The Trump Administration has prided itself on transforming US foreign policy with China into a “tough on China” stance. The last four years saw a strong confrontation on China’s economic abuses—including major restrictions on US-operating Chinese technology firms, billions of dollars worth of tariffs, and criticism on China’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. Through reconfiguring the Sino-American relationship into a strategic competition, this administration has uniquely positioned the United States to respond to controversial Chinese actions.
However, in light of the intensifying Uyghur human rights crisis in western China, it is evident that the administration has failed to leverage this position to its fullest extent. Despite making important strides to address the Uyghur crisis, the Trump administration has done too little, too late. For example, the president hesitated to invoke the 2016 Global Magnitsky Act, which would impose sanctions and visa bans on the responsible Chinese officials, until July 31st, 2020. Conveniently, its enactment came just one month after a widely criticized Axios interview exposed President Trump’s adamance to secure a trade deal before further responding to the Uyghur crisis. These actions seem to only reinforce former presidential aide John Bolton’s allegations that the president’s actions in China are driven by motives that prioritize economic advantage and reelection over humanitarian justice.
Such allegations are supported by the administration’s overall approach to human rights worldwide. While the United States tends to impose sanctions on rights abuses in countries it aims to intimidate, such as Iran and Venezuela, the government has been slow to respond to humanitarian crises in others, such as Yemen and Myanmar. Addressing the Uyghur crisis is a similar balancing act. While there is an obvious intent to address humanitarian abuses, action is taken with the underlying intent to optimize geopolitical and economic positions.
Arguably the most definitive action the US has taken in response to the crisis, the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act of 2020, requires that the president imposes “(1) property-blocking sanctions on the identified individuals and entities, and (2) visa-blocking sanctions on the identified individuals.” While this is an important step in holding Chinese officials responsible, it is unlikely these sanctions will hold weight on Chinese policy. Due to inaction against other humanitarian crises, the administration has demonstrated that humanitarian issues are not the top priority of US foreign policy. If the Trump Administration had pursued a more consistent policy against humanitarian abuses, the US could have had greater leverage in mobilizing the international community to condemn the crisis, while also pressuring the Chinese government with tangible precedents of retaliation. Moreover, if the administration had worked with China to address their concerns with Uyghur terrorism, diplomatic conversations may have contributed to less explosive solutions, as well as removed China’s justification to pursue other underlying intents–such as the alleged goal for ethnic homogenity in the region.
While the Trump administration has undoubtedly made significant strides to strengthen the US’s position in holding China accountable, it’s failures to invoke direct and meaningful action in Xinjiang points to a negligence in addressing the right problems for the right reasons.