As President Trump has heaped blame on China for a coronavirus pandemic that has killed more than 141,000 Americans, his aides are moving to expand on his rhetorical blasts and marshal a broader campaign to punish Beijing on a host of unrelated issues.
The strategy escalated dramatically this week when the administration ordered Chinese officials to shut down China’s consulate in Houston within 72 hours over charges that it was being used for aggressive intelligence-gathering operations.
That decision — which prompted a pledge from Beijing to retaliate — came after other punitive measures in recent weeks, including economic sanctions on Chinese officials over human rights abuses against Uighur Muslims; the stripping of Hong Kong’s special economic status after the Communist Party tightened control of the island; and plans to expel some Chinese journalists and restrict exchange students in the United States.
“The old paradigm of blind engagement with China simply won’t get it done. We must not continue it. We must not return to it,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Thursday. “Today, China is increasingly authoritarian at home, and more aggressive in its hostility to freedom everywhere else. . . . If the free world doesn’t change Communist China, Communist China will change us.”
Pompeo’s remarks at the Nixon Presidential Library and Museum in Yorba Linda, Calif., came nearly half a century after President Richard M. Nixon pursued an opening of diplomatic relations with Beijing, and were intended to delineate a sharp break in decades of U.S. policy that Trump aides have described as too lenient.
The speech followed addresses from other top Trump aides — national security adviser Robert C. O’Brien, Attorney General William P. Barr and FBI Director Christopher A. Wray — who delivered their own indictments of China this month in a coordinated effort to emphasize the administration’s determination to confront Beijing on a wide array of issues.
Yet the timing of the tougher strategy, coming less than four months before the presidential election, has alarmed Trump’s critics. They questioned whether the president’s eagerness to blame China for the pandemic — and paint Democratic rival Joe Biden as weak on Beijing — has led the administration to lash out without thinking through the consequences, an approach one Capitol Hill aide privately termed the “burn it all down phase” of its China policy.
“I am deeply concerned that the administration’s approach is one that labors under the mistaken belief that just being confrontational is the same thing as being competitive,” Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) told Stephen Biegun, Pompeo’s top deputy, at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on China this week.
Menendez agreed that the U.S. policy must get tougher and said he is working on a bill with fellow Democrats, but he added that “being tough is the means, not the ends,” and asked what the administration will do if Beijing follows through on threats to retaliate for the closure of the Houston consulate.
Biegun responded that U.S. policymakers have “invested quite a bit over the last three decades” in trying to coax China into becoming a responsible international stakeholder, only to be betrayed.
“Sometimes, wishful outcomes are hard to let go of, and many have not,” he told lawmakers. “This administration has been equally criticized for moving too abruptly or too harshly or for precipitating a new Cold War, which is not our intention.”
Inside the White House, there are signs that the emerging China strategy remains a work in progress. One White House ally said the series of speeches from Trump aides was prompted by concern among his political advisers that the president — while attacking Biden for being inconsistent on China — was himself facing criticism for having vacillated in his approach.
“Somebody pointed out, ‘We look like we’re flip-flopping ourselves,’ ” said this person, who is in semi-regular contact with Trump aides and spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss their private conversations. The person added that Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who has more-moderate views on China, declined a request to deliver his own address.
And even as Trump has blamed China for failing to contain the virus, which originated in the city of Wuhan, he has continued to refrain from the kind of sweeping rhetoric used by some of his aides to denounce a string of Chinese offenses.
During a Rose Garden news conference two weeks ago, Trump announced that he would sign an executive order to punish China for its imposition of a strict new national security law in Hong Kong. But he spent most of the hour-long event bashing Biden and touting his record in a stream-of-consciousness monologue that resembled a campaign speech.
At a news conference this week, Trump suggested he remained willing to collaborate with Beijing if Chinese researchers are the first to develop an effective vaccine for the coronavirus. He was also relatively muted when asked if his administration would consider shutting down other Chinese compounds in the United States.
“It’s always possible,” he replied.
Though Trump came to office projecting a tougher edge on China, his pursuit of a bilateral trade deal — and his related unwillingness to personally criticize President Xi Jinping or forcefully confront Beijing on human rights — undercuts efforts within the administration to develop a comprehensive strategy.
Last month, Trump’s former national security adviser John Bolton asserted in a White House memoir that the president attempted to convince Xi that China’s purchase of more U.S. goods would help Trump win reelection, and that the president told Xi in a private discussion that he was justified in building detention camps for Uighur Muslims.
But trade talks have broken off amid the pandemic and Trump has not spoken with Xi since March, providing an opening for China hard-liners within the administration.
In Grand Rapids, Mich., last week, Barr inveighed against Chinese surveillance and censorship, and faulted Google, Apple, Microsoft and Yahoo for collaborating with the Communist Party and becoming “pawns of Chinese influence.” Pompeo, who has lobbied U.S. allies to follow the administration’s efforts to ban Chinese 5G telecom giant Huawei, has floated potentially banning Chinese-owned technology apps, including the popular TikTok, a social media platform.
The State Department issued a statement this month aligning the United States with an international tribunal’s ruling four years ago that China’s encroachment on disputed shipping lanes in the South China Sea was “unlawful.”
In his remarks at the Nixon Library, attended by a handful of Chinese political dissidents, Pompeo accused Xi of being “a true believer in a bankrupt totalitarian ideology” that “informs his decades-long desire for global hegemony built on Chinese communism.”
Michael Pillsbury, a China analyst at the conservative Hudson Institute, said Trump, despite his long-standing concerns about China’s unfair trade and intellectual property theft, had not fully endorsed an expansive indictment of the Chinese political system.
“This is a new area for the president,” said Pillsbury, who lauded the administration’s “dramatic reappraisal” of the bilateral relationship in an op-ed Thursday.
But Trump’s critics faulted the administration for failing to promote an alternative U.S. leadership model abroad. During the Senate committee hearing this week, Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) said Trump’s declared “America first” policy had left all nations free to “pursue their own interests” rather than develop a coordinated response to Chinese aggression.
And Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) cited the administration’s use of federal agents to employ tear gas and make arrests amid protests in Portland, Ore., and asked Biegun whether the United States was “facing more accusations of hypocrisy” in criticizing China over its actions in Hong Kong.
Biegun allowed that the United States is going through an “uncomfortable moment,” but he rejected the comparison and said the administration’s effort to maintain order “does not indict our democracy.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article misidentified the affiliation of Michael Pillsbury. He is a China analyst at the Hudson Institute.