The Chinese government has ordered the closure of an American consulate in southern China, as the world’s preeminent powers rush towards a more direct confrontation and dismantling of ties that have maintained a vast economic and cultural relationship for decades.
The closure of the US mission in Chengdu follows a US order asking China to close its consulate in Houston, which Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has called a “hub for espionage and theft of intellectual property” in a speech Thursday evening which signaled a hardening of the American posture towards China. .
In China, meanwhile, Washington has been accused of having launched a “diplomatic war”.
The US offensive, although rejected by some foreign policy scholars in Beijing as grandiose by a Donald Trump administration seeking reelection, risks deepening the rifts between the two countries and further destabilizing the global economic and diplomatic landscape. for other countries, including Canada.
“Beijing’s actions threaten our people and our prosperity,” Pompeo said Thursday in a speech dedicated to China in which he called on other democratic countries to unite to bring “China to change”.
“We cannot treat this incarnation of China as a normal country, like any other,” he said, describing the leadership of the Communist Party in Beijing as aggressively hostile to freedom and committed to it. global hegemony. “If we bend the knee now, our children’s children could be at the mercy of the Chinese Communist Party,” he said.
The American expulsion of the Chinese presence from Houston was a gesture of diplomatic hostility laden with symbolism. The Houston mission opened in 1979 as the first Chinese consulate in the United States after relations between the two countries were reestablished.
Its closure, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said this week, amounts to “breaking the bridge of friendship between the two parties.” On Friday, he accused US diplomats at the Chengdu consulate, which is geographically close to the vast Tibetan plateau which has been the scene of anti-government protests, of “carrying out activities that do not correspond to their roles”, an apparent accusation of espionage. . Yet, added Wang, “the current Sino-US situation is not something China wants to see. “
Over the past two years, the United States has used tools of economic coercion against China, imposing tariffs on a wide range of products and waging a global campaign to urge the rejection of Huawei’s 5G network technology. .
But the United States is now embarking on a more determined campaign to oppose and undermine Chinese national interests, rejecting the principles of engagement that have defined the approach that Washington – and many other Western countries, including Canada – has adopted with respect to China for decades.
In its place is conflict.
Two weeks ago, the United States declared most of China’s land claims in the South China Sea “completely illegal” and pledged US support to other countries with offshore claims. competing.
U.S. law enforcement has taken aggressive action against Chinese scientists accused of hiding their military titles – at least one of those people now appears to have taken refuge in the Chinese consulate in San Francisco – while officials in immigration have banned graduate students with ties to military institutions. The United States has imposed sanctions on senior Chinese officials for human rights violations and expelled Chinese journalists.
The White House is considering a travel ban for members of the Chinese Communist Party. Mr. Pompeo questioned the moral status of American companies doing business with China.
Trade ties between the two countries are already weakening. In the first half of 2020, the United States accounted for 11.5% of China’s imports and exports, down from 13.7% just two years ago (Canada’s share has remained constant over the course of of this period, to 1.3%).
Mr. Trump supports “a more explicit confrontation, by elevating the plan of the confrontation of economics and technology to diplomacy,” said Su Hao, a researcher at the School of Diplomacy at the University of Foreign Affairs of China. “This is a high-profile attempt to openly portray China as an enemy of the United States, and for Trump to become a standard bearer in the fight against China.” He compared consulate closures to the first steps in a “diplomatic war,” one where “an indirect impasse officially becomes a direct, face-to-face confrontation,” he said.
“If it gets bad enough, the military will also be trained.”
Chinese leaders have repeatedly called for calm, even as Foreign Minister Wang Yi accused the United States of “losing spirit, morality and credibility.” Nonetheless, China’s position will likely remain defensive, with Beijing seeking to avoid provoking the United States, said Wang Yong, director of the Center for International Political Economy at Peking University and a distinguished fellow of the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy.
“China will continue to behave with sufficient restraint,” said Prof. Wang, who also teaches at the Party School of China’s Foreign Ministry.
But, he added, Beijing could be prompted to take its own action against the United States, including action against American companies, “because domestic emotion against the United States is strong right now. .
He slammed hawkish conservatives for instigating hostility towards China, in part to bolster Mr. Trump’s national appeal ahead of this year’s US election.
“By manipulating the days when Trump remains in power and promoting a succession of policies that constrain China, they want to achieve an ultimate goal – namely the complete decoupling of China and the United States in all areas, including the ‘economy, technology and communication – and thus push forward a new cold war against China, ”he said.
He nevertheless expressed confidence that restraint will prevail, given the depth of mutual economic dependence between the two countries. “Without China, be it our manufacturing industry or our market, it will be extremely difficult for large American companies to maintain their current position of global leadership,” he said.
The White House has, in recent years, shown a tendency to give in in its campaigns against China, easing a legal stranglehold on tech company ZTE and pulling out of imposing the most punitive tariffs.
But Washington’s new willingness to confront the Chinese state directly – and not just through indirect measures against its businesses and goods – has made this “very dangerous time,” said Gordon Flake, managing director of the Perth USAsia Center in Australia.
“The reason it’s dangerous is because of the unpredictable nature of decision-making in the Trump administration in its dying days, and the resulting strong politicization of the relationship. “
However, it was Beijing itself that adopted a policy of assertive expansionism, Mr. Flake said, both by expanding its influence operations abroad and by using its military might to impose territorial claims on them. neighboring countries.
“The fundamental problem here is the changes in China,” he said.
It’s unclear where to find common ground between two countries that see themselves as superpowers but have radically different views on governance, state power, civic values - and their own global roles.
“China sees communism as a destination for itself and for countries around the world,” a position that is anathema to the United States, said Shen Dingli, a professor at Fudan University who is one of the best Chinese researchers in international relations.
“Intrinsically it’s a battle between two paths and two systems – one with a long history. Such a conflict contributed to the outbreak of the Korean War and the Vietnam War, ”he said.
Now for China and the United States, he said, “The road ahead will only be filled with even more tension and confrontation. There will be no rest between the two of us.
-with report by Alexandra Li
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