The Trump administration has announced a new, bold and risky strategy to shift the U.S. relationship with China from engagement to competition , and to confront Chinese economic aggression, military expansion, internal repression and overseas political interference. Whether the administration has the commitment and capability to make this strategy a reality is an open question.
Its first big test is coming soon, over the issue of human rights and Tibet. Congress is quickly moving legislation to President Trump’s desk that would compel Beijing to open Tibet to U.S. officials and journalists or face restrictions on some Chinese Communist Party officials’ ability to visit the United States. If Trump signs the bill into law and his administration enforces it, Washington’s new policy of enforcing “reciprocity” in the U.S.-China relationship will be on.
Reciprocity is one key principle that Vice President Pence laid out during his speech last week, along with “fairness” and “sovereignty.” He specifically mentioned Tibet as well as the Chinese government’s internment of hundreds of thousands of Uighurs and other ethnic minorities in the Xinjiang region, another atrocity that Congress wants the Trump administration to address.
The Senate is hoping to pass the Reciprocal Access to Tibet Act by the end of the year. “The Chinese government and Communist Party use far-reaching, intrusive surveillance, and pervasive military and police force in Tibet, so no one should be surprised by their reluctance to grant access to American diplomats, journalists and others who might expose their egregious violations of human rights and religious freedom violations against the Tibetan people,” said Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), the lead sponsor of the Senate version of the bill.
Cui Tiankai, China’s ambassador to the United States, insisted during a recent interview that Americans are welcome in Tibet but warned that the “high altitude” and need to protect the local environment made limits on visits necessary. In a letter to a U.S. senator that I obtained, the Chinese consulate in Chicago stated that the Tibet legislation “undermines U.S.-China relations by grossly interfering in China’s domestic affairs.”
Human rights and Tibet will also come to the fore of U.S.-China relations if Terry Branstad, the U.S. ambassador to Beijing, visits the Tibetan Autonomous Region this month, as is expected. The ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Robert Menendez (N.J.), told me that Branstad must call on the Chinese government to respect the Tibetan people’s rights for cultural and religious autonomy.
“China must understand that, as it seeks to assume a position of a responsible major power, that the principle of reciprocity of relations — including on visas and travel — will be a guiding principle for U.S. foreign policy and our approach to China,” he said.
Reciprocity is not a panacea, and it does not apply to all aspects of U.S.-China relations. But its adoption is evidence the conversation in Washington over how to confront various aspects of Beijing’s bad behavior is changing. Other principles that will guide this change include fairness, sovereignty, respect for international norms, adherence to international laws and defense of basic human rights.
“Part of the way we do things in an open society is to confront these challenges openly, and I know that’s difficult for some in China to understand,” a senior administration official told me.
Critics of the new approach, such as former secretary of state Colin Powell, warn that the Trump administration is creating a new Cold War with China. The Trump administration official told me that if Beijing wants to avoid a Cold War with the United States, it should “stop engaging in Cold War activity on their part.”
By escalating against China, the United States certainly risks disruptions and unintended consequences that could have repercussions against it if the strategy is not managed carefully. But that risk must be balanced against the cost of allowing Chinese practices to go unchecked.
“We didn’t start this. We’re not looking for this,” the administration official said. “But by not resetting the relationship, we’re accepting pain.”
The Trump administration’s new China approach will face other huge tests in the months ahead. Will Trump’s tariff threats result in Beijing agreeing to more “fairness” in the economic relationship? Will stepped-up U.S. military activity in the South China Sea persuade China to back down from its expansive and illegitimate territorial claims?
The objective of any strategy is to change the behavior of whomever the strategy is pointed at. So far, Beijing has not changed its behavior one iota, which means the strategy is not yet working. But it has only just begun. It took almost two years of infighting for the administration to get to this point. The internal battle over the next steps is raging now.
By responding to China’s increasing external aggression and internal repression, the United States is not causing a confrontation — quite the opposite. Shifting to a more competitive, clear-eyed approach now is the best way to head off real confrontation later. That’s why the Trump administration’s new rhetoric on China must be followed by new action.