Trump's hawkish turn on China raises the stakes for Americans

Trump's hawkish turn on China raises the stakes for Americans

August 29, 2020
  • President Donald Trump's policy on China has always had unclear and shifting goals and so far produced few results.
  • Now, with a closely contested election approaching, Trump has embraced a hardline on Beijing, but it remains uncertain where this hawkish turn with take US-China relations, writes Kimberly Ann Elliott, a visiting scholar at the George Washington University.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

Not long ago, The New York Times labeled President Donald Trump the "biggest obstacle" to his own administration's China policy.

Trump's trade war with China, which he launched as part of his campaign promise to get tough on its unfair trade practices, has always had unclear and shifting goals, while producing minimal results.

Even as his administration has taken a relatively tough line against China's high-tech industrial policies, Trump's odd affinity for authoritarian leaders, including his "good friend" in China, Xi Jinping, kept getting in the way of a coherent policy, especially when it came to protecting human rights.

Any ambivalent feelings about China and its government seem to have vanished with Trump's need for a scapegoat to blame for his mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic. Until this summer, the White House mostly ignored Beijing's efforts to squelch dissent in Hong Kong and took relatively minor measures in response to egregious human rights violations against the mostly Muslim Uighur minority in Xinjiang.

In his memoir about his time in the White House, former national security adviser John Bolton asserts that, after large protests broke out in Hong Kong last year, Trump said he didn't want to get involved. "We have human rights problems, too," Bolton heard him say.

Worse, while China was putting Uighurs in so-called "reeducation" centers that are really forced labor camps, Bolton claims that Trump told Xi to keep building the internment camps because he believed that was "exactly the right thing to do."

But now, the gloves have suddenly come off, as the US has imposed an array of new sanctions over Beijing's repression of dissent in Hong Kong and its human rights abuses in Xinjiang. The White House has also further tightened export controls on Chinese telecom giant Huawei and, earlier this month, it issued an order banning Americans from doing business with two hugely popular Chinese-owned apps, TikTok and WeChat.

Congress can take some credit for this more aggressive White House approach to China. Late in 2019, Congress passed two bills authorizing sanctions against individuals "responsible for committing acts that violate internationally recognized human rights in Hong Kong" and restricting exports to the Hong Kong police of items that could be used against protesters, including "tear gas, pepper spray, rubber bullets … stun guns, and tasers."

After expressing concern about the legislation because his administration was in the midst of trade negotiations with Beijing, Trump signed it, but then did little to implement it.

After the Chinese government imposed a harsh new security law on Hong Kong earlier this summer, which authorizes further measures to crack down on dissent there, Trump issued an executive order withdrawing Hong Kong's "special status" with the US.

This means that Hong Kong will no longer be treated more favorably than China with respect to trade and diplomatic relations, since the US considers China in violation of the "one country, two systems" arrangement that it agreed to as part of Britain's handover of Hong Kong in 1997, which was designed to give it substantial autonomy from Beijing.

The Trump administration followed that up this month with its first sanctions under the 2019 legislation. It barred Hong Kong's chief executive, Carrie Lam, and other senior officials in Hong Kong and mainland China from traveling to the US and froze any assets they might hold under American jurisdiction.

These sanctions are largely symbolic — Lam said she would "laugh off" the sanctions, since she has no assets in the US and no plans to travel there. But at least they send a belated message to China that its actions in Hong Kong are not acceptable to Washington.

Congress also compelled the Trump administration to punish Chinese officials allegedly involved in the repression in Xinjiang by passing the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act this past spring. Trump already had authority to take action under the Global Magnitsky Act, which authorizes similar sanctions for human rights abuses anywhere in the world, but Congress included new reporting requirements in the legislation as added pressure on the White House.

The Trump administration had imposed restrictions on exports of some items to local government entities and Chinese companies implicated in forced labor and other abuses in Xinjiang. But until recently, it had not targeted high-level officials or companies that are major suppliers to American brands, such as Apple and Ralph Lauren.

In a revealing interview recently with Axios, Trump admitted that he had not done more to sanction China over Xinjiang in 2018 and 2019 because he didn't want to interfere with the trade negotiations.

Now, however, with his reelection campaign heating up and the coronavirus still raging through the country, even Trump's much-coveted "phase one" trade deal with China may be at risk.

Trump said earlier this month that he had canceled bilateral talks to discuss implementation of the agreement because "I don't want to talk to China right now." Aides later said that the talks had merely been delayed and that the postponement did not mean that the deal was off.

But the future of that agreement — much less a "phase two" deal — is very much up in the air, with Chinese purchases of American soybeans and other goods lagging the phase one commitments by a substantial amount.

While congressional pressure has played a role in triggering a more aggressive posture toward China, electoral politics are also clearly at play. Action to confront China over its miserable human rights record is long overdue, and there is no question that Beijing poses serious challenges to American interests and values with its industrial and trade policies, and its human rights abuses.

But Trump chose to ignore the latter, and on the former, he signed a minimal trade deal that does little more than cater to the farm lobby in solidly Republican red states by mandating set amounts of Chinese purchases. Trump's electoral calculations then shifted, as his poll numbers began tanking because of his utter failure in managing the pandemic.

For Trump, it was easier to blame Beijing and let the China hawks come to the fore than to admit to that failure. But unlike the Soviet Union during the Cold War, China is a major global economic player, and erratic, politically driven US policies that don't recognize that reality will leave both sides worse off.

While the sanctions over human rights abuses in Xinjiang and Hong Kong have been primarily symbolic, the escalating actions against Huawei, and more recently the orders restricting TikTok and WeChat, could lead to a balkanized internet that puts American companies at a disadvantage and undermines the goal of an interconnected world.

Trying to "decouple" more broadly may slow China's rise, but it is unlikely to be effective in changing Chinese behavior. What's more, it would carry significant costs for American business and consumers. As Edward Alden argued last week, the only certainty right now is that we don't know where this is all going to end up.

Kimberly Ann Elliott is a visiting scholar at the George Washington University Institute for International Economic Policy, and a visiting fellow with the Center for Global Development. Her WPR column appears every Tuesday.

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