Kashish Parpiani
Research Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, Mumbai (India)

Is Trump reinstating a values-centric US foreign policy towards China?

President Donald J. Trump and First Lady Melania Trump, joined by President Xi Jinping and First Lady Peng Liyuan, applaud and thank the performers at a cultural performance at the Great Hall of the People, Thursday, November 9, 2017, following a State Dinner in their honor, in Beijing, People’s Republic of China. (Official White House Photo by Andrea Hanks)
President Donald J. Trump and First Lady Melania Trump, joined by President Xi Jinping and First Lady Peng Liyuan, applaud and thank the performers at a cultural performance at the Great Hall of the People, Thursday, November 9, 2017, following a State Dinner in their honor, in Beijing, People’s Republic of China. (Official White House Photo by Andrea Hanks)

Trump decries linkage of values & policy but his China policy may be an exception

On mounting pressure to punish Saudi Arabia for its alleged involvement in the disappearance of Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi, Trump recently announced that he wouldn’t prefer to impose sanctions. Referring to impending U.S. weapons sales to Saudi Arabia worth billions, he said, “This took place in Turkey and to the best of our knowledge, Khashoggi is not a United States citizen… I don’t like stopping massive amounts of money that’s being poured into our country.” This apparent cold realpolitik fed a flurry of articles and denunciations on the president’s unwillingness to uphold liberal democratic values vis-à-vis socio-political and human rights violations abroad. By contrast, the Trump administration’s policy towards China is increasingly laden with derisions of its record on socio-political freedoms.

Earlier this month, Vice President Pence delivered a major policy speech underscoring the Trump administration’s policy towards China. Pence noted the “hope” of China expanding freedom –– “not just economically, but politically, with a newfound respect for classical liberal principles, private property, personal liberty, religious freedom –– the entire family of human rights”, to have “gone unfulfilled.” He portrayed China as “an unparalleled surveillance state” that aimed to “drastically” restrict “the free flow of information to the Chinese people.” Pence even accused Beijing of wanting to “implement an Orwellian system premised on controlling virtually every facet of human life.”

Further, he went on to list instances of religious persecutions. With respect to Chinese Christians,  Pence accused the Chinese authorities of “tearing down crosses, burning bibles, and imprisoning believers.” On Beijing “cracking down” on Buddhism, Pence referenced “more than 150 Tibetan Buddhist monks” to have “lit themselves on fire to protest China’s repression of their beliefs and their culture.” As for the state of Islam in the Xinjiang province, he accused Beijing to have “imprisoned as many as one million Muslim Uyghurs in government camps” in an attempt to “strangle Uyghur culture and stamp out the Muslim faith.” Finally, he also assailed against Chinese attempts to stifle freedom across academia, entertainment and the media.

This iteration of American policy towards China came as a welcomed contrast to Trump administration’s disdain for a linkage of values and policy. In characterising Trump’s ‘America First’ policy in early 2017, then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson spoke of decoupling US foreign policy and values. On U.S.’ commitment to human rights and socio-political freedoms around the world, he notably deemed them as American “values” and “not our policies.” The Trump administration’s maiden National Security Strategy also noted an interests-heavy approach and emphasised a disdain for a values-policy linkage with the disclaimer: “We are not going to impose our values on others.”

One may argue that with respect to China, however, the pertinence of a values-centric U.S. foreign policy has been a standard fixture. The same can be traced back to the 1959 speech by then-Senator John F. Kennedy, in which he deemed “Red China” to have sought a “route of regimented controls and ruthless denial of human rights.”

Further, the values-centric approach towards China continued well into the post-Cold War U.S. worldview –– from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice deeming China’s sentencing of human rights activists as “deeply disturbing” to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stating that China “should face consequences and international condemnation” for its internet freedom restrictions.

From a pure realpolitik standpoint, one may even argue that a values-centric approach was bound to become a standard fixture, as China was “replacing the Soviet military of the pre-Gorbachev years and the Japanese economy of the 1970s as the next big purported threat to American global leadership.” For instance, in the 1992 U.S. presidential election, the need for an assertive U.S. policy towards China was at the fore. Referring to the events of June 1989 in Tiananmen Square, then-Governor Bill Clinton rallied against American ambivalence especially when “all those kids went out there carrying the Statue of Liberty in Tiananmen Square.” Once in office, President Clinton even walked the talk to oversee the passing of the Jackson-Vanik Amendment to the 1974 Trade Act –– which required him to annually review the decision to continue to accord the Most-Favoured-Nation status to China contingent on its improvements on the human rights front.

However, the centrality of the values-centric approach in U.S. policy fizzled overtime. First, in view of China’s large market potentialities, the U.S. adopted a pragmatic, economic-centric approach. Encapsulated in its attempt to induct China as a “responsible stakeholder” in the U.S.-led world order, the Permanent Normal Trade Relations was passed to end the “annual ritual of reviewing China’s trade status”, and eventually pave way for China’s entry into the World Trade Organisation.

Second, the three Ts –– Taiwan, Tibet and Tiananmen –– that dominated the values-centric approach, stood dampened, as China’s relative military advantage vis-à-vis Taiwan grew, the state-sponsored Sinicisation of Tibet marginalised the natives, and the Tiananmen incident faded in Chinese collective memory due to stringent internet censorship.

Under its declared return of an era of “great power competition”, the Trump administration has adopted a confrontational approach towards China with the increased adoption of trade tariffs and a steady frequency of U.S. Freedom of Navigation Operations in the South China Sea. Additionally, there also seems to be an attempt to reinstate the U.S. values-laden approach.

On Taiwan, the Trump administration has not shied away from lauding Taiwan’s “embrace of democracy” as representing “a better path for all the Chinese people.” Although some past U.S. administrations have done so, the post-normalisation precedent has largely been to temper U.S. endorsements as the Communist Party of China has long viewed the same as an “all-out Westernisation” campaign to dislodge its rule. The Trump administration has, however, doubled-down not only by considerably ramping up defence exports to Taiwan, but by also entering the China-Taiwan diplomatic fray. Last month, it recalled U.S. ambassadors to the Dominican Republic, El Salvador and Panama for their decision to no longer recognise Taiwan. Moreover, Trump also signed the Taiwan Travel Act to “permit high-level Taiwanese officials to enter the United States under respectful conditions and to meet with U.S. officials, including officials from the Departments of State and Defense.” The same challenges the ‘One China’ policy’s unstated dictum of refraining to host Taiwanese delegations which may be construed as according implied recognition of Taiwanese statehood.

On China’s restrictive visa policy, the U.S. House of Representatives recently passed The Reciprocal Access to Tibet Act of 2018 by a unanimous voice vote. The bill aims to impose consequences for China’s restrictive access to Tibet which prevents “journalists from observing human rights abuses in Tibet and preventing Tibetan Americans from visiting their home country.” Under the bill’s provisions, Chinese authorities who are involved in the implementation of such restrictive visa polices will become ineligible to receive a visa or be admitted into the U.S.. Given the strong bipartisan nature of the bill –– backed by Congressional heavyweights like Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), President Trump is expected to sign the bill into law once it also passes the U.S. Senate with similar bipartisan vigour.

On Beijing’s attempts to censor the internet, the Trump administration laudably finds itself in agreement with Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Reporters Without Borders, and the Committee to Protect Journalists. Back in August, these organisations and a dozen other international groups had penned a joint-letter urging Google CEO Sundar Pichai to cancel the development of the “Dragonfly” –– a censored search engine app for China. Reportedly, the Trump administration is also now coaxing Google to end its development of the app which it believes will “strengthen (Chinese) Communist Party censorship and compromise the privacy of Chinese customers”.

On China’s stifling of democratic movements, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently delivered a direct rebuke. On the banning of the pro-independence Hong Kong National Party, Pompeo deemed the freedoms of expression, peaceful assembly, and association to be “the core values we share with Hong Kong, and that must be vigorously protected.” Incidentally, this denunciation followed China’s refusal of a port call (slated for October) in Hong Kong by the amphibious assault ship USS Wasp. According to a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, the same was purportedly refused “in accordance with the doctrine of sovereignty and specific situation.

Finally, the Trump administration is also reportedly mulling over the idea of imposing sanctions against Chinese senior officials and companies in view of Beijing’s detention of minority Muslims in Xinjiang.

Thus, in now pursuing its “great power competition” policy vis-à-vis China, the Trump administration seems poised to reinstate China’s record on socio-poltical freedoms –– in addition to U.S. concerns over Chinese trade practices and military assertiveness, as a major bone of contention.

About the Author
Kashish Parpiani is a Research Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation (ORF) in Mumbai, India. His research interests include U.S. Grand Strategy, U.S. Civil-Military Relations, and U.S. Foreign Policy in the Indo-Pacific. Parpiani holds post-graduate degrees (MSc.) in International Relations and (MA.) in the United States’ Foreign Policy from the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (NTU, Singapore) and the University of Warwick (U.K.) respectively. In the past, he has served in brief research capacities at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Singapore and the Institute for National Security Studies, Israel. For more, visit https://www.orfonline.org/people-expert/kashish-parpiani/
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