President Donald Trump tweeted that he’ll have an “extended meeting” with China President Xi Jinping at the G-20 summit in Japan this week.
Resolving the nations’ trade dispute, and getting China to abide by international trade rules, is the top priority. Also on the agenda is North Korea, which Xi visited en route to Japan.
But a long meeting should also provide time for the president to remind Xi that America is troubled by human-rights violations in China.
Trump missed an opportunity earlier this month to support demonstrators in Hong Kong. They were protesting legislation that would enable China to extradite criminal suspects from the autonomous island, potentially including political dissidents. The bill was paused after massive protests, a striking uprising against China extending its authoritarianism.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with a Hong Kong pro-democracy leader and expressed concern that Hong Kong’s rights were threatened by the legislation. Vice President Mike Pence also sharply criticized China in October. But Trump was markedly circumspect. In a June 17 interview with Time magazine, Trump said the protests were effective but declined to speak for their cause.
“I have our own argument with China, and I think it’s going to work out successfully, but I’m going to let China and the protesters work out their own problem,” Trump said.
The president of the United States has multiple arguments with China, and mercantilism is just one of them.
Human rights are another. They have worsened substantially since Xi became president in 2013, said University of Washington Professor David Bachman, a former chair of its China studies program. Last year the world became aware of internment camps where China is “re-educating” perhaps 1 million Muslims. Tolerance has also diminished for Christians and some Buddhist communities, and human-rights lawyers are being severely persecuted, Bachman noted.
Still, trade will dominate this week’s meeting. Trump is under pressure to resolve a dispute that cost American consumers and businesses an estimated $4.4 billion per month last year. While that economic hardship cannot continue forever, the U.S. must get China to improve its trade behavior or the pain will have been for naught.
Trump and Xi may not reach a deal. One clue will be whether the discussion does turn to human rights — Bachman said that may be a sign that trade talks have broken down.
That outcome would not be a complete failure.
One way or another, the U.S. president should take every opportunity to advocate for human rights and support those pushing back against tyranny — even if it adds another wrinkle to complicated trade negotiations.