A Parting Gift: China Sanctions Outgoing Trump Officials

“Don’t let the door hit you on the way out”

As Joe Biden was set to be inaugurated as the new President of the United States last week, China bestowed key Trump officials with a parting gift. Beijing enacted sweeping sanctions on outgoing Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, former Trump White House strategist Steve Bannon, national security advisers Robert O’Brien and John Bolton, and 24 other top officials in the Trump administration. On top of these sanctions, the Chinese foreign ministry issued a statement during Biden’s inauguration that lambasted these ex-officials, making accusations such as the following: “[the officials] promoted and executed a series of crazy moves” and “seriously disrupted China-US relations” and finally “gravely interfered in China’s internal affairs.” Led by spokesman Hua Chunying, the Foreign Ministry added that Pompeo is a “doomsday clown” and claimed that his unprecedented declaration of China’s ethnic policies in Xinjiang as genocide to be a “piece of wastepaper”. China had previously moved to sanction several U.S. lawmakers, primarily the ones critical of Beijing’s foreign policy, but this newest blanket of sanctions showed an unmatched level of disdain for the Trump administration.

Sanctions and their precedents

These sanctions prohibit the former Trump officials and their families from entering Mainland China, Hong Kong and Macau. They are also banned from doing any type of business in China or with any companies associated with China. It appeared that these sanctions evoked a positive reaction from one of the officials, former National Security Advisor John Bolton, who happily tweeted that being banned from China was great news, as an indication of his “unrelenting efforts to defend American freedom”. Although Bolton served under the Trump administration for only a short while, his hawkish approaches fit well into President Trump’s combative strategy against China. 

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) issued these sanctions after Secretary Pompeo declared that China’s treatment of Uighurs in the Xinjiang province was an “ongoing genocide” and a “systematic attempt to destroy Uyghurs by the Chinese party-state.” The Xinjiang issue has been a point of contention for the Trump administration from the onset of the former president’s term. China’s behavior last week does not fall outside of the party’s usual reactions to people or entities who criticize the government’s treatment of the Uighur population in Xinjiang. The timing of Pompeo’s remarks is important to note because the Biden administration will have to make a challenging decision on whether to de-escalate the rhetoric against China’s human rights record for increased U.S.-China cooperation, or to maintain consistency between administrations on holding Beijing to a strict standard. Interestingly, President Biden’s Secretary of State nominee Antony Blinken also agreed with Pompeo’s assessment of the Uighur population, so it remains to be seen how Beijing will accommodate the new Biden administration’s foreign policy. 

This new round of sanctions have followed a long line of tit-for-tat conflicts between Washington and Beijing, which saw the Trump administration imposing sanctions on Chinese officials for their actions in Hong Kong, the South China Sea, Tibet and more. Last week, the Trump administration halted imports of tomatoes and cotton from Xinjiang, one of the world’s premier suppliers of cotton. The U.S. also blacklisted several companies that were linked to forced Uighur labor in the region. It was only a matter of time before Beijing would hit back with sanctions of their own, and they certainly delivered. Although these sanctions are mostly symbolic, they create further barriers to mending the strained U.S.-China relationship. 

After China’s sanctions were issued, the Biden administration was quick to comment on the issue, saying that the sanctions were “unproductive and cynical” and an “attempt to play partisan divides”. This response from the new administration in Washington predicts that the next four years will likely feature greater attempts to restore the burnt bridges. Hua Chunying quoted Biden’s inauguration speech and noted that “better angels in the U.S.-China relations could defeat evil forces” if the two countries work together.

Challenges to future bilateral relations

President Biden inherits a country ravaged by the COVID-19 pandemic, a faltering economy, and racial tensions. Across the Pacific, he faces a revitalized China, which has controlled the spread of the COVID-19 virus relatively well and is experiencing robust economic growth. While at the onset, the coronavirus pandemic dampened Chinese consumer markets and damaged China’s reputation among some partner countries in the Belt and Road Initiative, Chinese domestic and foreign policies since have indicated that the Chinese leadership still is pushing to meet the long-term goal of national rejuvenation. Actively handling the spread of COVID-19 domestically, distributing medical aid to 150 countries, and engaging with international organizations in discussion of health solutions, China appears intent on reclaiming its historical “rightful place” as a global leader in the coming years. 

As the U.S. rejoins the numerous multilateral agreements and international organizations that it withdrew from under the Trump administration, the new administration will need to regain balance, amidst the strong Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) that was ratified last November. This partnership establishes a certain level of cooperation between China and key U.S. allies, such as Japan and South Korea, through a series of free trade agreements. Finally, the goal for the U.S. to be tough on China has gained both bipartisan support and the general approval of the American public. President Biden would be hard-pressed to diverge too far from the Trump playbook on China, at least for his early days in office. 

Outside of its push for greater cooperation, a more confident China has asserted itself militarily in the South China Sea over the years, and just this week responded negatively to the United States’ most recent freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) in the contested waters. On Monday, the Chinese Foreign Ministry complained that FONOPs are not conducive to the region’s peace and stability. China also warned that it will conduct military exercises in the South China Sea later this week, which shows a less cooperative side to China’s bid for regional and global leadership. 

Most recent developments

Perhaps China’s actions within the past couple days indicate that the Chinese leadership correctly predicted that the United States’ foreign policy has reached one of its weaker points, aside from the numerous severe domestic issues that take precedence. To test the waters, China has demonstrated assertiveness through verbal and military signals. As a warning against the United States’ increased friendliness with Taiwan, China dispatched two sets of warplanes into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone over the weekend. On Monday, Chinese President Xi Jinping gave a speech at the Davos Agenda event hosted by the World Economic Forum. Various parts of his speech seemed to show clearly that the U.S. was the target audience. For instance, President Xi pointedly remarked that “[countries that] slip into arrogant isolation will always fail.” This likely was an aim at the Trump administration’s America First policy.

With the more diplomatic statements released by Hua Chunying regarding the new Biden Administration, these other actions convey a mixed message. It is clear that the U.S.-China relationship remains at a point of serious rivalry, but both sides may take measured policy steps in order to gain a better understanding of their opponent. The public statements made by Xi Jinping and Hua Chunying did have one point of strong agreement, when discussing the need for multilateralism and cooperation. Hua, in describing the situation between the U.S. and China, said that coexistence between “countries with different social systems, cultural backgrounds and ideologies” is normal, and working together is necessary for global peace and development. While human rights likely will remain a sticking point for the two countries, there is still hope for President Biden and the new advisors in his administration to implement a strategy of compromise and resistance in moderation. As China takes careful note of where Biden will draw the line on critical issues such as Taiwan, his approach will determine the direction of the next four years’ U.S.-China relations. 

(Image Source: Nicolas Asfouri/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images)

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Martín Olvera

Martín Olvera is a Master of International Affairs candidate at UC San Diego’s School of Global Policy and Strategy studying International Politics with a focus on South Korea. He graduated from UC Santa Barbara with a BA in Political Science and minor in History. His research interests include Sino-Korea relations, East Asian national security, and analyzing new military trends in the region.

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