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WSJ Opinion: The Trump Legacy on China Policy

Paul Gigot interviews former Trump national-security official Matthew Pottinger. Photo: ZUMA Press

Video Transcript

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: No American president can be sustained as a president if he doesn't reflect the values of the United States. And so the idea-- I'm not going to speak out against what he's doing in Hong Kong, what he's doing with the Uighers in Western mountains of China. And Taiwan trying to end the one China policy. There will be repercussions for China and he knows that.

- President Joe Biden vowing that China will pay a price for its human rights abuses. Biden saying he made that message clear in a two hour phone call with Chinese President Xi Jinping last week. Citing Beijing's Hong Kong crackdown, the mass internment of Uighers in Xinjiang province, and its increasingly aggressive actions toward Taiwan. So will the new administration hold China accountable? Let's ask Matt Pottinger. He served as deputy national security advisor to President Trump and helped craft the administration's China policy. Matt Pottinger, welcome. Great to see you. Thank you for doing this. So in your experience-- in your experience, when the United States talks to Xi Jinping and says-- talks about the Uighers, talks about Hong Kong, talks about things domestically. What's the response from Xi or does he even care?

MATTHEW POTTINGER: Yeah, I think we're at a point where, you know, the rhetoric in calling out China's actions in Xinjiang, elsewhere, but Xinjiang being really the most egregious human rights atrocity so far this century, is really important to call those things out but it's also important to back up rhetoric with actions. And so I was I was glad to hear that President Biden-- this is very much on his mind. His readout of his phone call that he did with President Xi also mentioned this, that they talked about Kim Jong Il. But to date there's only been one leader who has taken concrete actions to really punish China over what is happening in Xinjiang, and that was President Trump. The Trump administration, going all the way back to 2019, began putting in place export controls, human rights global Magnitsky Act sanctions, visa sanctions, import bans. And then of course at the end of the President Trump's term, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, made that declaration that a genocide is taking place there. No other leaders around the world have taken concrete steps yet. So we'll have to see whether the rhetoric is matched with action.

- OK now, you've been watching, I'm sure, the Biden China policy unfold such as it is early days. But what signals do you see, apart from the rhetoric, for what kind of policy is shaping up here?

MATTHEW POTTINGER: Yeah, you know, the initial signals that are being sent rhetorically, I think, have been positive to the extent that they signal some degree of continuity. We've seen that. You saw it in the Secretary of State Blinken's readout of his phone call that he had earlier this month with his Chinese counterpart Yang Jeichi. You saw elements of continuity in President Biden's readout. They're doing a review right now of all of the various steps the administration took, and so it's unclear whether they're going to roll some of those things back, whether they're going to maintain or even deepen some of the approach.

But I think it's helpful to take a step back for a moment and realize how dramatically the business landscape has changed just over the past several months between the US and China because of some of these actions that were taken. Late in the Trump administration. Now, it may seem like some of these things were shooting from the hip, last minute things. In fact, many of them had a long head of steam of several months, or in some cases, these were steps that had been planned for years. But it's things like clamping down on all of the massive amounts of passive investment that American pensioners are directing through index funds into Chinese military backed companies, or companies that are affiliated with China's military modernisation.

- Of course he also had the restrictions on Huawei, where you pushed that as a telecom threat for example. That seems to be a very-- that was a very big deal. And would you-- would it be-- what kind of signal what it send if Biden rolled that back?

MATTHEW POTTINGER: Well that would be a very negative signal. You have to remember that we spent two years talking to our closest allies around the world. Many of them did roll back Huawei, said that Huawei we was not going to be allowed in their 5G networks. The Europeans were much more on the fence and we presented them with very compelling evidence for why it's dangerous to have Chinese telecoms gear in your 5G networks. That was not enough. It actually took the step of banning US exports of our technology and our semiconductors to Chinese vendors for the signal to finally really resonate in Europe that, my gosh, some of these Chinese companies aren't even going to have enough chips available to service existing networks much less to build out new 5G networks.

So it was actually a decisive step that you saw over the course of May. And then another move in July by the Commerce Department last year with backing by the President.

- All right.

MATTHEW POTTINGER: It would be a very negative signal for them to back-- to row back on it.

- If you had gotten a second term, how would you-- what specific policies would you have tried to advance vis a vis China to move in the second term to put more pressure on China to behave according to global norms?

MATTHEW POTTINGER: Yeah, there was a lot of talk in the final months of the Trump administration. There was a lot of talk internally about this idea of selective decoupling from China. Selective decoupling. And so the idea there is that on critical areas where our-- we maintain a technological edge, where we maintain significant advantages that were being eroded over time by Chinese subsidies, Chinese theft of our intellectual property, that in those areas we are willing to accept risk by actually rupturing the relationship in certain sectors. The same is true for finance and capital.

Like I mentioned the president signed a couple of executive orders at the end of his term that banned Americans, US persons, from investing in that blacklist of 44 Chinese companies and their subsidiaries. That blacklist should continue to grow. Had we been-- had we had a second term, you would have seen that blacklist at the Pentagon continue to grow. You would have seen deeper steps taken to cut off the flow of American capital that's going into military backed companies. In some cases, it's going to companies that we've already sanctioned for the surveillance state in Xinjiang. Companies that are committing egregious human rights abuses. So you would have seen that you would have seen that trend deepen.

- All right Matt Pottinger, thanks. Very insightful. I appreciate it, and hope to see you again.