The United States on Wednesday pressed China over its treatment of Uighur Muslims and Hong Kong, just as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met a top official from Beijing in Hawaii to assess soaring tensions.
Pompeo met over nearly nine hours at a Honolulu military base with senior Chinese official Yang Jiechi, in the two countries’ highest-level meeting since the coronavirus pandemic sent tensions soaring, a State Department official said.
They met as excerpts came out from an explosive memoir by former national security advisor John Bolton, who said that Trump asked President Xi Jinping for assistance in his US re-election.
Yang reportedly requested the quiet meeting, with no media presence and no announcement beforehand.
Without mentioning the meeting, the United States in quick succession pressed China on Wednesday on two sensitive issues.
Trump signed into law an act that authorizes sanctions for Chinese officials involved in the detention of about one million Uighur Muslims and other Turkic Muslims.
Beijing quickly responded that the law “maliciously attacks” China and threatened consequences.
And Pompeo and his counterparts from the other Group of Seven major industrial democracies put out a joint statement voicing “grave concerns” about a draft security law in Hong Kong.
“We strongly urge the Government of China to reconsider this decision,” said the joint statement by Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the United States.
China is moving ahead with a law that would prohibit subversion and other perceived offenses in the financial hub, to which Beijing promised autonomy before taking back the British colony in 1997.
Talks on global tumult
With Trump under fire at home over his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, his Republican Party has increasingly cast China as the villain ahead of November elections.
But Bolton’s book – which his former administration is trying to block – tells another story, saying that Trump asked China to boost his election prospects by requesting it buy more farm produce.
Bolton, according to an excerpt published by The Washington Post, also said that Xi explained the Uighur camps to Trump, who replied that they were “exactly the right thing to do.”
Activists say China is forcibly homogenizing minorities in a brainwashing campaign with few modern precedents. Beijing counters that it is running vocational educational centers that offer an alternative to Islamic extremism.
Susan Thornton, a career diplomat who served as the top State Department official on East Asia earlier in the Trump administration, doubted the Hawaii talks would produce much.
“I hope that this meeting will reduce tensions, and I suspect that’s why the Chinese suggested it, but I am skeptical that this will be the outcome,” said Thornton, now at Yale Law School.
“My own view is that the United States and China both face serious crises, as does the rest of the world from Covid-19 and the consequent economic meltdown.
“It seems to me that talking about US-China rivalry in this environment is out of touch with the reality that people are facing.”
‘Polemicist’ to the rescue?
Pompeo has been in the forefront of denouncing China, saying it is “truly hostile” to the United States and “ruthlessly imposes communism.”
The conservative former congressman has taken the lead in promoting a theory, discounted by mainstream scientists, that the coronavirus came out of a Chinese laboratory.
Michael Swaine, a prominent US scholar of China, said Pompeo is “about the worst person” to be in charge of decreasing tensions.
“He has shown that he has zero understanding of China, and is mostly a polemicist,” Swaine, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, wrote on Twitter.
“Making ideological statements as if they constitute diplomacy or some kind of strategy is just embarrassing for the US.”
Yang, who has long been active in shaping China’s relationship with the United States, similarly met quietly with Pompeo in New York in August.
China has hit back at criticism by highlighting abuses by US police, an issue that has triggered global protests after a white Minneapolis officer killed George Floyd, a black man who was seen on camera pleading for his life.
Whether the United States and China reach any rhetorical truce could become clear quickly. Pompeo is set to speak Friday at a Danish forum, where the State Department says he will discuss “threats to democracy around the world.”