Less than a day before the Trump administration left office, China’s Foreign Ministry offered a parting gift: slapping sanctions on 10 sitting or former Trump administration officials. A statement from the ministry said it was instituting sanctions on 28 people for “a series of crazy moves which have gravely interfered in China’s internal affairs, undermined China’s interests, offended the Chinese people, and seriously disrupted China-U.S. relations.”
The list included Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, White House trade and industrial policy advisor Peter Navarro, National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs David Stilwell, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, Undersecretary of State for Economic Growth Keith Krach, and U.N. Ambassador Kelly Craft, as well as former National Security Advisor John Bolton, former Deputy National Security Advisor Matthew Pottinger, and former White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon. (As of noon on January 20, of course, all all the Trump administration officials got the “former” moniker as the Biden team took office.)
Most of the officials listed were responsible for crafting China policy under the Trump administration. Others – including Azar, Krach, and Craft – had high-profile interactions with Taiwan over the last year, including visits to Taipei by Azar and Krach. Craft’s own planned visit last week was called off, but she still held a phone conversation with President Tsai Ing-wen.
“These individuals and their immediate family members are prohibited from entering the mainland, Hong Kong and Macao of China,” China’s Foreign Ministry said. “They and companies and institutions associated with them are also restricted from doing business with China.”
It’s notable that China waited until these officials were on their way out the door before slapping them with sanctions – a way of carrying out a tit-for-tat with the least possible backlash from Washington D.C.
The Trump administration seemed in a rush to lock in as many adversarial policies toward China as possible before leaving office. On January 19, Pompeo’s last full day as secretary of state, he issued a formal determination that China was responsible for genocide and crimes against humanity in Xinjiang. On January 9, he overturned decades-old guidelines restricting official contacts with Taiwan.
A special report from Axios on the Trump administration’s China policy counted “at least 210 public actions related to China that spanned at least 10 departments” in 2020 alone, including indictments; visa restrictions and sanctions on Chinese officials; export controls on China companies; banned imports over forced labor allegations; and stepped up military activities in the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait.
Pompeo has been the public face of many of these pronouncements, rarely missing an opportunity to criticize China. And Beijing has returned the favor, particularly in Foreign Ministry press conferences.
When asked in her January 20 press conference to comment on the unattributed judgment that Pompeo was “the worst secretary of state in U.S. history,” Hua replied, “I really don’t want to waste any time describing Pompeo, his character, all the lies he told, rumors he spread, and the poisonous remarks he made, of which I think you all have had enough.”
It’s safe to say the Trump administration, and Pompeo especially, will not be missed in Beijing.
Hua was especially acerbic when asked about Pompeo’s last-minute determination that China’s government is committing genocide and crimes against humanity in Xinjiang. “To us, Pompeo’s so-called ‘determination’ is nothing more than a piece of waste paper,” she said. “This notorious liar and cheater is making himself a doomed clown and a joke of the century with his show of lies and madness just before the curtain falls.” She categorically denied the accusations as “completely false” and “a malicious farce.”
Hua left the door open for better relations with the Biden administration, suggesting (unconvincingly, based on the Biden camp’s own statements) they may be among “those who are simply buying the rumors” spread by Pompeo. “But as long as they mean no malicious slander or attack against China, they are welcome to have exchanges with us based on equality and mutual respect,” Hua said.
“We hope the new U.S. administration will make cool-headed, rational and accurate decisions on Xinjiang and other important issues,” she added later. It was clear from her remarks that Beijing puts the onus on Washington to “bring China-U.S. relations back to the right track” – and that China does not intend to change its own approach.
The change in U.S. administrations is unlikely to result in a substantial shift in China policy, however. During his confirmation hearings on January 19, incoming Secretary of State Antony Blinken was confident about a bipartisan approach to China, which would necessarily mean keeping much of the Trump administration’s tough stance. Most notably, Blinken agreed with both the determination that China is committing genocide in Xinjiang and Pompeo’s decision to overturn the Taiwan restrictions. Likewise, Biden’s Secretary of Defense pick, General Lloyd Austin, told Congress that he sees China “as our most serious global competitor.”
Given that, and China’s lack of introspection on the deteriorating relationship, it’s unlikely the presidential transition will bring about much change in U.S.-China relations. Beijing can expect a temporary reprieve from the breathtaking pace of new punitive measures while Biden and his team focus on the COVID-19 pandemic at home, but the foundation of the relationship is set.