or that way, you need people who have the proper expertise, and they need the proper tools,” the former senior Trump administration official said. “The State Department’s China desk has never been structured for any of that.”

“This was just a whole posture that didn’t exist on China because effectively, in historical terms, until yesterday, we were still thinking that China wants to be our friend,” the former official added. 

The new State Department program is aimed at herding officials who work on China across various federal government agencies, patterned after interagency programs to coordinate counterterrorism efforts. Some critics of the program worry it could give the State Department a myopic view of China that could inflate China’s influence and unnecessarily hype U.S.-China tensions. They also worry it could add a new layer of bureaucracy to an already cumbersome system.

Other former officials and experts disagree, viewing this program as a way to diversify the State Department’s toolkit away from strictly an embassy-centric approach to confronting China’s influence operations abroad. They point to China’s United Front networks that have cropped up in places like Australia in efforts to infiltrate foreign political parties and disrupt U.S. interests in the Asia-Pacific. Chinese intelligence operatives have even extended their tendrils into the United States.

“There’s clearly a small cadre of these folks that are around. And I think it would be best for [the] State Department to try to find ways to leverage the intelligence community more broadly,” said Brent Sadler, a senior fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation. 

The State Department’s reshuffling appears to be patterned after the Defense Department’s efforts, which included adding more intelligence analysts in the region and shuffling Pentagon staff to focus more acutely on Beijing. U.S. Indo-Pacific Command’s joint intelligence center has doubled down on efforts to produce open-source products calling out China’s military expansion in the South China Sea and Cambodia. 

It’s been rocky. The June 2019 appointment of Chad Sbragia as the Pentagon’s top China policy official led to turf battles between Asia policy offices in the building, two former officials said, as the office tried to take control of most issues that touched on the military-to-military relationship with China, even if they fell into other portfolios. 

It could turn into “this massive bureaucratic blob, which is going to want to chop on everything,” a former Trump administration defense official said.

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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