US President Donald Trump on Thursday renewed his threat to cut ties with China, a day after the countries two top diplomats held talks and his trade representative said he did not consider decoupling the economies of the United States and China a viable option.
The top US diplomat for East Asia described US-China relations as “tense” after their first high-level face-to-face diplomatic talks in months, although he said Beijing did recommit to the first part of a trade deal reached this year and that the coming weeks would show if there had been progress.
Trump has made rebalancing the enormous US trade deficit with China a priority, but relations have worsened as his campaign for re-election in November heats up.
On Thursday, Trump took to Twitter to clarify his position after trade representative, Robert Lighthizer, spoke at a House of Representatives committee.
“The US certainly does maintain a policy option, under various conditions, of a complete decoupling from China,” he wrote.
It was not Ambassador Lighthizer’s fault (yesterday in Committee) in that perhaps I didn’t make myself clear, but the U.S. certainly does maintain a policy option, under various conditions, of a complete decoupling from China. Thank you!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 18, 2020
Lighthizer told the committee on Wednesday that he did not see that as viable.
“Do I think that you can sit down and decouple the United States economy from the Chinese economy?” he said. “No, I think that was a policy option years ago. I don’t think it’s a … reasonable policy option at this point.”
His office had no immediate comment on Trump’s tweet.
US-China relations have reached their lowest point in years since the coronavirus pandemic that began in China late last year. The US has been hit hard, and Trump and his administration have repeatedly accused Beijing of not being transparent about the outbreak.
Points of friction
Among multiple points of friction, the countries are also at odds over China’s move to impose new security legislation on Hong Kong, which has prompted Trump to initiate a process to eliminate special US treatment for the territory.
Trump made clear the deterioration in the relationship last month when he said he had no interest in speaking right now to President Xi Jinping, whom he has previously hailed as a friend, and suggesting he could even cut ties with China.
Lighthizer said he expected to see more supply chains moving to the US because of tax and regulatory changes, but also noted that the US-China trade deal would result in significant positive changes and increased Chinese purchases of US goods and services.
The Phase 1 US-China trade deal calls for China to buy $200bn in additional US goods and services over two years, but sceptics say the pandemic and resulting economic slowdowns will make it difficult for Beijing to reach its targets for this year.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met China’s top diplomat, Yang Jiechi, for a day of talks in Hawaii on Wednesday, but those appear to have done little to improve the mood.
As the Hawaii meeting began, Trump signed legislation calling for sanctions against those responsible for the repression of Uighur Muslims in China’s Xinjiang region, prompting Beijing to threaten retaliation.
David Stilwell, the assistant secretary for East Asia, told reporters that China’s attitude in the talks could not be described as forthcoming and described relations as “tense.”
He said recent Chinese actions, over India, in the South China Sea and over Hong Kong, had not been constructive and that Washington looked forward to seeing China reconsider its plans for security legislation for Hong Kong.
At the same time, Stilwell said China did recommit to following through on the trade agreement and added that efforts to persuade North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons were another area of potential cooperation.
“The trade deal – the Chinese have recommitted to that numerous times … and they insist that they will follow through,” Stilwell said. “This is a good acid test to see if they will be cooperative partners.”
“We’ll see in the next week or two, or however long it takes, [if] they begin to live up to their commitments,” he said.
China described the Hawaii talks as “constructive,” but its Foreign Ministry said Yang told Pompeo that Washington needed to respect Beijing’s positions on key issues and halt its interference in matters such as Hong Kong, Taiwan and Xinjiang, while working to repair relations.
Hours after the meeting ended, China said its top parliamentary body would review draft Hong Kong security legislation during a session that began on Thursday.
Earlier, foreign ministers of the G7 countries, including Pompeo, issued a statement calling on China not to follow through with the legislation, which critics call an assault on the territory’s democratic freedoms.