Democrats accused Donald Trump of undermining US efforts on human rights after he revealed that he had not imposed sanctions on Chinese officials over abuses in Xinjiang to avoid jeopardising trade negotiations.
Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic speaker of the House, on Monday said the US would “lose all moral authority” if the president let economic interests override concerns about human rights. Her comments came after Mr Trump told Axios that he had taken a soft stance for commercial reasons.
“We were in the middle of a major trade deal,” Mr Trump told Axios when asked why he had not ordered the Treasury to sanction Chinese officials over the internment of more than 1m Muslim Uighurs in detention camps in Xinjiang.
“When you’re in the middle of a negotiation and then all of a sudden you start throwing additional sanctions . . . ” Mr Trump added, to explain why it would backfire.
John Bolton, the former national security adviser, wrote in his memoir that Mr Trump had told Xi Jinping, China’s president, to go ahead with the camps when the two leaders met at the G20 summit in Osaka last year.
Mr Bolton also said Mr Trump had asked China’s leader to buy US agricultural produce from key states to help his re-election campaign.
Mr Trump last week approved the Uighur Human Rights Policy Act, legislation that provides more channels through which to sanction Chinese officials.
But he has faced pressure from Republicans and some aides to use the authorities available to punish China over the abuses, including by using the Magnitsky Act, which is used to target human-rights violations. In the Axios interview, Mr Trump said lawmakers and his officials had not raised the idea of using the law with respect to China.
Ms Pelosi said on Monday: “The president’s signing last week of the bipartisan Uighur Human Rights Policy Act . . . rings extraordinarily hollow in light of his clearly stated lack of interest in standing up to Beijing.”
Mr Trump has also been criticised for refusing to take a tougher stance on China over its campaign against pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong. The Financial Times reported last year that he told Mr Xi in Osaka that he would curtail criticism of the way Beijing was dealing with the territory.
In his memoir, Mr Bolton said the Trump team was fractured over how to handle China. He accused Steven Mnuchin, Treasury secretary, of being a “panda hugger” — a derogatory term that implies being soft on China.
Mike Pompeo, secretary of state, last week said Mr Xi had “greenlighted a brutal campaign of repression against Chinese Muslims, a human-right violation on a scale we haven’t seen since World War II”.
In recent months, Mr Trump has stepped up his criticism of China, blaming Beijing for the global spread of coronavirus, as the phase one trade deal he inked with Beijing this year has not lived up to his expectations.
China is on track to miss annual purchasing commitment targets outlined in the phase one deal, which stipulates that the country must buy $200bn more of US goods and services than it did in 2017, over two years from 2020.
According to the Peterson Institute for International Economics, US exports to China of the products covered by the deal amounted to $20bn so far this year, compared with a prorated year-to-date target of $48bn.
Robert Lighthizer, the US trade representative, last week told lawmakers he expected China to honour the commitments, although he agreed with lawmakers that the US-China relationship was “very complicated”.
Follow Demetri Sevastopulo on Twitter: @dimi