Today’s meeting is intended to identify policy options for addressing the current problems facing refugees and asylum seekers in China, most notably North Koreans, and China’s policies toward Uighur Muslims and Tibetan Buddhists who have sought refuge outside China. However, what we really are talking about is China’s emergence as a world power with territorial ambitions, growing influence in Asia and increasing economic and political impact throughout the world, all the while demonstrating insufficient commitment to the international refugee and human rights standards to which it has signed onto. If this situation remains unchecked, it will be a dangerous regional and international development. To be sure, China’s behavior in the human rights and refugee spheres over the past decades has moved forward in some positive ways, but its actions are still quite unrestrained by international norms. Of course China like other countries does not want large numbers of refugees or migrants crossing its borders, and it fears the destabilization of North Korea, but its forced repatriation of North Koreans who can only leave their country at risk of arrest and then are subject to punishment if sent back stands in violation of the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees has said as much and has asked without success to have access to North Korean nationals in China. Similarly, China’s efforts to prevent Tibetans from going through Nepal to India and its pressure on countries to send back Uighur refugees stand in contravention of international refugee standards.
It is therefore incumbent upon the United States together with democratic Asian and European countries as well as other democracies to promote the incorporation of basic international human rights and humanitarian standards in China’s domestic and foreign policy and promote compliance with those standards. Those standards are also in China’s interests as it seeks to develop a sustainable economic and political system. While important steps can be taken bilaterally, I consider a multilateral approach particularly effective. No one country has sufficient influence to handle this problem unilaterally.
Mao Zedong did not see the value of reform and opening up. The China part of Nixon’s 1967 Foreign Affairs article suggested an implicit bargain that provided the conceptual basis for China’s new direction after 1978. That bargain was if China focused on domestic development and didn’t threaten the security of its neighbours, the United States would help.
Sentiment inside the Beltway has turned sharply against China. There are many issues where the two parties sound more or less the same. Trump and others in the administration seem heavily invested in a ‘get very tough with China’ stance. It’s possible that some Democrats might argue that a decoupling strategy borders on lunacy. But if Trump believes this will play well with his core constituencies as his reelection campaign moves into high gear, he will probably decide to stick with it, if the costs and the collateral damage seem manageable. But that’s a very big if, especially if the downsides of a protracted trade war for both American consumers and for American firms become increasingly apparent.