Amid the escalating Hong Kong crisis, USIP’s Jacob Stokes says China’s history of breaking deals has created a basic credibility problem that “relates to Hong Kong, it relates to territorial disputes in the South China Sea, on hacking and cyber theft, and on certain parts of the World Trade Organization.”

On Peace is a weekly podcast sponsored by USIP and Sirius XM POTUS Ch. 124. Each week, USIP experts tackle the latest foreign policy issues from around the world.


Tim Farley: We've also been watching very closely what's been going on in Hong Kong. President Trump noncommittal.

President Trump: I hope it works out for everybody, including China. I hope it works out peacefully. I hope nobody gets hurt. I hope nobody gets killed.

Tim Farley: "I hope nobody gets hurt. I hope nobody gets killed." The president, also, yesterday backing off on the tariffs with China, but the relationship between the U.S. and that country are quite tight right now. The relations in a state of, as it's been described by some people, "In a state of freefall not since before President Nixon went to Beijing in 1972." Let's get perspective from Jake Stokes. Jake is the United States Institute of Peace senior policy analyst for China. He's the one that wrote those words, and he is joining us tweeting @JacobStokes. Jake, welcome back. Thanks for being here today.

Jacob Stokes: Thanks for having me, Tim.

Tim Farley: Just in general, the U.S. and China right now, I mean, this tariff war seems to be the example that most people are pointing to. What is the challenge right now? Is this a Donald Trump-Xi Jinping fight? Is this something more serious than that?

Jacob Stokes: Well, there are a number of challenges, but one of the challenges is that China has this sort of basic credibility problem. Going back a couple decades, there's been a string of violated agreements that the U.S. and China agreed to earlier and then China later backed out of. So, this relates to Hong Kong, it relates to territorial disputes in the South China Sea, on hacking and cyber-theft and about certain parts of the World Trade Organization. So, because of those agreements being violated, it's going to be hard for U.S. and Chinese policymakers and leaders to come to new agreements and then to be able to keep those agreements over time and really build trust.

Tim Farley: It's been a sense that China can outwait the U.S., at least wait until after the election next year. But, President Trump took some action yesterday. Was that a blink on his part or how would you characterize that?

Jacob Stokes: My sense is it was a step intended to revive the negotiations with the Chinese without fully stepping back. One of the challenges here is it's not exactly clear what the goals on either side are. In some ways, China wants to return to the status quo. But, on the U.S. side, it's not clear whether we just want to address the trade deficit, whether we're trying to fix some more structural issues about China's economy or whether we're trying to tank the Chinese economy writ large. And, some more clarity on some of those goals would show us more about why individual moves make sense.

Tim Farley: It's not just about the tariffs, Jake. Jake Stokes with us from the United States Institute of Peace. And, I noted a story, you heard the President at the beginning of this conversation, is kind of hands-off on Hong Kong, “hope things go fine.” And, Hong Kong, they've been more concerned about the heavy hand of China. And, a report yesterday, a spokeswoman for the Foreign Ministry in China, claiming that recent comments from Mitch McConnell, the majority leader in the Senate, and Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House, have a bench designed to incite chaos in Hong Kong. What do we make of those accusations?

Jacob Stokes: I think that that's really nonsense at the end of the day. Fundamentally, the people in Hong Kong are trying to secure their rights that they've had as residents of that city for decades now. So, that's really what this is about is people trying to protest and petition their government for their own rights. Related to President Trump's tweets on the topic, and the sense is he didn't really want to take sides, certainly not the sides of the protestors in Hong Kong, primarily because he's focused on the economic issues and wants to maintain enough of a relationship and leverage that he can put that toward the economic negotiations and trade negotiations, rather than try to push on Hong Kong. The worry about that is, without a warning from the U.S. President, that Chinese President Xi Jinping might act more forcefully than he otherwise would have because he expects fewer consequences. So, I think that's the risk.

Tim Farley: There was one other question of whether or not this is a sort of a prelude, if you will, from China because it seems very similar to what had happened prior to Tiananmen Square, the language being used, et cetera, and that is that they are sort of setting the stage for more aggressive action to quell demonstrations in Hong Kong or any pushback they get.

Jacob Stokes: Yeah. The Chinese people, or the Chinese leadership, is deterred in a lot of ways because after Tiananmen, they were isolated internationally. A lot of countries broke ties with them, the U.S. put sanctions on many of the leaders. And so, they want to avoid a situation where their actions cause a real break with the rest of the world. But, at the same time, they want to quell the protests in Hong Kong, so they're trying to strike a balance. But, as the protests carry on for months and weeks at a time, the leadership in Beijing is going to feel more pressure and try to act more forcefully. And, that's what you've seen over time, including the signaling that they've had by amassing forces on their border with Hong Kong.

Tim Farley: Again, we have Jake Stokes with us from the United States Institute of Peace senior policy analyst for China. And, again, much of the conversation has been focused on the trade and tariff war between the U.S. and China. But, this sort of integration of China into any conversation about North Korea, has the U.S. – has China been sort of decoupled from that conflict between the U.S. and North Korea now, or are they still a part of that broader conversation?

Jacob Stokes: Yeah, you can't, it's really impossible to decouple China from and separate China from the North Korea conversation. They share a border, and at the end of the day, 90 percent of North Korean trade goes to China trying to support, gives them oil and other essential commodities that keeps North Korea, the North Korean state alive and functioning, even if it's functioning poorly. And so, there's no way to deal with North Korea without China. Now that doesn't necessarily mean we have to give concessions to China so they'll give concessions to us on North Korea, but it's important to understand the China factor in that problem.

Tim Farley: Back to one other question, before we wrap up, and that has to do with, as you characterize in your piece, China with its mounting trust deficit because of its broken promises to the United States and several other countries. China, typically in the United Nations, when it comes time to weigh in, a lot of times they will say, "We're not going to get involved in this because this is not our business. We just withdraw from this." And, with their mounting trust deficit, who would you call their allies around the world? I mean unless it's just a united against the United States, in a particular case. But, do they have allies that you would look at as strong allies for China?

Jacob Stokes: China doesn't have allies in the way we think of them in the United States, but they have sort of partners in treating the world the same way, and primarily that's Russia, that's North Korea, it's Iran to some extent and Venezuela in its own way. But, really, at the end of the day, the U.S. alliance network is the thing that gives us a major advantage over China in the world.

Tim Farley: Is President Trump's strategy or his tactics toward China working, or are they going in the right direction or not in your estimation?

Jacob Stokes: I think the jury's still out on that. At the end of the day, I think there's a bipartisan consensus that we needed a tougher China policy, partially because we had these attempts to negotiate agreements with the Chinese that they didn't hold up. So, the question is really about have you calibrated the policy right? And, on some areas I would agree with them and on some areas less so. But, I think overall the hardening of policy towards China makes basic sense and it really has widespread support. I think just different tactics would be the difference between the two parties.

Tim Farley: Jake, thank you for joining us this morning. I really appreciate it.

Jacob Stokes: Thanks for having me.

Tim Farley: Jake Stokes, Jacob Stokes, you will find his name underneath the piece that we were referencing. You'll find it at, “China's Credibility Problem.” Jacob's Stokes, senior policy analyst for China at the United States Institute of Peace. You'll find him on Twitter @JacobStokes.

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