In an announcement on July 13, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo proclaimed, “Beijing’s claims to offshore resources across most of the South China Sea are completely unlawful, as is its campaign of bullying to control them.”Pompeo remarked this policy shift, from the initial stance of neutrality to directly calling out Beijing’s intrusive behaviors, was necessary to uphold international law.
The specific law in question stems from a 2016 UN tribunal ruling preventing China from bullying its neighbors and treating the South China Sea as its maritime empire. Beijing claims it owns the majority of the South China Sea, a strategic waterway that sits on a major trade route and abundance of natural resources. China’s controversial claim has been disputed for decades by several neighboring countries including Malaysia, Vietnam, and the Philippines.
Between 2012 to 2015, China seized more than 3,200 acres of land from seven distinct features in the South China Sea and militarized these lands with bomb shelters, radars, runways, and weapons without any serious pushback from the Obama administration. While many wish that the Trump administration had responded earlier and stronger to China’s territorial aggression in the South China Sea, Pompeo’s announcement opened the door for a stronger American response. The days of Beijing’s unrestricted and unchallenged expansion in the South China Sea are over.
On July 14, President Trump signed the Hong Kong Autonomy Act, enabling the U.S. government to impose sanctions on Chinese officials and businesses that have either aided or abetted the enforcement of Beijing’s new security law in Hong Kong. In a rare event in today’s divided country, the legislation was passed Congress earlier in July with overwhelming bipartisan support.
Trump also signed an executive order revoking the special trading status the United States had maintained with Hong Kong since 1997, when the United Kingdom handed the city back to Beijing’s control under the “One Country, Two Systems” framework. Trump’s executive order comes as a policy response to Pompeo’s earlier certification in May that Beijing has reneged on its promises and undermined Hong Kong’s autonomy.
The United States and United Kingdom Push Back
As if Tuesday couldn’t get any worse, on that same day, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that China’s telecom giant Huawei will be banned from Britain’s 5G network. Despite warnings from both U.S. intelligence and the U.K.’s National Cyber Security Center regarding Huawei’s potential threat to national security, until earlier this year, the Johnson administration insisted on having Huawei build the “non-critical” portion of Britain’s 5G — the next-generation telecommunications network. The United States, Australia, and New Zealand, three countries in the Five Eye intelligence alliance, have all barred the installation of Huawei equipment as a part of the 5G network in their countries.
The Johnson administration’s change of heart on Huawei was due in part to the British government’s frustration over Beijing’s mishandling of the coronavirus outbreak and the erosion of freedom in Hong Kong. Credit is also due to Pompeo, who repeatedly warned the United Kingdom that the Chinese Communist is the biggest threat of our times. Indeed, letting Huawei play a role in the country’s 5G network would be equivalent to granting the CCP back-door access to the United Kingdom’s telecom network. Britain’s policy reversal on Huawei is a big foreign policy win for the United States and a significant setback for Huawei and Beijing’s global ambitions.
Then, on July 15, Pompeo revealed that the United States will place visa bans on employees of Huawei and possibly other Chinese technology companies for “their role in enabling human rights abuses at home and abroad.” This announcement came only one week after the Trump administration imposed sanctions on several senior officials of the CCP, accusing them of playing key roles in human rights abuses against Uyghur Muslims and other religious minorities in Xinjiang, China.
The most senior official on this sanction list is Chen Quanguo, a member of CCP’s elite 25-member Politburo, the most powerful political body in China. No previous U.S. administration has ever imposed sanctions on CCP officials at this level of seniority.
On July 16, U.S. Attorney General William Barr derided American universities, Hollywood, and big U.S. tech companies for kowtowing to CCP’s regime in a major Chinese policy speech at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Barr warned American business leaders that “Appeasing the PRC may bring short-term rewards, but in the end, the PRC’s goal is to replace you.”
He also hinted that any American business leader who lobbies on behalf of the CCP will be subjected to the Foreign Agents Registration Act, requiring them to “disclose that relationship and their political or other similar activities” and “register with the Justice Department.” Barr also criticized Beijing’s aggression in the South China Sea and “Belt and Road” initiative for weighing developing nations with immense debt.
Hitting Them Where It Hurts
On July 19, the U.S. State Department joined the U.S. Treasury Department in designating four Chinese nationals and one Chinese entity for their involvement in the international drug trafficking operations of Chinese synthetic opioids under the Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act.
If the CCP thought they could catch a break from the Trump administration’s seemingly nonstop damning speeches and sanctions at the weekend, they were wrong. Going into the weekend, both The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal reported the Trump administration is weighing a possible visa ban on CCP members and their families. If implemented, the U.S. government would be able to revoke the visas of CCP members and their families already in America as well as preventing such individuals from traveling to the United States in the future.
There are an estimated 92 million CCP members in China, representing close to 6.4 percent of the Chinese population. They are the elites of the Chinese society because the CCP has extremely strict recruitment criteria.
Since its founding in 1921, the CCP’s history has been written with blood. From the man-made famine (1958-1961) to the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), the CCP is responsible for the death of an estimated 40-60 million Chinese people. Today, while a few CCP members dare to speak out, the majority work to preserve the party’s absolute rule through spreading propaganda, enforcing mass surveillance of Chinese people, and cracking down on any dissent.
A visa ban on CCP members and their families would be the most confrontational step America has ever taken against Communist China. Even if this sweeping ban never goes into effect, however, the very fact that senior U.S. officials are seriously considering it indicates how far the relationship between the United States and China has fallen.
China’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman called this proposal “ridiculous,” while the CCP vowed to retaliate against any U.S. sanctions with its own. The question is whether Beijing has enough tools in its toolbox to match the intensity and scale of U.S. sanctions.
After all, the United States remains a top destination for Chinese immigrants, students, and tourists. American financial institutions safeguard the assets of Chinese nationals to the tune of billions of dollars. The same can’t be said about China. Therefore, visa bans and financial sanctions on Chinese individuals have a much more dramatic effect than if Beijing tries to do the same to Americans.
Beijing had a bad week on the foreign policy front, and it would make a huge mistake by dismissing what came out of Washington as merely rhetoric of Trump’s re-election campaign. Since he was first elected, Trump has surrounded himself with “China hawks” who advocate a tougher stance against the CCP.
Even though Trump sang public praises of President Xi in the past, Trump’s more recent policies on China have been much tougher than any previous U.S. administration since diplomatic relations were re-established with China in 1979. Now, some U.S. allies have finally begun to follow the Trump administration’s lead. They are united by their justified outrage over Beijing’s negligence in regards to the COVID-19 outbreak as well as the situation in Hong Kong.
Beijing should get ready for more punitive measures out of Washington and elsewhere. What happened last week was only the beginning. Indeed, as Britain just announced that it will suspend its extradition treaty with Hong Kong, it looks like another bad week just started.