Since the arrival of President Joe Biden to the White House, some of his policies have made it clear that human rights are a central pillar and key priority to his administration. This has been evidenced by the US relations with China and Biden’s constant criticism of China during bilateral meetings, the last of which was the virtual summit between the US and Chinese presidents on the situation of human rights in Xinjiang and violations against the Uyghurs.
In addition, China and the United States are both members of the United Nations Human Rights Council this year, which would likely make the Council an arena for competition and tension over human rights.
As part of a series of condemnations and sanctions related to the deteriorating human rights situation in China in regions such as Xinjiang and Tibet, Biden announced a boycott of the official US delegation to the Beijing Winter Olympics scheduled for February 2022, in addition to imposing sanctions on more Chinese companies, which provoked mixed reactions in the United States about how far the Biden administration might go in its confrontation with China. For its part, China expressed disapproval of the US movements, considering them a deafening “political farce” that intrudes politics into sports, raising questions about how “human rights” works in the relationship between China and the United States and the consequences of the intertwining human rights into the US-China relations.
Diplomatic Boycott: A Compromise
The US diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics can be seen as a compass guiding the US administration’s policy and approach based on the interests and dynamics of internal US institutions. Before the official declaration of the boycott, the US administration informed China of its intention to boycott the Olympics, in view of preserving continued contact between the two countries while taking a more decisive stance on Beijing. However, Washington’s boycott decision was less stringent than the US boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Analyses suggest that there are divergent opinions in the United States as regards the administration’s decisions to take decisive action with China based on an assessment of the human rights situation, realizing the consequences of these decisions.
For example, several human rights organizations standing against the situation in China have repeatedly sent communications to the White House urging a total boycott of the Beijing Olympics, including not sending athletes to participate in the Olympics and US businesses imposing an economic boycott on China. However, the US administration has adopted a less severe boycott, limiting it to the diplomatic boycott supported by 200 human rights organizations, which suggested the desirability of the US administration to take a middle position on the humanitarian situation, yet without provoking escalation or a comprehensive confrontation with China.
On the other hand, major US companies, such as Amazon, Nike, and JPMorgan Chase, opposed the US administration and Congress taking the escalatory steps that would impede their investments and commercial activities in China. Lobby groups linked to the Chamber of Commerce, the National Retail Federation, and the US-China Business Council, comprising 250 US companies operating in China, launched intensive campaigns against moves by Congress and the White House to tighten trade and financing rules in response to China’s violations of human rights, emphasizing that any escalatory measures would asphyxiate the US investments in China.
At large, the Congress response has remained within the so-called Washington Consensus to end its previous policy of engagement with China. While the congressional Republicans have supported the Biden administration’s approach to China, lobby groups have turned to pressuring the progressive wing in the Congress. Businesses worked on matching their pressures with the position of the progressives and their concerns about the Biden administration’s stance on China by warning them that a tougher US approach would entail more military expenditures and further exacerbation of tensions, which could escalate into a regional war or worse. In this vein, progressive representatives, including Ilhan Omar, stressed the need to differentiate between justified criticism of the human rights situation in China and dealing with China with the Cold War and zero-sum relations mentality. This idea was elucidated by Bernie Sanders in his article in Foreign Affairs in June 2021, through his tours to large corporations, stressing that the dialogue with China on human rights, the lack of a comprehensive zero-sum game is the most effective strategy in dealing with China, to maintain a line of cooperation on common international issues. As such, human rights has become subjected to assessment of their effectiveness in adjusting the course of relations between the United States and China, in addition to being considered one of the cards and tools for managing the relationship or escalation between the two countries, looking at it within the framework of a set of other interacting factors, by balancing economic and strategic interests and value considerations.
Managing the US-China Rivalry
A range of analyses indicate that the existing rivalry between the United States and China has taken an ideological and an ethical overtone. The United States seeks to assert the dominance of its main ideas related to capitalism, free trade, human rights, and democracy on the international scene by emphasizing the constructive role of values in rivalry. While the United States is placing pressure on China due to human rights violations, Former Secretary of State John Kerry stressed that differences with China over this file do not necessarily mean stopping all forms of cooperation with China. Accordingly, human rights play a constructive role in managing the US-Chinese rivalry, either leading to escalation or giving rise to bilateral talks.
Few academic studies question the timing and manner according which human rights issues can be raised, their relationship with interests, and their interplay with common issues, in what is known as the “constructive role of values in international relations”. In this respect, issues could be divided into three categories as regards their relationship to human rights, which issues the US administration seeks focusing on when dealing with China, and for what purpose. These three categories are clarified as below:
I- Issues Irrelative to Human Rights: In cases where bilateral issues are not related to human rights, e.g. the exchange rate, the United States works on finding or faking a relationship between these issues and human rights based on cost-benefit calculations. This approach was adopted by the United States towards Russia regarding the continuation of the space cooperation program in 2015, despite tensions between the two countries and the deteriorating human rights situation. As such, issues such as military cooperation and non-proliferation are not usually linked to human rights issues, due to the potentially detrimental impact of the intrusion of these issues on key collaboration files.
II- Issues Clearly Related to Human Rights: In cases where a human rights issue is clearly related to one aspect of bilateral cooperation, such as in cases of serious human rights violations in China or China’s arrest of US citizens as has been the case with Sandy Phan-Gillis who was arrested on suspicion of stealing state secrets, a crisis that entailed several visits of US officials to China and issuance of international condemnations of her detention and treatment, the US administration may find itself forced to express condemnation. For instance, the Obama administration condemned China’s arrest of the Chinese activist Ai Weiwei in 2011 against the background of exposing the pressures exerted on the families of the children deceased as a result of the collapse of buildings and schools in the Sichuan province in 2008, provoking wide controversy over the corruption of the Chinese contracting and construction sector –albeit the US response was confined to providing some relief aid at the beginning of the crisis.
III- Issues Implicitly Related to Human Rights: Apparently, there exist issues that, at first sight, don’t seem unrelated to human rights, yet after in depth analyses or for purposes of exploitation can be included as a human rights-related issue. Take, for example, the right of freedom of expression, which can be sometimes included in the cybersecurity and cyber-activity talks between the United States and China as a human rights issue by the US criticizing the cyber surveillance procedures followed by the Chinese government. However, after the United States and China signed a cybersecurity cooperation agreement in 2015, the right to freedom of expression was neglected, let alone lack of reference to human rights in any of the subsequent statements issued by the Department of Homeland Security and the US Department of Justice on the two dialogues held under the agreement.
Human Rights Dynamics
Overall, the multi-faceted impact of the dynamics of international values and human rights on the US-China relations can be identified in light of the following points: (1) the parties’ moral classification of good and evil, which would affect the space of consensus, cooperation, and flexibility; (2) the US emphasis on positivist values would push towards preserving the form and substance of the current global situation and the post-Cold War international frameworks, associated with the extent to which China poses a challenge to the international system and its values, notwithstanding its contribution to the development of the second and third generations of human rights in the first place; (3) the role these values could play in bringing about internal change in the long run; and (4) the continuing pressures of the human rights in China that seem, according to several analyses, to have a greater influence than the economic sanctions policy. This could be attributed to the fact that a large number of factories in Xinjiang serve within the supply chains that export several commodities, particularly cotton –which accounts for about 20 percent of global production– and agricultural crops to the United States. Hence, the US condemnations of human rights and forced labor violations in the region resulted in disrupting the trade movement between the region and the United States, due to placing of all goods in the customs sector under investigation for being linked with cases of forced labor, particularly after the US Senate passed a law to prevent forced labor of the Uighur towards cleaning up the supply chains and moving away from trouble spots.
In conclusion, human rights dynamics offer a broader scope to address a wide range of issues within the framework of US-China relations, given the intersection of human rights and areas of common interest, particularly with the human rights file going beyond economic sanctions and the trade war to affect relations between the two countries. Overall, the prospects for the intertwining between human rights and US-China relations would be much determined by the degree of mutual dependence, the higher strategic interests, areas of cooperation between the two countries, and whether or not human rights will affect the US strategic approach to China.