WASHINGTON — Economic pressure on human rights violators works best when countries act together, a senior U.S. State Department official said ahead of a visit to Japan.
“Our sanctions are much more powerful, are much more effective, if they are done multilaterally,” Jose Fernandez, undersecretary of state for economic growth, energy and the environment, told Nikkei in an interview on Friday.
Fernandez’s visit on Sunday to Wednesday comes after the U.S. Treasury Department announced new human rights-related sanctions on people and organizations connected with China, Myanmar and other countries. The actions included placing Chinese artificial intelligence startup SenseTime on an U.S. investment blacklist.
Fernandez declined to comment on the sanctions but said that in general, Beijing “is doubling down on an economic model that is at odds with the market-based global system that enables China’s very economy to grow.”
The Biden administration has increased its scrutiny on U.S. corporations’ dealings with China to ensure that American investment and technology does not go to Chinese companies suspected of contributing to human rights abuses, such as makers of surveillance equipment.
Speaking at the U.S.-organized Summit for Democracy on Friday, U.S. President Joe Biden said: “We’ve focused on the need to empower human rights defenders and make sure technology [that] enables so much of our lives that is used to advance democracies to lift people up, not to hold them down.”
Fernandez echoed the president’s remarks, saying “U.S. companies need to be mindful of how their activities can affect our national security and the values that we hold dear.”
Jose Fernandez was confirmed in August as undersecretary of state for economic growth, energy and the environment. He served as assistant secretary of state for economic, energy, and business affairs in the Obama administration.
Australia’s parliament this month passed a law to create a framework for targeted sanctions against human rights offenders. The law has been compared with America’s Magnitsky Act, which allows the U.S. government to freeze violators’ assets and ban them from entering the country.
Fernandez said the U.S. would welcome a similar legal move in Japan, adding that “every country has to decide how it uses those sanctions.”
Japan lacks a legal basis for sanctions based only on human rights factors, but proposals are in discussion. When multilateral sanctions were announced this year in response to China’s alleged human rights violations against its Uyghur minority, Japan was the only member of the the Group of Seven rich nations not to take part. After taking office in October, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida created a new cabinet advisory post on human rights.
On Taiwan’s bid to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership trade bloc, Fernandez said: “Taiwan has a record as a responsible member of the World Trade Organization, and it has a record for its strong embrace of democratic values.”
Washington “would hope that those factors would play into the CPTPP parties’ evaluation of Taiwan as a potential candidate for accession,” he added.
The U.S. is not a party to the CPTPP, and the Taiwan question is up to signatories to decide, he said. The U.S. negotiated the CPTPP’s predecessor agreement, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, but later withdrew under then-President Donald Trump.
When the U.S. and Taiwan held their first economic dialogue under the Biden administration in November, Fernandez headed the American side. The dialogue is meant “to advance cooperation on the broad range of economic issues and find ways to forge closer economic and commercial ties,” he said, listing a number of areas of interest, such as supply chain resilience.
U.S.-Taiwan partnership is built on “very strong two-way trade and investment,” “people-to-people ties,” and “the common defense of freedom and shared democratic values.”
“I believe that Taiwan is a reminder to all of us that a choice between economic prosperity and fundamental freedoms is a false choice, that you don’t actually have to pick one or the other; you can actually do both,” Fernandez said.