China trade

White House Caught Between Several Rocks And One Very Hard Place Amid Huawei, Trade, Hong Kong Drama

"Total respect".

“President Trump is being soft on Huawei”, Chuck Schumer charged on Monday, following the expected extension of temporary licenses to some US firms doing business with the Chinese tech behemoth.

The reprieve is the third since the company was blacklisted by the Commerce department in May. 

“The temporary general license extension will allow carriers to continue to service customers in some of the most remote areas of the United States who would otherwise be left in the dark”, Wilbur Ross said, reiterating a familiar talking point. “The department will continue to rigorously monitor sensitive technology exports to ensure that our innovations are not harnessed by those who would threaten our national security”.

When Trump added Huawei to the entity list earlier this year citing national security concerns, he opened a Pandora’s box.

For one thing, the move made it clear that the administration no longer differentiated between trade policy and national security concerns, and was prepared to conflate the two if it meant pushing key agenda items forward. That was underscored at the end of May when Trump threatened across-the-board tariffs on Mexico if the country didn’t assist him in reducing illegal border crossings.

Read more: ‘National Security’ As A Pandora’s Box

But beyond that, it put the president in a situation where, if he needed to relax the crackdown on Huawei in order to facilitate the trade deal, he couldn’t, without having to explain how that’s consistent with protecting national security. 

Trump learned that the hard way in June when his post-G-20 comments on Huawei were immediately panned by everyone from Schumer to Marco Rubio to Kyle Bass.

Read more: ‘He’s Rolling In A Trojan Horse’ – Trump’s Huawei Relent Draws Jeers From Schumer, Rubio, Kyle Bass

No matter how “narrow” the licenses issued along with new reprieves (like those extended on Monday), the White House is bound to be hit with more criticism from those who have spent years maligning the security threat posed by Chinese tech. That criticism is bipartisan.

At some point, Trump will probably run up against a similar quandary with Hikvision and the other firms Commerce blacklisted in October for their role in perpetuating human rights abuses in Xinjiang. The idea that Trump cares about the plight of the Uighurs was always a joke, but the situation is anything but funny to human rights advocates. Eventually, assuming the trade talks ever make it to “Phase Two” and “Phase Three”, Beijing will ask for the removal of Hikvision (and several other agencies and commercial firms) from the US entity list. That will be difficult for Trump to navigate, just as the situation in Hong Kong poses an impossible choice for the administration: Speak out in support of democracy and risk the trade deal falling apart, or stay silent (as Trump reportedly promised Xi he would in June) and risk a backlash from Congress.

Mike Pence finally delivered his “tough on China” speech last month, but it ended up being harder on Nike and the NBA than Beijing, a likely reflection of Trump’s desire to avoid undermining the trade talks just weeks after Liu He left Washington. China took Pence’s remarks in stride, but the colorful Hua Chunying (a spokeswoman for the foreign ministry) did call Mike an “arrogant liar”.

Speaking of Hua, she’s repeatedly accused Mike Pompeo (the other Mike) of playing a role in the Hong Kong protests, and on Monday, Pompeo weighed in on the unrest after things spiraled totally out of control over the weekend.

The US is “gravely concerned” about the situation in the city, he said, adding that Carrie Lam should support an independent investigation into the incidents related to the protests.

Earlier, a senior Trump administration official called on “all sides” to refrain from violence and engage in a constructive dialogue. The official added that the White House expects Beijing to uphold it commitments to safeguarding Hong Kong’s freedom, legal system and democracy.

Also on Monday, Schumer and Republican Tom Cotton asked the Commerce department to issue rules making it more difficult to export new technologies to China that could assist Beijing in building up the PLA.

Ross was required by a 2018 law to develop regulations aimed at strengthening export controls for high-end technologies. A year later, nothing has been done.

“We understand the technical challenges of evaluating cutting-edge technologies”, Schumer and Cotton wrote in a letter. “But it is imperative that the department act expeditiously to develop guidance around these technologies to prevent them from being exported to our military competitors”.

Finally, Mitch McConnell implored Beijing to deescalate the violence in Hong Kong and called on Trump to “focus on the city’s autonomy”. “President Trump should speak out about the situation in Hong Kong and the world should hear from him directly”, McConnell said on the Senate floor.

As you can see, Trump is caught between several rocks (all manner of demands for a tougher stance towards China on everything from tech to trade to Hong Kong) and one very hard place (the immovable, often expressionless Xi).

We’d say we wish the president the best of luck, but he doesn’t need it.

After all, China has “total respect for Donald Trump and his very large brain”…


6 comments on “White House Caught Between Several Rocks And One Very Hard Place Amid Huawei, Trade, Hong Kong Drama

  1. derek says:

    How would the GOP cabal react if demonstrators in the US were throwing petrol bombs at the police? Say, in Ferguson ….

    • mfn says:

      False analogy. The situation in Hong Kong is about a formerly free city-state, one of the most successful in history, being forced into an authoritarian straitjacket against its collective will. Now, if your hypothetical demonstrators in, say, Ferguson, were throwing petrol bombs because local authorities were jacking them up and discriminating against them based solely on race and socioeconomic status, that would be another thing…Oh, wait…

      • derek says:

        Justified or not, the reaction from the American right would have been similar. Look how they reacted to Black Lives Matter and the NFL players kneeling. Some pretty harmless stuff set off a firestorm from our friends in the GOP.

  2. derek says:

    In any case, mfn is right.

    But damn, there is no happy ending just around the corner in HK.

    • Tom says:

      If by happy ending you mean a deescalation by the demonstrators or the city administrator (i.e. the Chinese government) you are right: the outlook is not good.

      To start with, it does not appear that the demonstrators have any sort of effective leadership that can represent and negotiate on their behalf.

      More significant than that rather major impediment is the fact that the most important (and nebulous) demand of the demonstrators for ‘greater democratic freedoms’ is a complete non-starter for China. China likely would be willing to have Carrie Lam step down a few months after peace and order are restored. Similarly most of the demonstrators who were arrested could be released reasonably expeditiously along with some PR moves to ‘reform’ the police. However, while greater autonomy and democratic processes could consist primarily of cosmetic changes China almost certainly views even such concessions as dangerous and potentially destabilizing. The potential for a ‘goodwill’ payoff would have to be balanced against appearing weak as well as the likelihood of an upsurge in activism in China’s restive eastern regions.

      Clearly, China has hoped that over time the demonstrations would run out of steam. For the safety if not the political freedom of Hong Kong that may have been the ideal outcome. Alas that does not appear to be the direction that things are heading.

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