US-China relations further strained by Hong Kong, Taiwan and Xinjiang

US-China relations further strained by Hong Kong, Taiwan and Xinjiang
Source: Adnan Abidi, Reuters
Tensions have escalated between the two global superpowers, leading to a trade war and an exchange of sanctions that have had a significant effect on the economies of both countries.

Relations between the United States and China have declined drastically during the Trump era, largely due to Beijing’s actions with regard to Hong Kong, Taiwan and Xinjiang.

The human rights issues that have been raised as a result of these actions have escalated tensions between the two global superpowers, leading to a trade war and an exchange of sanctions that have had a significant effect on the economies of both countries.

Hong Kong

In recent months, the US has placed sanctions on Chinese officials tied to the suppression of pro-democracy protests that began in Hong Kong in March 2019. The protests were a response to the introduction of the “Fugitive Offenders” amendment bill, which would have allowed extradition to countries that Hong Kong did not previously have extradition agreements with, namely mainland China.

The first round of sanctions this past August targeted 11 individuals for “undermining Hong Kong’s autonomy and restricting the freedom of expression or assembly of the citizens of Hong Kong,” according to a press release for the Department of the Treasury.

The imposed sanctions signify, among other things, that American banks are prohibited from doing any business with the sanctioned individuals.

Those sanctioned were all officials connected to the suppression of pro-democracy demonstrators, including current and former commissioners of the Hong Kong Police Force and Secretaries for Security and Justice for Hong Kong.

The first wave also included Carrie Lam, the Chief Executive of the city of Hong Kong. As a result, Lam has reportedly been paid entirely in cash by the Chinese government since the sanctions were implemented. This was seen by many as a testament to the US’ control over the global economy.

The second round of sanctions was issued on December 7 and included 14 members of the standing committee of China’s National People’s Congress, a group that oversees legislative work when the legislature is not in session.

This round of sanctions came in part as a response to a round of legislation passed through China’s highest legislative body in November that would prohibit anyone from Hong Kong’s legislative council from supporting independence, opposing the national security law, or committing “other acts that endanger national security.”

The legislation was immediately followed by the removal of four legislators who had already been barred from running in the next election by Chief Executive Lam. In response, 15 pro-democracy legislators appeared before the press and announced their resignation.

Tensions in Hong Kong have been high for months, but their importance to the relationship between the Chinese and the Americans seems to have shifted.

“The Hong Kong situation devolved following the passing of the new security law in June and initial sanctions directed at Carrie Lam and other Hong Kong officials in August,” Gentry Sayad, an international law expert at Sayad & Associates LLC told TMS. “With the passing of sanctions against 14 high-ranking officials in Beijing, the stakes have been raised and will likely result in similar actions by the Chinese.”

“The US will continue to support Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement publicly and that by itself is not likely to increase tensions beyond where they are now, unless there was some more overt or aggressive manifestation of direct support or intervention.”


Tensions between the US and China over Taiwan worsened after the State Department announced that it had approved a US$280 million sale of military communications equipment to Taiwan, the sixth such package this year. The package is part of a Taiwanese initiative to modernize its military communications.

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) has long claimed that Taiwan is part of its territory.

Chinese spokesman Zhao Lijian demanded that the US end its sale of arms with Taiwan, saying that the sale “seriously undermined China’s sovereignty and security interests.”

But the outgoing Trump administration has increased its support for Taiwan, a move that has further increased tensions between Beijing and Washington.

Taiwan’s defense ministry said the most recent weapons sale was a demonstration of the unchanged commitment from the US to help strengthen its defense capabilities.

Taiwan has been a sticking point for relations between China and the US, and while the latter does not recognize Taiwan as a sovereign government, many feel that the US would be obliged to defend Taiwan if it was attacked.

According to the US State Department, “The United States and Taiwan enjoy a robust unofficial relationship.” The statement goes on to say that “The United States recognized the Government of the People’s Republic of China as the sole legal government of China … The United States does not support Taiwan independence.”

But, in 2016, President Donald Trump called Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, the first time a US president or president-elect has spoken with their Taiwanese counterpart since the seventies. Beijing reportedly feared that this would lead Trump to possibly consider working towards sovereignty for Taiwan, but Trump later said he would honor the “one China” policy.


In July, the Trump administration placed sanctions on a vast paramilitary Chinese colonial enterprise in Xinjiang, known as the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC), as well as two Chinese officials that worked within the enterprise.

This move came in response to the sweeping crackdown on Uighur Muslims and other ethnic minorities in the region. Rights groups claim that at least a million people have been forced to take part in the “re-education” program.

In September, an Australian report said that China had expanded its network of detention centers for ethnic minorities within the country, with the Australian Strategic Policy Institute saying that there are about 40% more suspected facilities in Xinjiang than previously estimated.

These camps have been subject to severe scrutiny, with many arguing that the repression of Uighur culture marks a full-on genocide via the camps.


Despite Trump’s anti-China rhetoric during the campaign, it has been clear throughout his presidency that he was lukewarm on the relationship between the nations, willing to work with the country at some points and to fight it bitterly at others.

The incoming Biden administration brings up new questions about how the relationship will develop in the coming years. The Obama-Biden administration took a multilateral approach to Chinese foreign policy, arguing that with a better overall relationship with China, it would slowly move toward democracy. But many question whether President-elect Joe Biden will return to that approach, or if he is going to embrace a new era of diplomacy.

“There is broad support for a tough on China approach right now and new revelations about Chinese agents acting in the US will sustain that tougher stance,” Sayad told TMS. “The overall Obama-Biden approach to China was not successful and it would be a mistake to revisit those failed policies. Early indications from Biden staffers suggest that he will maintain tariffs and current sanctions.”

Whichever way Biden chooses to approach the issues facing the relationship, his administration’s foreign policy vis-à-vis China will continue to be challenged by the approach Beijing takes with Hong Kong, Taiwan and Xinjiang.

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