The arrest of Meng Wanzhou, a top executive at one of China’s most strategically important companies, on the same day that President Trump and China’s president, Xi Jinping, declared a 90-day “truce” in their trade war, is a diplomatic curveball that may fulfill some national security goals but could complicate upcoming trade talks with Beijing.
The administration is going to face many more difficult moments like this as its steps up competition with China, but its actions thus far suggest that it doesn’t have a fully formed plan for how to manage the task.
While it appears that the timing of Ms. Meng’s arrest was coincidental, this is not the impression in Beijing, where the move is seen as a political play to create leverage on trade or cripple Chinese technology companies. If this is not the case, the administration needs to come out much more clearly with a solid message about Ms. Meng’s arrest and where it fits within broader American goals toward China.
Moreover, the fact that American officials allowed the summit to play out without raising the issue — or informing Mr. Trump, apparently — sends another muddled message to Beijing. Does it suggest the administration will continue to throw curveballs regardless of what China brings to the table? Or does it simply reveal a team that is hopelessly divided between factions with competing goals? Either way, if China concludes that the United States will pursue a barrage of punitive actions no matter what steps China takes to address American concerns, this will leave Beijing with little appetite to make meaningful concessions.
It’s also not clear what this arrest means for upcoming trade talks. If the administration’s aim is to build pressure and create leverage against China, this approach is unlikely to work. In his comments to NPR, the public radio network, on Thursday, John R. Bolton, President Trump’s national security adviser, was reluctant to directly discuss the arrest. Instead he emphasized issues like intellectual property — signaling a seriousness about tackling structural problems on trade. This is a worthy goal, but it is unlikely that Ms. Meng’s arrest will, by itself, produce much leverage. Taking aim at a single company, even one as valuable as Huawei, is unlikely to shift deep-seated interests and practices in the Chinese economy.
The administration would instead be wise to more assertively send the message that the arrest is a law enforcement action separate from trade talks. Suggestions by anonymous administration officials that Ms. Meng’s arrest could be used as leverage in upcoming trade discussions undermines the message about national security and, frankly, seems like an afterthought.
If Ms. Meng and Huawei violated the law, then the United States has every right to seek her arrest and bring her to trial. Suggesting that this principle is for sale would cheapen the idea that the United States cares about playing by the rules. It would also signal to American allies and to China that American concerns about technology theft or violations of sanctions against Iran can simply be traded away for other priorities. Using the arrest for political ends could also encourage China and other nations to employ more heavy-handed tactics against American businesses in the future.
The arrest also has some potential second-order effects. Although Beijing’s public response to the Huawei arrest has so far been measured, Chinese social media forums are already full of suggestions for potential retaliatory moves. If tensions escalate, there could be new risks for American executives working abroad.
If that happens, how will the administration respond? What if China retaliates against not just the United States but against allies like Canada, where Ms. Meng was arrested for extradition to the United States? The administration has been pushing countries such as Canada, Britain and Australia to support not only its approach to technology theft but also Iran sanctions. They will need assurances that the United States will stand beside them if the going gets tough.
Moreover, continued moves against Chinese technology firms will have long-term implications for America’s interests abroad. The administration is right to be concerned about America’s technological prowess and protecting sensitive infrastructure. But if our actions lead China to accelerate its plans to achieve self-sufficiency in key technologies — a likely development — we will be creating a more formidable competitor. Are we ready?
The administration has legitimate concerns about China’s commitment to playing by the rules on both trade and national security. But at multiple points this year — including the president’s last-minute U-turn over sanctions on the Chinese technology firm ZTE and the deployment of tariffs against American allies on national security grounds — it has been its own worst enemy. With Ms. Meng’s arrest, the administration faces perhaps its biggest test yet. It needs to show that its actions are part of a solid game plan to protect American national security interests and promote national competitiveness. That’s the deal the American people deserve.
Lindsey Ford (@lindseywford) is the director of political-security affairs for the Asia Society Policy Institute in Washington. Wendy S. Cutler (@wendyscutler) is a vice president at the Asia Society Policy Institute.