The Trump administration, in its dwindling days, threw a barrage of steps against Beijing to assert itself against China’s authoritarian leadership.
Among its most recent files, the government stated that Beijing had committed genocide against Uyghurs and other Muslims in a far-western region. A video conference was held between a senior US envoy and the President of Taiwan, the self-governing island claimed by Beijing. And long-standing guidelines that restricted exchanges with Taiwanese officials were abandoned.
The decision to push through significant foreign policy moves so quickly and in a time of turmoil in Washington, however, risks politicizing the issues and undermining their ability to gain global appeal.
While some of the decisions were made for months, the timing of their introduction makes them easy to discard. After Beijing, the moves were a final attempt by the outgoing government to pinch China’s ruling Communist Party. And they could potentially intimidate President Biden by forcing him to either look weak on China by reversing steps, or by incurring Beijing’s wrath.
The moves were welcomed by many Taiwanese, Uyghurs and other communities the Trump administration wanted to support. However, some expressed concerns that it – and its causes – would be overshadowed by geopolitics.
“There are many people who suspect the legitimacy of this decision,” said Tahir Imin, a Washington-based Uighur activist, after the United States declared that China’s repression of its ethnic group was genocidal. “But all the facts clearly show that what happened was genocide.”
In the short term, the Trump administration’s moves could put the issues at the forefront of Mr Biden’s China agenda regardless of its own priorities. This complicates the new administration’s plans to maintain a militant stance on China on human rights and other issues, while also finding areas where Washington can work together and stabilize Washington’s spiraling relationship with Beijing.
Beijing is likely to pressure Mr Biden to reverse at least some of the Trump administration’s decisions in order to resume talks on other issues. However, undoing a decision too quickly could also send a signal to the Chinese leadership that all recent moves are on the table.
Mr. Biden has spoken out in favor of being tough on China. He called China’s human rights violations in Xinjiang during the election campaign “genocide”. And Antony J. Blinken, his election as foreign minister, said Tuesday he would agree with Mike Pompeo’s move in his final days in that role to declare that China’s suppression of the Uyghurs was genocide.
However, Biden’s government has announced that it will initially focus on domestic priorities. There may be no bandwidth to sustain the Trump administration-instigated confrontation with China targeting areas such as trade, technology and security.
“Because everything that has happened to the Trump administration, especially the recent moves that the Chinese want better predictability,” said Bonnie S. Glaser, a senior advisor on Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “You will ask the Biden administration for more specific commitments.”
In the face of the last-minute barrage from Washington, Beijing has shown relative restraint so far.
In recent weeks, the Chinese state media dismissed Mr. Pompeo as “crazy” and “worst secretary of state in history”. On Wednesday, the Global Times, a state-backed nationalist tabloid, shared comments from Chinese internet users who referred to then-President Trump as the “gravedigger of US hegemony” and “the first US president to successfully entertain the Chinese while they were the US.” devastated “mocked the same time.”
China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has rejected the term genocide as a “malicious farce”.
“The lies and poison that Pompeo has spread over these years will inevitably be thrown into the rubbish heap of history with him,” said Hua Chunying, a foreign ministry spokeswoman, at a regular press conference Wednesday.
Minutes after Mr. Biden was sworn in, the Chinese State Department announced that it was sanctioning Mr. Pompeo and 27 other Americans, mostly Trump administration officials, for “seriously violating China’s sovereignty”. The sanctions include many of the Trump administration’s leading Chinese hawks, such as Peter Navarro and Matthew Pottinger.
The State Department not only banned the 28 Americans and their family members from entering the mainland, Hong Kong and Macau, but also banned the named individuals and their affiliated companies and institutions from doing business with China.
However, it remains to be seen whether Beijing will take a confrontational or cooperative approach to the Biden government.
Beijing has made overtures to Mr. Biden, calling for a deferral and closer cooperation between the two countries. But it has also spread new conspiracy theories linking an American military lab to the coronavirus and spreading a nationalist message that “time and momentum are on China’s side” in the face of global challenges.
An editorial published on Sunday in the Global Times urged Mr Biden to “consider actively the abolition of all diplomatic decisions made by the previous administration in its latest surprise attack.”
Shi Yinhong, professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing, said in a telephone interview: “China will want to know which measures are set in stone, which measures can be mitigated and which measures can be reversed.”
The Chinese government is likely to pressure the Biden government to reintroduce a number of policies designed to restrict interaction between American officials and their Taiwanese counterparts. The guidelines had been in place since the United States severed ties with Taiwan in 1979 and relocated diplomatic recognition to Beijing.
Mr Pompeo’s move to repeal the rules this month – which some officials had suggested as being without proper scrutiny – seemed more of an attempt to challenge Mr Biden to defy China, regardless of the potential risks to Taiwan. The move was welcomed by many Taiwan officials, but Tsai Ing-wen, Taiwan’s president, who has called for talks with Beijing and fears escalating tensions, has not spoken publicly on the issue.
The shift “is intended to antagonize 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 goal oriented. It is not based on the mutually beneficial interests of Taiwan and the US. “
Mr Biden could initiate a review of the restrictions and reintroduce some of them if necessary. However, this could lead to anger in Taiwan and criticism at home on an issue that is supported by both parties.
Critics also cite the recent announcement of a planned visit by an American official to Taiwan as evidence that the Trump administration’s final steps in support of the island were largely taken despite Beijing.
Officially, the purpose of the visit by Kelly Craft, the United States Ambassador to the United Nations, was to reinforce Taiwan’s efforts to join international organizations that China opposes. But Mr Pompeo announced Ms. Craft’s visit at the end of a statement condemning China for arresting dozens of pro-democracy figures in Hong Kong, effectively dragging Taiwan’s interests into an ongoing dispute between Washington and Beijing.
The trip was later canceled and replaced with a phone call to Ms. Tsai.
“It feels like we have become a negotiator between two major powers, which has put us in a very unstable and uncertain situation,” said Ma Wen-chun, a lawmaker with Taiwanese opposition Kuomintang party, in a telephone interview before the visit was canceled has been.
The outgoing government’s efforts to punish China for its massive human rights violations against Uyghurs and other Muslim ethnic minorities in Xinjiang have similarly been shaped by concerns about political motivations.
Although the government imposed sanctions, blacklisted Chinese companies and banned all imports of cotton and tomatoes from the region, internal divisions on the matter have often been exposed. Mr Pompeo pushed for tough measures to punish China for its mass internment of Uyghurs, but Mr Trump resisted because he did not want to jeopardize trade talks with Beijing.
For many overseas Uyghurs, the government’s decision on Tuesday to declare the situation in Xinjiang genocide could not have come soon enough. The name could pave the way for further sanctions or support from other countries.
However, some Uyghur activists have raised 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 confident that Mr Biden’s promise to strengthen alliances could help put more pressure on Beijing for its human rights abuses.
“What we really want to see is concrete 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.”
Amy Chang Chien contributed to the coverage.