US-China decoupling
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US National Security Adviser John Bolton with President Donald Trump in May 2019. Photo: AFP

US-China decoupling is already happening, says Donald Trump’s former security chief John Bolton, also calling for open borders for Hongkongers

  • Addressing the Foreign Correspondents’ Club in Hong Kong, John Bolton said the US should open borders to Hongkongers fleeing national security law
  • Donald Trump will seek another trade deal if reelected, claimed Bolton, who was fiercely critical of White House China policy

Economic decoupling between the United States and China is “not only possible, but is happening”, according to John Bolton, the former national security adviser-turned staunch critic of US President Donald Trump.

Referring to decoupling, Bolton, a long-time China hawk who has criticised Trump for going too easy on Beijing, said that people will not “wake up tomorrow and find that it's occurred”. Businesses are already looking at incrementally moving their supply chains out of China because they are fed up with the sort of “state espionage that would boggle the mind of a US or European” company, Bolton said.

Bolton’s claims are anecdotally true, with large companies such as Apple, Samsung and Nintendo shifting production out of the mainland to enjoy lower-cost manufacturing primarily in Vietnam, but also to avoid trade war tariffs applied by US customs authorities.

A survey of 200 multinational companies released last week, meanwhile, found that 95 per cent of US buyers plan to shift their supplier base away from China. Experts, however, have subsequently warned that such a move is difficult to achieve in the short term.


Trump ‘pleaded’ for China to help him get re-elected, writes former US adviser Bolton in new book

Trump ‘pleaded’ for China to help him get re-elected, writes former US adviser Bolton in new book

Financial decoupling, where the United States would cut China or Hong Kong’s access to US dollar-settling markets, has also “been raised as a possibility”, Bolton said.

The US has also moved to force Chinese companies who do not meet more stringent documentation criteria to delist from US stock markets, while reports have claimed the Trump administration has discussed the “nuclear option” of restricting dollar access.

In a video address to Hong Kong’s Foreign Correspondent Club on Wednesday night, Bolton suggested that a Trump victory in November’s general election would lead to a reopening of trade talks with China in pursuit of another trade deal, a move strongly discouraged by the former official, who served under every Republican president back to Ronald Reagan.

“If he wins re-election on November 4, it's entirely possibly he calls his buddy Xi Jinping and says: ‘Hey, let’s get a back room deal,’” Bolton said. Five years from now, he added, “if you talk about the phase one trade deal, 99 per cent of people will look at you with a blank face and say, ‘What was that?’”

Bolton has been an aggressive critic of Trump's policy on China since leaving his post as national security adviser in September last year, a role he held for 17 months.

His book, The Room Where It Happened, raced to the top of the bestsellers’ chart when released in June, and was widely serialised in American press. Bolton’s claims that Trump praised Chinese President Xi Jinping on the persecution of Uygurs in Xinjiang generated global headlines.

Bolton was speaking less than 24 hours after Trump signed the Hong Kong Autonomy Act, opening the door to sanctions on officials from the city and China over the sweeping national security law, and an executive order stripping Hong Kong of its preferential trading status.

The move leaves Hong Kong open to trade war tariffs, which were previously levied on mainland Chinese exports to the United States. It also comes weeks after Washington revoked Hong Kong's export controls exemption license privileges, barring the city from accessing sensitive American technological goods.

US tariffs, sanctions, export bans ‘all on the table’ against Hong Kong

Bolton said the United States should open its borders to Hongkongers fleeing the city after the imposition of the national security law, citing Britain’s revision of its immigration policy to accommodate Hong Kong nationals. The British government has offered a route to citizenship for holders of British National Overseas passports in Hong Kong.

Defending strict US immigration policy on migrants reaching its southern border from Latin American nations, Bolton said that “just by showing up at the border, doesn’t mean you are going to get in”.

The Trump administration tried unsuccessfully to block publication of Bolton's book, claiming it contained classified national security information. Photo: AFP

“I favour greatly immigration and I think what Britain, Canada and others have done in terms of potential political asylum for Hong Kong is something the United States should do, too, so I favour more immigration,” Bolton said.

“I think it's what makes America strong – it has historically. That's the big advantage we have over almost every other country in the world.”

Canada was the first country to break an extradition treaty with Hong Kong over the national security law last week. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau added that Ottawa is “also looking at additional measures, including around immigration” for Hongkongers.

US firms want to ditch China, but warned it ‘is not like flipping a switch’

But Bolton was fiercely critical of what he portrayed as Trump’s disinterest in human rights, or anything “that got in the way of the great white whale of the Trump administration, the big trade deal”.

In a anecdote alluded to in his book, Bolton confirmed that he had written a statement for the president to release on the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 2019, “but when I gave it to the president, he would not issue it”.

Bolton’s claims that Trump praised Chinese President Xi Jinping on the persecution of Uygurs in Xinjiang generated global headlines. Photo: EPA-EFE
Amid rising tensions over US action regarding human rights abuses in Xinjiang, territorial disputes and militarisation in the South China Sea, the Hong Kong situation and friction over the origins of the coronavirus, analysts and officials generally agree that US-China relations are at their lowest point since normalisation in 1979.

But Bolton said that he thought the prospect of a military war between the superpowers was “remote”.

“I don't see it in anything like the near term. It'll hopefully give Beijing a chance to back away from some of it's provocative behaviour,” said Bolton.