The United States’ Use of Human Rights as a Bargaining Chip in its Trade War with China: Why Here? Why Now?

As the trade war rages on between China and the United States, President Donald Trump’s recent strategy of calling out the human rights abuses of President Xi Jinping’s administration comes as an interesting development. The trade war can be traced back to July 2018, when China decided to stop buying U.S. soybeans in response to the United States’ increased tariffs on Chinese imports. The economic relations between both states have since been characterized by multiple tariff hikes on both sides with negotiations predominantly focused on protecting domestic producers and manufacturers by increasing the market prices of foreign goods. 

On October 8th, 2019, the U.S. imposed restrictions on twenty-eight Chinese commercial and public companies, banning them from trading  with American firms, due to their role in China’s surveillance project to track individuals. In light of the human rights abuses in China, and particularly those in Xinjiang, the U.S. also imposed visa restrictions on particular Chinese officials. 

What is Going On ? 

President Xi Jinping’s government is responsible for the forced detainment of what is now estimated to be approximately one million Uyghur Muslims across the  Xinjiang region. It is suspected that these companies’ roles in using surveillance to track individuals enabled the Chinese government to repress and arbitrarily force the Muslim population into entering ‘re-education’ camps. 

In a statement made to NBC News, one of the camp’s directors said that these centers aim to prevent the development of terroristic thoughts. This echoes China’s official stance that these camps are essential for re-educating their Muslim population. According to Dennis Wilder, former National Security Council Director for China, the government’s goal is to erase Muslim culture and foster bonds with the Communist Party that supersede their religious identities. Wilder argues that  Xi Jinping’s real concern is the threat to national cohesion he perceives from the Muslims. 

President Trump’s introduction of human rights condemnations amidst this trade war serves a rather clear purpose: it gives the U.S. the moral high-ground, allowing it to justify its hardlined economic demands on the basis of legitimate ethical concerns.

Public knowledge of China’s systemic detainment of Uyghur Muslims emerged back in 2017, yet there has been very little international response. The first consolidated form of international condemnation only arose at the UN Human Rights Council in July of this year. Twenty-two countries signed onto a letter urging for China to put an end to their “mass arbitrary detention” of Uyghur Muslims. In response, thirty-seven countries, including Russia and Saudi Arabia, penned a letter of their own defending China’s efforts against terrorism. Since July, however, the international response has been  minimalistic and split. 

So, Why has the U.S. Waited Until Now to Act? 

President Trump’s introduction of human rights condemnations amidst this trade war serves a rather clear purpose: it gives the U.S. the moral high-ground, allowing it to justify its hardlined economic demands on the basis of legitimate ethical concerns. Vishnu Varathan, the head of Economics and Strategy at the Mizuho Bank, buttresses this in a statement made to CNBC claiming that, “Once you go down the path of human rights, then the need to justify [tariffs] on economic grounds diminishes vastly”.

The U.S. threatened to impose sanctions on China back in March 2019 but had remained silent on the issue during trade talks until recently. China’s growing military and economic power has pushed human rights to the sidelines of other states’ foreign policies. When it comes to action, the United Nations acts as a failsafe for international scrutiny and so long as states signal condemnation at the world stage, their economic commitments, foreign investments and financial imperatives no longer matter. The UN provides a platform for states to virtue signal and play-act humanitarian aid when in reality states only take action when tangible benefits are available. 

The UN provides a platform for states to virtue signal and play-act humanitarian aid when in reality states only take action when tangible benefits are available. 

Trump’s shift towards human rights is rooted in a larger strategy to bolster the U.S’s position in the recent negotiations, rather than  in a genuine concern for those suffering under China’s growing regime. The U.S. had not been motivated to act on China’s human rights abuses in the past because there had not been a tangible incentive for them to do. With the constant back-and-forths of the negotiations over the last year, and the protests raging in Hong Kong, the U.S. saw an opportunity and seized it.

Who Really is The United States When it Comes to Human Rights? 

The danger in restructuring economic negotiations by espousing a rhetoric focused on the protection of human rights is obscuring the underlying intentions. Economic interests remain the United States’ priority regardless of the negotiator’s terminology or attempts to shift the narrative’s focus. Trump’s Secretary of Commerce, Wilbur Ross, stated that the U.S.’s position is emblematic of its intolerance of the “suppression of ethnic minorities within China,” yet this intolerance only seems to surface when it strategically aligns with the U.S.’ economic agenda.

The danger in restructuring economic negotiations by espousing a rhetoric focused on the protection of human rights is obscuring the underlying intentions.

American-owned tech companies are also not clear of human rights abuses. In 2018, Microsoft and Apple were condemned by Amnesty International for purchasing from suppliers that use child labour in the cobalt mines of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The U.S. government continues to grant these companies billions of dollars in tax breaks despite neither of the two companies making sizable attempts to remedy their supply chain. The U.S. has been far from a beacon for human rights whether it be their exploitative wars in the Middle East motivated by foreign oil interests, their use of Dow Chemical’s Agent Orange in Vietnam, or their current immigration policies which have detained approximately 52,722 people in facilities akin to prisons as of Sept. 10, 2019.

The United States’ relative power at the international level means that it is primarily vulnerable to China’s growing strength. Using human rights in this phase of the game provides them with leverage, and their track record does little to improve their credentials as tried and true human rights activists. According to Günter Frankenberg, using human rights in trade policy can be used to impose the national interest and serve as a bargaining-chip in order to deliver demands in an ethical-sounding way.

Trump’s decision does not exist in a vacuum. There are important contextual elements to his forwardness and they reveal the underlying dynamics of money and power.

Edited by Shannon Benson

Photo credits: “President Trump at the G20”. Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead. Published June 28th, 2019. This work was sourced as a Public Domain Mark 1.0.

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