The nominee for a key State Department Asia policymaking post confirmed Thursday the State Department took part in preventing the FBI from arresting Chinese intelligence officials for conducting illegal activities in New York recently, but asserted she did not take part in the decision.
Susan Thornton, a career foreign service officer widely viewed among Republicans as favoring conciliatory policies toward China, testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that if confirmed, her policies toward China at State would closely resemble the soft-line policies of the Obama administration.
Thornton, currently acting assistant secretary of state for East Asia and Pacific affairs was nominated for the key China post by Trump in December.
While acting secretary, she has taken positions toward China that sought to avoid upsetting relations with Beijing, according to administration officials who have taken part in interagency discussions with her.
For example, in addition to opposing the FBI arrests of four Chinese Ministry of State Security (MSS) intelligence officials last October, Thornton also worked during interagency meetings to prevent the White House from imposing reciprocal restrictions Chinese embassy construction in retaliation for China for blocking the importation of parts into China needed for repairs at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing.
Under questioning from Sen. Marco Rubio (R., Fla.) Thornton said the State Department was among several agencies that decided to block the FBI arrests of Chinese officials.
The four MSS officials were caught by FBI counterspies in October conducting illegal activities while traveling in the United States on transit visas.
The officials had traveled to New York from Washington as part of a major Chinese government effort to pressure dissident Chinese businessman Guo Wengui.
Guo, a New York-based entrepreneur, has applied for political asylum after coming under fierce political influence and cyber attack from Beijing after he began exposing corruption among senior Chinese leaders along with internal Chinese Communist Party documents.
At one time, Guo was close to Ma Jian, the former No. 2 MSS official who ran Chinese intelligence operations in the United States for years.
Guo disclosed to the Washington Free Beacon last summer that two of the Chinese slated for arrest were high-ranking security officials he identified as Sun Lijun, vice minister of the Public Security Ministry, and an aide, Liu Yanpang.
The officials were in the United States to try and convince Trump administration officials to forcibly repatriate Guo back to China amid claims of corruption.
The FBI detained the Chinese officials and confiscated their cell phones and laptop computers before allowing them to return to China.
Their arrests would have set off a major international incident between Washington and Beijing.
Guo said the Chinese officials threatened him, his family, and business associates and said that if he refrained from speaking out, the government would release assets of his worth an estimated $17 billion.
The Wall Street Journal reported in October that Thornton was among U.S. officials who blocked the arrests after the Justice Department approved the action. The State Department opposed the arrest over concerns the arrests would upset U.S.-China relations.
Asked directly by Rubio if she opposed the arrests, Thornton refused to answer directly.
"Um, I, I’m not sure that I was involved in that decision-making process, but I do know that it was an interagency decision and that there were interagency meetings on this issue that came to the conclusion," Thornton told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Pressed to say if she remembers being involved in the decision, Thornton said, "I do not."
"I was not involved in those meetings," she said. "I know that there were interagency meetings and that it was the decision of the interagency, um, to not arrest them."
Thornton then said she was aware of the conversations taking place at the time and after the fact but asserted that she did not offer her views.
She, however, would not answer directly when asked if she had nothing to do with the decision not to arrest the Chinese MSS officials.
Under questioning from Rubio and other committee members, Thornton expressed policy views that were nearly identical to the policy toward China adopted under President Barack Obama.
Asked how she would deal with China's militarization of the South China Sea, improper trade practices, cyber attacks from China, Beijing's support for North Korea and other problematic actions, Thornton said she favors expanding alliances, "pushing back" against bad Chinese behavior, and urging China to avoid coercive tactics.
All those policies were used by the Obama administration and had little impact on China's increasingly aggressive activities and policies in Asia and around the world.
Thornton also sidestepped questions about whether she favors imposing sanctions on China for its aggressive activities.
On the South China Sea, where China is militarizing islands in international waters in a bid to control of the strategic waterway, Thornton said she believes China will try to continue the militarization.
Asked how the U.S. should respond, Thornton again said use naval warship passages and coalition tactics with regional states.
At one point, the nominee was asked what disappointed her most about U.S.-China relations.
Ranking committee member Sen. Bob Menendez (D., N.J.) asked Thornton if she believes the United States is doing enough to pressure China on its cyber attacks, violations of human rights, and South China Sea militarization, she said: "I think we are doing a lot and we are looking to do more."
Diplomatically, Thornton said the State Department will try to use China's desire to have good relations with the United States as leverage in pressuring Beijing.
Rubio also questioned Thornton about removing the Taiwan flag from a State Department website.
"Yes, I am aware," she said.
A new website was set up for travel advisories related to Taiwan and Thornton said the flag was removed because the United States does not recognize Taiwan as an independent country or the flag of the Republic of China, as Taiwan calls itself.
"Our policy is to not display the flag of the R.O.C. on U.S. official government websites," she said.
Asked by Rubio, who showed a printout of the site with the flag, why the flag was posted on the site in the past, Thornton dissembled, saying the website was new but she did not explain why the flag was removed on the new website.
"We used to have the flag, it’s not going to be on there anymore?" Rubio said. "There was a change. There’s no doubt there was a change. The websites—the graphics—are identical. Someone took down the flag."
Thornton also would not say if she favors more visits to Taiwan by high-level U.S. government officials.
Additionally, Thornton would not answer directly when asked if she favors declaring China as a currency manipulator, sanctioning China or reviewing the U.S. policy toward Taiwan, saying she favors the
Thornton's nomination represents a victory for liberals in the Trump administration who favor softline, pro-business policies toward China, and a defeat for conservatives advocating tougher policies.
Her nomination was opposed by ousted presidential strategist Steve Bannon and is widely viewed as a victory for pro-China advocates such as Gary Cohn, National Economic Council director and former Goldman Sachs president.