Rising risk of missteps between US and China

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For almost two decades after the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, the only formal contact between Washington and Beijing was through occasional meetings in Geneva and Warsaw.

“We treated each other as adversaries,” former United States diplomat Henry Kissinger said last year, on the fortieth anniversary of the normalization of relations with China. “We had no normal way of contacting the Chinese government at all except there was an embassy in Warsaw in which both sides could communicate messages to each other and in which the ambassadors met occasionally. There were 152 meetings of the Warsaw Ambassadors who never reached an agreement on anything.”

While today China and the United States have embassies and regular contact, agreement seems to be becoming just as rare.

On Thursday, another Republican secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, appeared to refute Kissinger and Nixon’s legacy on China, blasting the “old paradigm of blind engagement,” and asking “what do the American people have to show now 50 years on?”

Pompeo was speaking after Washington ordered the closure of China’s consulate in Houston, amid allegations it was linked to espionage and intellectual property theft. Beijing responded Friday, ordering the closure of the US’ consulate in the southwestern city of Chengdu.

The developments come at a time “many had believed US-China tensions could not possibly get any worse,” said Natasha Kassam, an expert on China and former Australian diplomat at the Lowy Institute.

Losing its consulate in Chengdu, she said, “would limit Washington’s avenues for communications with Beijing, as well as outsiders ability to monitor and report on what is happening inside China.”

Kassam compared it to the recent crackdown on Chinese state media in the US, which led to tit-for-tat expulsions of American journalists working in China, decimating the Beijing press corp and hampering reporting on the world’s second largest economy in the midst of a global pandemic.

Many analysts who spoke to CNN in the wake of the consulate closures warned of spiraling tensions, as the removal of diplomats and avenues for talks makes it harder for both countries to understand the other’s moves and creates a barrier to future deescalation.

“The US and China have spent the past three years ripping out the software of the relationship,” said Jeff Moon, a former US diplomat in China. “Now we are literally ripping out the hardware.”

Guy Saint-Jacques, former Canadian ambassador to Beijing, said the Trump administration’s apparent push for economic “decoupling” from China could have “long-term geopolitical consequences.”

Since the push for economic engagement ramped up with China’s accession to the World Trade Organization in 2001, the two economies have grown ever closer. In 2018, before Trump launched a series of tariffs against Beijing in the first salvo of his trade war, China was the largest US trading partner, with a total trade worth $660 billion, the largest source of US imports, and the third-largest US export market.

Many major US businesses, everything from manufacturing and technology to Hollywood and the NBA, all depend on China as a major source of revenue. Countless American cultural institutions and colleges also operate in China. And as the mutual distrust grows, so too does the risk posed to ordinary citizens on both sides.

“When you do a lot of business together, you need to work together to avoid problems (and) irritants from becoming major crises,” he said.

In his speech, Pompeo talked of the need for an international coalition against China, which can pressure Beijing on issues such as democratic freedoms in Hong Kong, human rights abuses in Xinjiang, and unfair trade policies. But the recent track record on the effectiveness of this as a tactic is hardly strong.

Beijing has faced widespread international condemnation, from Western powers at least, since it forced a new security law on Hong Kong earlier this month, but it responded by doubling down, and threatening countermeasures should countries move against it.

Nor is China alone on the world stage. Beijing has been building up its own coalition of like-minded countries which can counterbalance any pressure Washington attempts to bring to bear.

Again, the Hong Kong situation is illustrative. As 27 western democracies, including the US and Britain, criticized China’s moves at the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), another 53 signed on to a resolution in support of Beijing.

“The landslide victory was seen by experts as showing that China’s achievements in human rights have won more supporters and become known by wider audiences,” said Beijing’s nationalist state-backed tabloid the Global Times. “The double standards of some Western countries that tried to politicize the UNHRC and to use human rights-related issues as weapons to attack China, brought themselves more criticism within the international community.”

Saint-Jacques supported the idea of encouraging Beijing to conform to international norms and rules that China has itself signed up to through bodies like the WTO, but he was wary that the Trump administration was creating a new divide between countries that take a tough line on Beijing and those who want to maintain influence and economic ties.

Even some close US allies are doubtful of this bloc style approach. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said this week that he will not be pushed “into becoming a knee-jerk Sinophobe.”

Pompeo’s counterpart, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, has been quietly cultivating allies against Washington, even as Beijing has — by and large — avoided the kind of aggressive rhetoric coming from the US government.

Speaking to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov last week, Wang criticized Washington’s “Cold War mentality” and called on Beijing and Moscow to “not only push their bilateral relations to a higher level, but also stand by all countries with an objective and fair stance to reject any action destructive to international order and against the historical trend.”

While China has matched the US in ratcheting up tensions, Beijing would greatly prefer the opposite, and in the past has been a major driver of increased engagement with Washington, particularly on the economic front. But the aggressive, nationalist posture pursued under President Xi Jinping also makes it difficult for China to back down or not publicly respond to provocations from Washington.

This makes it easy for China hawks in the White House to “wag the dog” — provoking China into action that can then be used to justify an aggressive US stance — when it comes to ties between the two nations, potentially for their own domestic political purposes.

Speaking to CNN after the Houston consulate closure, Sen. Angus King, an independent of Maine who caucuses with Democrats and member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said that “there certainly is a good reason to confront China. My concern is, escalating this tension, is it really about confronting China, or does it have something to do with an election in four months?”

President Donald Trump has made being tough on China a key plank of his reelection effort, blasting his Democratic rival Joe Biden as soft on Beijing. Pompeo’s speech was only the latest by a top US official attacking China, all of them coming as the election ramps up.

“Trump has said proudly many times that when he is hit, he hits back twice as hard,” said Moon, the former diplomat. “Current circumstances encourage him to follow that instinct because getting tough on China is a presidential campaign issue and there is broad Washington consensus for a strong response to aggressive Chinese behavior.”

He added that China may have misplayed its hand by choosing to escalate in closing Chengdu rather Wuhan, as had been expected, especially if this leads to further escalation from the US.

The US’ Wuhan consulate has been effectively shut for months due to the coronavirus pandemic, its formal closure therefore would have had no real operational impact and may have allowed tensions to temporarily cool.

“China gets much more benefit from its consulates in the US than the US gets in China,” Moon said. “Chinese diplomats benefit from broad access to America’s open society. Meanwhile, the Chinese government has an official bureaucracy dedicated to systematically obstructing American access to Chinese society. Thus, closing consulates is a losing game for China and I’m surprised for that reason that China has chosen to escalate in this situation.”

The US and Chinese economies are tightly interlinked, and both are already suffering from the ongoing trade war. Militarily, there are also several potential flashpoints, not least the South China Sea and Taiwan, where both countries have conducted drills or patrols recently.

For years, the South China Sea in particular has been a major potential flashpoint, with both countries deploying large amounts of naval power to the region. Given the recent bloody brawl over a similarly tense border between China and India in the Himalayas, there is no reason to assume that the current detente will always hold out.

Closer to home, US federal prosecutors are currently seeking a Chinese military-linked scientist hiding out in the San Francisco consulate, a situation that shows no signs of going away, while Trump himself has threatened to closure more consulates.

Any such move would surely be matched by Beijing, having now set a precedent with Chengdu, reducing the ability of both sides to avoid potentially dire misunderstandings in the event of a crisis.

Analysis by James Griffiths, CNN

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