The first time it happened was bewildering. Rex Tillerson, on his maiden voyage to Beijing as secretary of state, with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi at his side, parroted a series of Communist Party slogans that are well-known shorthand for U.S. accommodation to China. Less than two months into the Trump administration, this could have been forgiven as a rookie mistake, rather than an intentional decision by the State Department to be submissive toward Beijing.
But then it happened again. And again. And again. Away from the limelight of North Korea and trade policy, the State Department has persisted throughout the summer with inexplicable deference to China.
On June 7, the department released its “Review of Key Developments in Hong Kong,” offering an obvious opportunity to raise concerns about Beijing’s ever-tightening authoritarian grip on the city. After praising the government for its economic management, the statement went on to note, “certain other actions by the Central Government appear to be inconsistent with its stated commitments to Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy.” This is language you use – “appear to be inconsistent with” – when you’re either too afraid or just not that interested in speaking truth to power.
The following week, the department’s spokesperson was asked whether the United States had any concerns about China’s renewed diplomatic offensive to further isolate Taiwan, having just convinced Panama City to sever ties with Taipei. In response, spokesperson Heather Nauert reached into the vault of meaningless diplomacy speak and pulled out this: “We, the United States, urge all concerned parties to engage in productive dialogue and avoid escalatory and destabilizing moves.” Compare “urge all concerned parties” to a bipartisan letter that eight leading senators sent to President Donald Trump on June 23 expressing concerns that “China has intensified its economic coercion and military intimidation tactics” against Taiwan.
Not to be outdone by his spokesperson, Tillerson was back to aping Chinese talking points on June 21, in his official statement following the inaugural U.S.-China Diplomatic and Security Dialogue. After offering boilerplate remarks about U.S. policy in the South China Sea, Tillerson concluded by saying, without further comment or amendment: “With that said, China has committed to resolve their disputes peacefully and in accordance with recognized principles of international law, including the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea.” Of course, China isn’t resolving its disputes peacefully, and Beijing has explicitly rejected the landmark ruling of an arbitral tribunal under the convention in question. But why spoil the mood?
In early July, there were hopeful signs that the administration’s accommodation of China was coming to an end. Trump took to Twitter to declare his disappointment with Chinese President Xi Jinping on North Korea: “So much for China working with us – but we had to give it a try!” This came after a busy week of actions aimed at bolstering U.S. policy in Asia, including the administration’s announcement of its first arms sales package to Taiwan, a new set of sanctions against Chinese entities illicitly doing business with North Korea, and a freedom of navigation operation in the South China Sea.
But despite this flurry of activity, the State Department has stuck to its pro-China tendencies. Case in point: On August 18, the department had exactly nothing to say at an official press briefing the day after 20-year old Joshua Wong and his pro-democracy colleagues were sentenced as political prisoners in Hong Kong. Astonishingly, a week has gone by and all the State Department has managed to muster is a tepid quote from a spokesperson for the U.S. consulate general in Hong Kong: “We are concerned by the decision of the Hong Kong authorities to seek a tougher sentence. We hope Hong Kong’s law enforcement continues to reflect Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy and remains apolitical.” If I’m in Beijing, I read that as a free pass.
This pattern of capitulation is deeply troubling because things like statements by the secretary (or lack thereof) and official press guidance result from a clearance process in the State Department where all of the relevant offices should have the opportunity to offer edits and suggestions. What we have seen over the last several months is not just a series of random, off the cuff remarks, but instead a State Department deliberately unwilling to criticize China. This was the case with Nauert’s dreadful June 13 Taiwan statement. Despite urgings at the working-level to voice support for Taiwan and call out China’s destabilizing actions, a “blame Taiwan” view ultimately prevailed, which held instead that the real, underlying problem aggravating cross-Strait relations is that Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen has not sufficiently kowtowed to Beijing.
This has to stop. It has to stop because the State Department is giving Beijing a green light to bully Taiwan, further suppress Hong Kong, and push toward its goal of controlling the South China Sea. It has to stop because the State Department is generating serious concerns throughout the region about the credibility of America’s commitment to Asia and its willingness to push back on Chinese assertiveness.
Meanwhile, it isn’t totally clear where this accommodationist impulse is coming from. It appears to be some noxious combination of senior officials with no China expertise, Trump’s own transactionalism and willingness to trade U.S. interests for the right price, the romancing and capture of Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior advisor, by Chinese Ambassador Cui Tiankai, and risk-averse elements within the State Department that would rather see a stable, positive U.S.-China relationship regardless of whether a more competitive approach would better serve U.S. interests. (Notable exceptions can be found in the department’s various annual reports, for example those on trafficking in persons and religious freedom, which are prepared by subject-matter experts in functional bureaus.)
To reverse this damaging trend, other parts of the foreign policy establishment will have to step in. The State Department’s approach to China does not reflect majority views at the National Security Council or the Defense Department (Or the Treasury Department, Commerce Department, and Justice Department – or Congress, for that matter.) As a result, National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster and Secretary of Defense James Mattis will have to weigh in more actively on China issues. Congress also has a critical oversight role in demanding hearings and accountability for this torrent of feckless statements. To rule out more malicious motives, the Justice Department should ensure that investigations into Russian interference in U.S. politics also examine private business deals, consulting relationships, and secret channels that involve China and Trump administration officials.
Finally, the point should be made repeatedly that this is exactly the wrong way to achieve America’s goals on North Korea, trade, or whatever else the administration decides is the focus of the day in Asia. Bowing to China on issue after issue has only reinforced the impression in Beijing that the Trump administration – rather than being firm and principled in defending U.S. interests – can be bought or bent with little effort. And that’s a game China will win time and again against a president and cabinet with so little experience on Asia.
By Ely Ratner