Editor’s Note: Samantha Vinograd is a CNN national security analyst. She is a senior adviser at the University of Delaware’s Biden Institute, which is not affiliated with the Biden campaign. Vinograd served on President Barack Obama’s National Security Council from 2009 to 2013 and at the Treasury Department under President George W. Bush. Follow her @sam_vinograd. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
Donald Trump’s refusal to punish China for a number of abusive practices signals to the Chinese – and the rest of the world – that when it comes to this President, foreign actors can buy his silence.
His focus on getting China to agree to purchase more US agricultural goods has led Trump to downgrade other key strategic priorities with China – like supporting democratic freedoms and human rights in Hong Kong – as well as our own national security when it comes to issues like Huawei and Chinese surveillance.
Of course, China’s unfair trade practices should be a priority for the administration. The Chinese government uses a variety of tools that skew markets and hurt American interests like manipulating its currency, forced technology transfers, intellectual property theft, cyber-enabled theft and more.
The US Trade Representative, after an investigation, concluded that China’s actions are “unreasonable and discriminatory” – and that has led the Trump administration to impose heavy tariffs on China, while launching negotiations on a trade deal to address these and other issues.
The President has prioritized getting China to agree to take specific steps to correct our trade imbalance – likely because he cares about the trade imbalance and because Chinese tariffs are hurting American farmers. And though Trump has been focused on getting China to agree to purchase more US agricultural products so far he has failed to do so.
When getting a big trade deal seemed an impossibility, the US and China started working on a “Phase One” deal that was more narrowly focused and which reportedly includes getting the Chinese to agree to a numerical amount of US agricultural purchases. The Chinese, for their part, want the US to remove tariffs on Chinese goods.
Trump announced in October that “we’ve come to a very substantial Phase One deal” – adding the caveat that this was all “subject to getting it written.” Weeks later, they were close to a Phase One deal, but it has yet to materialize. He said last week that we were “potentially very close,” to an agreement. While Trump is sending positive signals once more about reaching a Phase One agreement, it feels like a bad case of deja vu.
Meanwhile, the trade war is having an economic impact on both the US and China – as well as globally.
The response? Trump has put significant economic pressure on China through tariffs, and China has responded with tariffs of its own – as well as other non-tariff retaliatory measures like slower licensing and customs approvals to operate in China.
Trump postponed increasing tariffs, again, in October when he felt a trade deal was in sight. But he’s due to hike tariffs on December 15 on a lot of Chinese consumer goods – and if he does, that will likely derail negotiations again, because Chinese authorities have said removing tariffs is key to getting a deal done.
While he’s put pressure on China economically during this trade war, he’s clearly signaled that he’ll put other noneconomic issues on ice in the hopes of getting a trade deal.
Standing down on Hong Kong
There’s not a whole lot that has bipartisan consensus in Washington these days, but Hong Kong is one of them. Congress passed legislation last week that would impose harsh penalties on China for its crackdown in Hong Kong. China immediately pushed back and warned that it will have to take “strong countermeasures” if the US “insists on making the wrong decisions.”
Trump has refused to commit to signing the legislation and said in an interview on Fox News that he stands with Hong Kong but also stands with Chinese President Xi Jinping, who he called a “friend.” Trump also said that he asked Xi not to send Chinese soldiers into Hong Kong – and that doing so would have a negative impact on the trade deal.
Vice President Mike Pence did warn that it would be hard to do a deal if protestors continue to be met with violence and said the US is taking a “strong stand with China” regarding the protests. The White House also said that China should “protect Hong Kong’s freedom, legal system and democratic way of life,” and other senior administration officials including Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called for restraint by all.
But, the wild card here is the President. In June, according to CNN, Trump reportedly told Xi he’d keep quiet on the protests while trade negotiations continue, and he later said publicly “they (China and Hong Kong) have to deal with that themselves. They don’t need advice.” He even described the protests as “riots.” In making such a statement, Trump not only removed the US from our traditional role as a defender and leader on human rights, as well as mediator in times of conflict, he also used Chinese talking points to describe the protests.
Notably, Trump is capable of speaking out against protests when he wants to – he tweeted condemnation of the Iranian regime’s actions against protestors.
Trump’s decision on whether to sign the legislation or not will be the clearest signal to Xi about if the President is willing to disregard the bipartisan views of Congress and core American values – like the importance of human rights and the rule of law – and if he’s willing to let China get away with anything, just as long as Xi agrees to buy more US agricultural exports.
Cultural genocide gets a pass
It’s not just human rights in Hong Kong that Trump is ignoring. According to US national security adviser Robert O’Brien, China has put more than a million people in “concentration camps,” and O’Brien said the lack of criticism is surprising.
O’Brien was referring to silence from other countries, but his boss – Trump – has not spoken out about China’s treatment of the Uighurs and other ethnic and religious minorities. And though the State Department has implemented visa restrictions against individuals who are believed to be responsible for, or complicit in, the detention or abuse, we have yet to hear Trump’s views on this.
This tracks with his past record, too. Trump failed to issue a strong response to the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and his efforts to explain himself included a paragraph about the amount of US goods Saudi Arabia agreed to buy. In making this argument, he used financial gain to justify his inaction against those actually responsible for Khashoggi’s murder – just as he appears to be doing now with China and Hong Kong.
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Trump’s silence speaks volumes here and elsewhere – defending human rights, whether in Hong Kong or on mainland China – isn’t something he’s willing to do if it runs the risk of derailing trade talks. While he’s focused on a perceived quick win on selling more agricultural products to China, his silence will have negative impacts for American values and interests in the long term.