As our colleagues noted, Trump repeated the falsehood that China pays for the tariffs — rather than the American importers upon whom the levy falls. His insistence that the tariffs were a boon to the American economy is also a contention borne out by scant evidence.
Trump has long voiced his personal disquiet over America’s bilateral trade deficit with China, while U.S. officials seek protections against China’s alleged theft of intellectual property from private U.S. companies as well as a reckoning over Beijing’s heavy state involvement in its economy. In recent months, though, there was the sense that a real breakthrough was possible. In February, White House officials said the administration had at least temporarily dropped its plans to raise the tariff rate to 25 percent as hopes grew of the two sides nearing a deal.
But Trump’s tweeted broadsides indicate that he’s not optimistic about the next round of talks. Although China has agreed in theory to increase imports of a range of U.S. products, few expect Beijing to make deeper concessions. “Trump is probably anticipating criticism that we are heading toward a political deal reached for political reasons rather than a trade deal addressing the fundamental economic tools that enable China to discriminate against foreign firms,” Jeff Moon, who negotiated trade issues with China under President Barack Obama, told my colleagues.
The irony is that, in its rush for a deal, the Trump administration has conspicuously let some hot-button issues fall to the wayside. Last year, it justified tariffs on more than $250 billion worth of Chinese goods, in part, because of the Chinese government’s purported role in supporting cyberattacks on U.S. companies. But reports ahead of Liu’s visit suggest the White House was willing to drop the matter for now or water down its original complaint.
“A lot of issues are being jettisoned from this negotiation because President Trump wants a deal,” a source briefed on the deliberations told the Financial Times last week.
Critics of the Trump administration point to an omission that is perhaps even more glaring: Human rights, specifically, the rights of millions of ethnic minorities in the far western region of Xinjiang caught in the Orwellian vice of the Chinese security state.
As readers of Today’s WorldView know, in a bid to supposedly counter terrorism, Beijing has set up a vast system of “reeducation camps” to dissuade the region’s predominantly Muslim Turkic minorities, including Uighurs, from embracing religious extremism. Advocates and Uighur exiles abroad point to a totalitarian dragnet that has disappeared a chunk of the region’s population and ushered in a draconian 21st-century surveillance state that even uses artificial-intelligence technology to immediately spot non-Han Chinese faces in a crowd.
The Trump administration has, at moments, been vocal on behalf of the plight of Uighurs, but it has conspicuously relented on imposing sanctions on key Chinese officials involved in carrying out human rights abuses in Xinjiang. As the New York Times reported over the weekend, the planned sanctions went through the customary interagency process but were then put on ice, much to the chagrin of congressional lawmakers.
“The sanctions languished at the Treasury Department . . . as some senior administration officials believed that they should shelve them during the trade talks,” noted the Times. “The sanctions would have been imposed under the Global Magnitsky Act, which allows the executive branch to use economic and travel penalties to punish foreign officials for human rights violations.”
There’s little doubt over the gravity of the situation in Xinjiang. On Friday, a senior Pentagon official decried the “mass imprisonment of Chinese Muslims in concentration camps,” and said as many as 3 million people have been forced into the region’s camps. However, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo seemed to quibble with that assessment Sunday on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” He said there was no conflict between the White House’s push for trade talks with Beijing and its position on Xinjiang.
“This administration can do more than one thing at a time. We’re working to stop the intellectual property theft that has destroyed millions of jobs in the United States. We’re working to stop the foreign technology transfers that have taken place,” Pompeo said. “We’ve got the largest defense budget in history in place, part of which will go to ensuring we counter Chinese military power. We’re working on these human rights violations as well.”
That’s not good enough for rights advocates. “While the U.S. is negotiating trade agreements, I think it’s important to remember that history is not going to remember the details of the negotiations, but where the United States was on this massive human rights issue,” Francisco Bencosme, the Asia-Pacific advocacy manager at Amnesty International USA, told Foreign Policy last month.
For Rushan Abbas, a Uighur exile in the United States whose relatives were detained in Xinjiang in September, it’s a matter of their community’s very existence. “I strongly believe that the human rights abuses the Chinese government is doing against the Uighurs should be part of the trade talks,” Abbas told the Times. “They are facing indoctrination, brainwashing and elimination of their values as Muslims.”
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