Trump’s last-minute moves against China complicate Biden’s agenda

  • >> Amy Qin, The New York Times
    Published: 2021-01-21 00:40:07 BdST

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The former president addressing supporters on Wednesday. His administration’s final acts toward China created challenges for the next phase of US foreign policy. Credit...Pete Marovich for The New York Times.

The Trump administration cast its barrage of moves against Beijing, in its waning days, as necessary to stand up to China’s authoritarian leadership.

Among its final acts, the administration declared that Beijing was committing genocide against Uighurs and other Muslims in a far western region. It held a video conference between a senior US envoy and the president of Taiwan, the self-ruled island claimed by Beijing. And it jettisoned long-standing guidelines limiting exchanges with Taiwanese officials.

But the decision to push through significant foreign policy measures so quickly — and during a time of turmoil in Washington — risks politicising the issues and undermining their ability to gain global traction.

While some of the decisions were in the making for months, the timing of their rollout makes them easy to dismiss. To Beijing, the moves were a last-ditch effort by the departing administration to needle China’s ruling Communist Party. And they could potentially box in President Joe Biden by forcing him to either look weak on China by reversing the moves or incur Beijing’s wrath.

The moves were welcomed by many Taiwanese, Uighurs and other communities whom the Trump administration had said it wanted to support. But some expressed concerns that they — and their causes — were being overshadowed by geopolitics.

“There are many people who suspect the legitimacy of this decision,” Tahir Imin, a Uighur activist based in Washington, said after the United States declared that China’s repression of his ethnic group amounted to genocide. “But all of the facts show clearly that what is happening is a genocide.”

In the short term, these moves by the Trump administration may force the issues to the front of Biden’s China agenda, regardless of his own priorities. This complicates the new administration’s plans to maintain a combative stance on China over human rights and other issues while finding areas to cooperate and stabilize Washington’s spiraling relationship with Beijing.

Beijing is likely to pressure Biden to reverse at least some of the Trump administration’s decisions as a condition of resuming talks on other issues. But reversing any decision too quickly could also send a signal to the Chinese leadership that all of the Trump administration’s recent moves are on the table.

Biden has advocated remaining tough on China. He called China’s human rights abuses in Xinjiang “genocide” during the election campaign. And Antony Blinken, his pick for secretary of state, said Tuesday that he agreed with Mike Pompeo’s move in his final days in that role to declare that China’s repression of the Uighurs constituted genocide.

But the Biden administration has said that it will first focus on domestic priorities. He may not have the bandwidth to maintain the confrontation with China that the Trump administration set in motion, targeting areas like trade, technology and security.

“Because all of what has happened with the Trump administration, particularly with the last set of actions, the Chinese are going to want greater predictability,” said Bonnie Glaser, a senior adviser for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “They are going to ask for more concrete commitments from the Biden administration.”

Faced with the last-minute barrage from Washington, Beijing has so far demonstrated relative restraint. In recent weeks, the Chinese state media had dismissed Pompeo as “crazy” and the “worst secretary of state in history.” On Wednesday, the Global Times, a state-backed nationalist tabloid, relayed comments from Chinese internet users mocking former President Donald Trump as a “gravedigger of US hegemony” and “the first US president to successfully entertain Chinese people while wreaking havoc on the US at the same time.”

China’s foreign ministry rejected the genocide designation as “malicious farce.”

“The lies and poison that Pompeo has spread over these years will inevitably be swept along with him into the garbage heap of history,” Hua Chunying, a foreign ministry spokesperson, said at a regularly scheduled news briefing Wednesday.

It remains to be seen whether Beijing will take a confrontational or cooperative approach toward the Biden administration in its first days.

Beijing has made overtures to Biden, calling for a reset and greater cooperation between the two countries. But it has also spread new conspiracy theories connecting a US military lab to the coronavirus and pushed a nationalistic message that in the face of global challenges, “time and momentum are on China’s side.”

An editorial published Sunday in the Global Times called on Biden to “actively consider abolishing all the diplomatic decisions made by the previous administration in its recent surprise attack.”

Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing, said in a telephone interview that “China will want to know which actions are set in stone, which actions have some hope to be mitigated and which actions can be reversed.”

Taiwan will be especially tricky. The Trump administration supported it with official visits, pledges of economic cooperation and billions of dollars in weapons sales. The approach, in defiance of Beijing’s opposition, made Taiwan once again a major point of friction in the relationship between the United States and China.

The Chinese government is likely to pressure the Biden administration to reinstate a set of guidelines meant to restrict interactions between American officials and their Taiwanese counterparts. The guidelines had been in place since the United States broke off ties with Taiwan in 1979 and shifted diplomatic recognition to Beijing.

Pompeo’s move to lift the rules this month — which some officials suggested had been done without proper review — looked more like an effort to challenge Biden to defy China regardless of the potential risks to Taiwan. The move was welcomed by many Taiwanese officials, but Tsai Ing-wen, Taiwan’s president, who has called for talks with Beijing and is wary of escalating tensions, has not spoken publicly on the issue.

The shift “is designed to antagonise China,” said Drew Thompson, who was the Pentagon’s director for China from 2011 to 2018 and is now a research fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore. “It’s emotional; it’s not objectives-based. It’s not based on the mutually beneficial interests of Taiwan and the US.”

Biden could initiate a review of the restrictions and reinstate some of them, if necessary. But doing so would risk upsetting Taiwan and drawing criticism at home on an issue that enjoys bipartisan support.

Critics also point to the recent announcement of a planned visit to Taiwan by an American official as evidence that the Trump administration’s final moves to support the island were made in large part to spite Beijing.

Officially, the purpose of the visit by Kelly Craft, the US ambassador to the United Nations, was to bolster Taiwan’s efforts to be included in international agencies, which China opposes. But Pompeo announced Craft’s visit at the end of a statement lambasting China for the arrest of dozens of pro-democracy figures in Hong Kong, effectively wedging Taiwan’s interests into an ongoing dispute between Washington and Beijing. (The trip was later canceled and replaced by a phone call with Tsai.)

“It feels like we have been made a bargaining chip between two great powers, which has put us in a very unstable and unsafe situation,” Ma Wen-chun, a lawmaker from the Kuomintang, a Taiwanese opposition party, said in a telephone interview before the visit was canceled.

The departing administration’s efforts to punish China over its mass human rights abuses against Uighurs and other Muslim ethnic minorities in Xinjiang were similarly tainted by concerns about political motivations.

Although the administration imposed sanctions, blacklisted Chinese companies and banned all imports of cotton and tomatoes from the region, internal divisions over the issue were often laid bare. Pompeo pushed for tough measures to punish China for its mass internment of Uighurs, but Trump resisted because he did not want to jeopardise trade talks with Beijing.

For many Uighurs overseas, the administration’s decision Tuesday to declare the situation in Xinjiang a genocide could not have come soon enough. The designation could pave the way for further sanctions or draw support from other countries.

Yet some Uighur activists expressed concerns that the move would appear purely political and that the Trump administration’s damaged global credibility could undermine the cause. Others said they were hopeful that Biden’s promise to strengthen alliances could help put more pressure on Beijing over its human rights abuses.

“What we really want to see is tangible action,” said Rushan Abbas, an activist in Herndon, Virginia, whose sister, Gulshan, was recently sentenced to 20 years in prison in Xinjiang. “Not just lip service.”

© 2021 The New York Times Company