Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is quietly planning a trip to Hawaii to meet with Chinese government officials. If it happens, the encounter would come at a moment of high tension.
The relationship between the U.S. and China is at a low ebb; Trump administration officials, led by Pompeo, have lambasted the country for its opacity and deception regarding the early spread of the novel coronavirus outbreak, which started in China and has since claimed more than 413,000 lives worldwide. China has been equally critical of Pompeo, with state-owned media organs openly mocking America’s top diplomat in harsh and often personal terms.
President Donald Trump has made standing up to China a central pillar of his re-election campaign — an effort that has the added benefit of deflecting blame from the administration’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
But while Trump sees political value in criticizing Beijing, he also prioritizes economic recovery in the months leading up to the 2020 reelection. So the close economic ties between the two powers make it arguably the United States’ most complicated and consequential bilateral relationship––especially given concerns within the administration that China will not fulfill commitments it made in the first phase of a trade deal with the U.S.
Trump counts that deal among his signature accomplishments, but some signs indicate the Chinese will not follow through.
Pompeo’s travel plans, which have not been finalized, were detailed to POLITICO by two sources with knowledge of them, neither of whom were authorized to discuss them on the record. A State Department spokesperson declined to comment, and the Chinese embassy did not respond to a request for comment.
Pompeo has been pointedly critical of the Chinese government over the last few weeks, and Chinese diplomats have criticized the U.S. in turn. Earlier this week, he lambasted Chinese state media for criticizing the U.S. government’s response to nationwide protests over the killing of George Floyd.
“Our own civic unrest gives us an extraordinary opportunity to tell our story abroad: the American response to events of these past weeks presents a stark contrast to what happens in totalitarian regimes around the world,” he wrote in an email to the State Department workforce.
“We must reject unequivocally the false charges – many of them vile propaganda emanating from China, Iran and other autocracies – questioning America’s credibility in promoting human rights and democracy abroad,” he added.
The Hawaii trip, if finalized, will come in the wake of Beijing’s move to crack down on dissent in Hong Kong with a new national security law. The law will formalize the presence of China’s spy services in Hong Kong, and human rights activists say it will end any semblance of autonomy in the global financial hub. It could also give Beijing the power to move to extradite people from Hong Kong to mainland China––a chilling prospect for many, given the country’s mass internment of Muslim minorities and opaque legal system. Pompeo said last month that the city no longer has meaningful autonomy because of the national security law. That announcement is expected to change Hong Kong’s special economic relationship with the U.S.
China’s state media apparatus responded with fury to Pompeo’s comments on Hong Kong, with the editor of a hawkish tabloid, the Global Times, attacking the secretary as “arrogant” and “hysterical.”