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Officials move to act on Trump's China rhetoric

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Heavy hitter: US President Donald Trump catches a ball while hosting youth baseball players at the White House this week. Photo: Kevin Lamarque

Heavy hitter: US President Donald Trump catches a ball while hosting youth baseball players at the White House this week. Photo: Kevin Lamarque

REUTERS

Heavy hitter: US President Donald Trump catches a ball while hosting youth baseball players at the White House this week. Photo: Kevin Lamarque

As President Donald Trump has heaped blame on China for a pandemic that has killed more than 140,000 Americans, his aides are moving to expand on his rhetorical blasts and marshal a broader campaign to punish Beijing on a host of issues.

The strategy escalated this week when the administration ordered Chinese officials to close China's consulate in Houston over charges that it was being used for intelligence-gathering operations.

That decision - which was met by a pledge from Beijing to retaliate - came after other punitive measures in recent weeks, including economic sanctions on Chinese officials over human rights abuses against Uighur Muslims; the stripping of Hong Kong's special status after the Communist Party tightened control of the island; and plans to expel some Chinese journalists and restrict exchange students in the US.

"The old paradigm of blind engagement with China simply won't get it done. We must not continue it. We must not return to it," Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Thursday. "Today, China is increasingly authoritarian at home, and more aggressive in its hostility to freedom everywhere else… If the free world doesn't change Communist China, Communist China will change us."

The speech followed addresses from other Trump aides - national security adviser Robert O'Brien, attorney general William Barr and FBI Director Christopher Wray - who delivered their own indictments of China this month in a coordinated effort to emphasise the administration's determination to confront Beijing on a range of issues.

Yet the timing of the strategy, coming less than four months before the presidential election, has alarmed Trump's critics. They questioned whether the president's eagerness to blame China for the pandemic - and paint Democratic rival Joe Biden as weak on Beijing - has led the administration to lash out without thinking through the consequences, an approach one Capitol Hill aide privately termed the "burn it all down phase" of its China policy.

Inside the White House, there are signs that the emerging China strategy is a work in progress. One White House ally said the series of speeches from Trump aides was prompted by concern among his advisers that the president - while attacking Mr Biden for being inconsistent on China - was himself facing criticism for vacillating in his approach.

"Somebody pointed out, 'We look like we're flip-flopping ourselves,'" said this person, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss their private conversations.

And even as Mr Trump has blamed China for failing to contain the virus, he has continued to refrain from the kind of sweeping rhetoric used by some of his aides to denounce a litany of Chinese offences.

Last month, Mr Trump's former national security adviser John Bolton asserted in a memoir that Mr Trump tried to convince President Xi Jinping that China's purchase of more US goods would help him win re-election and that he allegedly told Mr Xi in a private discussion that he was justified in building detention camps for Uighur Muslims.

Michael Pillsbury, a China analyst at the Hudson Institute, said Mr Trump had not fully endorsed an expansive indictment of the Chinese political system.

"This is a new area for the president," said Mr Pillsbury. (© The Washington Post)

Irish Independent