The US and China will resume trade talks next week in Washington, after a failed first round in Beijing last week.
The unexpected demand at the center of US-China trade talks
But beyond the expected debate over technology transfer and ending a yawning trade deficit, comes an unusual demand from China.
The Beijing government wants the United States to end an arms embargo implemented all they way back in 1989, in the wake of the bloody crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square in which hundreds, possibly thousands of people, died.
The embargo was one of the last remaining parts of a package of sanctions passed by the US Congress that year. Most of those provisions have since effectively been lifted.
“Officially cancel the Tiananmen sanctions legislation” was the first demand from the Chinese side in its negotiations with a visiting US delegation last week, aimed at the resolution of a trade dispute that risks destabilizing the global economy, according to a draft document seen by the South China Morning Post.
No deal was made last week, but the two sides will talk again next week when Liu He, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s top economic adviser, is set to visit DC to meet with President Donald Trump’s economic team.
Why does the arms embargo feature so prominently? Analysts told Inkstone the “Tiananmen sanctions” were more political than commercial.
For Beijing, the lifting of the embargo would amount to a diplomatic coup that could, after decades, repair China’s international reputation.
“That demand is more a kind of political demand to remove the stigma which those sanctions represent,” Bates Gill, an expert on Chinese foreign policy at Macquarie University, told Inkstone.
“In many respects this Chinese request is a bit disingenuous because it's being put forward as a reason for the United States to increase its exports to China and to rebalance the trade deficit.”
Siemon Wezeman, senior researcher at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), said the Tiananmen sanctions are largely symbolic because US is unlikely to export arms to China regardless.
“All US Administrations have been, since the 1990s, clear about their view that China is a threat and that supplying equipment or technology with potential military use should not happen,” he said.
Still, China may have good reason to ask the US lift those sanctions, Wezeman pointed out.
“It hurts their status as a major power to be in the same league of 'nasty countries' like Liberia, Eritrea, Myanmar or Libya.”
China has boosted its ability to make its own weapons and reduced its need on imported military technology, but it still relies on imports for key components such as large transport aircraft and helicopters, according to a 2016 SIPRI report.
In practice, the removal of the sanctions would encourage more countries to sell arms to China.
“The US still plays this role in the world of sort of the global conscience, or the leader of the Western developed nations,” Macquarie’s Gill said. “When it takes steps others will often follow or feel as if the door has been opened and there's no compunctions.”
But Michael Caster, a co-founder of human rights watchdog Safeguard Defenders, said that “this acceptance of the violent repression of opposition is dangerous signaling from the President of the United States.”
Caster argued that the sanctions should be strengthened, not removed.