Much has been made in recent weeks of the United States’ increasingly combative stance toward China. Beijing bristled as former Secretary of State Michael Pompeo and others introduced sanctions, removed official restrictions on exchanges with Taiwan, made public a strategic framework for the Indo-Pacific, and on the Trump administration’s final full day in office released statements from Pompeo that the Chinese government is engaged in “genocide.”
Experts have criticized these moves (e.g. here, here, and here), with some suggesting that the outgoing administration was attempting to “box in” or even “trap” the Biden administration (which the Trump campaign criticized as being “soft” on China) into a hardline stance. But in light of Americans’ dimming view of an increasingly aggressive China, these moves are unlikely to change the basic trajectory of U.S.-China relations. Indeed, they are more bark than bite. We might better see them as outgoing officials seizing the moment to finish out desired initiatives while showing what they have accomplished during a particularly difficult and thankless administration.
U.S. Increasingly Tough on China
President Donald Trump began 2020 by inking a trade deal with China while backing off on tariffs in return. There is significant doubt about how effective this deal was, but there is no doubt that Beijing continued an array of other activities inimical to U.S. interests. We can broadly group these “malign activities” into three categories: threats to economic interests, threats to security interests, and human rights abuses. The administration went on to spend much of 2020 putting Congressionally authorized sanctions in place to impose costs on these malign behaviors. These have arguably been the first and most substantive measures taken during the Trump administration.
The malign economic activities in question include unfair trade conditions, violations of China’s commitment to the World Trade Organization, and outright commercial theft, among others. Such charges have greater validity than they otherwise might due to the tight control central authorities exercise over even private businesses. On the security front, abuses include Beijing’s militarization of the South China Sea, harassment of neighboring democracies, and questionable activities worldwide.
The Chinese government’s foremost human rights abuse is its campaign of “ethnic assimilation” – or elimination – against Turkic peoples in what Beijing refers to as the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Pressure has increased throughout 2020 to label this crime a “genocide” and punitive measures against China have begun to mount, including U.S. sanctions. Over the past year or more, Beijing has expanded this campaign to other non-Han Chinese ethnic groups. Xi’s elimination of self rule in Hong Kong constitutes another major human rights violation as well as an abrogation of its treaty with the U.K.
The second punitive measure – the one that most affects the U.S.-China policy watching community – was eliminating the State Department’s restrictions on engagement with Taiwan. Taylor Fravel of MIT characterized this as a “move as far toward de facto recognition of Taiwan as his authorities as Sec of State allow” and “leaving a flaming diplomatic turd for the new administration,” among other choice words. He may have a point on the former, but I would respectfully disagree with the latter.
U.S. policy toward Taiwan has long been bounded by the three joint U.S.-China communiques, the U.S. Taiwan Relations Act, and President Reagan’s Six Assurances to Taiwan. While nothing in these items categorically forbade high-level U.S.-Taiwan exchanges, the cooperative tenor of U.S.-China relations incentivized Washington to tread lightly on Taiwan issues, a posture that was translated into the restrictions.
These recently removed rules are laid out in the State Department’s Foreign Affairs Manual and Handbook. While Beijing may at some level disapprove of the changes, we should remember that these documents are applicable only within the U.S. government. In other words, this is none of Beijing’s business. To act as though China had any right whatsoever to comment on internal U.S. agency regulations speaks to American overeagerness to propitiate Beijing. At a time when China is increasingly aggressive toward the United States and other democratic countries, such a compromising posture is likely to be received coolly in Beijing.
Having worked under these strictures for many years, I will concede that it does feel like a big change. That said, the secretary’s statement was quite clear that engagement would continue to be managed by the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT), the institution that functions in place of an American embassy on the island. In essence, AIT and the State Department retain full control over visiting officials and other engagements, as they always have.
Moreover, this change is precisely in line with Congressional mandates to increase engagement with Taiwan, a democratic island under escalating threat from China. For all the hubbub, this is a policy change in name only about which China can voice no legitimate objection. It is the visits themselves that Beijing objects to and those will still be tightly controlled. We should also remember that the United States called off its U.N. ambassador’s scheduled trip last week.
The third step was the U.S. National Security Council (not the State Department) releasing its U.S. Strategic Framework for the Indo-Pacific. Former Assistant Secretary of State Danny Russel expressed doubts while Ryan Hass of the Brookings Institution was also uneasy with the release. Some also saw it as a direct attempt to “lock in” the incoming Biden-Harris administration’s policies toward China.
In reality, the document is already three years old, not overly specific, and is regional, not global in focus. Its most significant top-level measure is arguably U.S. coordination with Australia, India, and Japan, the so-called “Quad.” It is inward-looking, describing for U.S. government personnel how they should coordinate a regional response to emerging threats, as opposed to the Indo-Pacific Strategy Report, an appeal for global cognizance and cooperation on these issues. The precise manner in which the Biden administration continues or alters the measures within the framework will be of interest to policy experts but few others. Indeed, it seems unlikely that much will change.
Finally, Pompeo, in one of his final acts as secretary of state on January 19, officially pronounced that China’s government is engaged in genocide: “I believe this genocide is ongoing, and that we are witnessing the systematic attempt to destroy Uighurs by the Chinese party-state.” Randy Schriver made a similarly stark accusation in 2019 as assistant secretary of defense, but that of course was not at the level of a cabinet secretary. It is tempting to say that this move signals a more official break with Beijing. Of course the Biden campaign has said this much already, although it is much less costly for a campaign to make such a statement than an administration (as with Trump’s call as president-elect to Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen).
One last point of note: Pompeo did not refer to the people or nation of East Turkestan, which China has for centuries attempted to absorb into itself as “Xinjiang.” Acknowledging the separate character of any region Beijing claims as its own would have been a larger step than acknowledging some form of genocide, but Pompeo did not do that.
However unusual it is for nations to continue diplomatic relations while one accuses the other of genocide, it is still difficult to see this as more than a simple restatement of past assertions, and importantly a factual one. The test for Biden will come when he is asked for his stance as president. It is very difficult indeed to see what value might come from backing off an otherwise valid assertion.
None of this is to say there will be no opposition or that these measures are not important. Indeed, Beijing sanctioned 28 Americans it claims “seriously violated China’s sovereignty” – including Pompeo and a number of other Trump administration officials – on January 20. But such measures do not change the underlying tenor of the relationship, which is already strained, nor do they force the Biden administration into any particular position.
It is tempting to say that if President Biden sought Chinese cooperation on environmental issues, Beijing might demand he back away from some of the above measures. However, it seems likely that for the reasons given only the sanctions truly concern Xi. Importantly, after the duplicity Xi displayed toward President Barack Obama – even while his administration did its utmost to mollify Xi – Biden is likely to be wary of chimerical cooperation with a China that has gone from merely threatening to outright hostile in many ways. Meaningful cooperation would have to be based on verifiable results.
Are these moves tied to Pompeo’s political ambitions? The least we can say is that Pompeo (along with former National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien) is defending his record and attempting to burnish his bona fides. Unfortunately for Pompeo, the administration’s advances toward Mideast peace, arguably its greatest foreign policy success, seem to be more creditable to Jared Kushner and the president himself. Instead it seems that Pompeo has done much of the hard work attempting to keep alliances together and building new partnerships, even while Trump has seemed gleefully intent on torpedoing them. Pompeo was able to use his pugilistic style to good effect fending off “gotcha” questions while competently shepherding the workings of U.S. foreign policy through a difficult period.
The Washington Post reported that Pompeo’s actions against China were meant to impress Trump’s base, but it is hard to see how a secretary of state or anyone else involved in diplomacy could really appeal to die-hard Trumpers. Indeed, some of that base’s ideals are coming under intense scrutiny within the Republican Party in connection with the January 6 insurrection.
There is no doubting Pompeo’s loyalty to Trump, but that was probably not his motive. This loyalty had its limits: It is not clear that he ever directly enabled any illicit behavior (despite his own potential ethical lapses). Moreover his pressure on China usually appeared to be apart from Trump’s main focus, which throughout most of his presidency was the trade deal. It seems most apt to say that the former secretary sought to advance his favored initiatives and showcase his accomplishments in the most broadly appealing manner possible, in spite of less-than-fulsome praise for his performance.
The Missing Link
There is general agreement that under the Biden administration U.S. policies toward China will change in tone, but are unlikely to change in substance. Those arguing otherwise have little recourse when confronted with the type of threatening power China has become. Indeed, the Democratic bloc has fundamentally soured on Xi Jinping’s China (which we might take as Xi’s greatest failure), even while remaining economically tied to Beijing.
But beyond simple political unpalatability, there is a more fundamental factor that many of the pundits miss, namely the moral dimension. For hundreds of years, whether they were missionaries, businesspeople, diplomats, or simply travelers, Americans have been drawn to China out of fascination and bearing high hopes. Even occasional anti-Communist sentiment has never been able to dampen American hopes. It still hasn’t.
Trump’s praise of dictatorial regimes and myriad improprieties hurt America’s moral footing and left the democratic world rudderless in a time of growing distress. Pompeo’s best efforts could not alter this fact and his statement that “We restored America’s credibility” seems fundamentally out of touch in light of the Capitol riot. We should be hopeful that this undemocratic trend reached its high-water mark during the insurrection. The Biden administration’s focus on shoring up democratic institutions at home and internationally will be a healthy corrective. As he does so, he should be sure to keep up the pressure on Beijing unless and until it ceases its malign activities and alters its hostile stance.