The Trump administration has stepped up its confrontation with Beijing this week, ordering the Chinese consulate in Houston to close its doors over concerns over economic espionage.
It is the latest stage in a downward spiral in relations between dueling economic powers that have fallen to the lowest level in decades.
Barbara Plett Usher, of the BBC, examines the motivations – and the potential consequences – of this US-China confrontation.
How important is this escalation?
It is not without precedent for the United States to close a foreign mission, but it is a rare and dramatic step, difficult to carry out. It’s a consulate not an embassy, so it’s not responsible for politics. But it plays an important role in trade facilitation and awareness raising.
And the move sparked retaliation from Beijing: It ordered the United States to close its consulate in the western Chinese city of Chengdu, dealing a further blow to the diplomatic infrastructure that channels communication between the two countries.
It is probably the most significant development to date in the deterioration of relations in recent months, which have included visa restrictions, new rules on diplomatic travel and the expulsion of foreign correspondents. Both sides have imposed tit-for-tat measures, but it is the United States that has largely been the source of this latest round of confrontation.
How did we get here?
Senior administration officials have described the Houston consulate as “one of the worst offenders” in economic espionage and influence operations that they say are taking place at all Chinese diplomatic facilities.
A number of spies are expected by foreign missions, but officials said activity in Texas was going well beyond acceptable limits and they wanted to send a strong message that it would not be. tolerated.
The decision to take “more decisive action” to counter China and “disrupt” its operations coincides with a speech earlier this month by FBI Director Christopher Wray. He said the Chinese threat to US interests has accelerated massively over the past decade, noting that he has opened a new China-related counter-intelligence investigation every 10 hours.
Beijing has consistently denied the accusations and, in the case of Houston, called them “malicious slander.”
Critics of the Trump administration’s approach are skeptical of the value of closing the Houston consulate and the timing of the move. “He’s got a doggy feel,” says Danny Russel, who was the top State Department official for Asia under President Barak Obama, suggesting it’s at least in part an attempt to create a hijack. political unrest of President Donald Trump ahead of a November Election.
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So, is this a movement of confrontation around the elections?
Yes and no.
“Yes” because Mr. Trump has only recently fully embraced the anti-China campaign rhetoric that his strategists say will resonate with voters. He relies on his nationalist arguments from 2016 about getting tough on a China that had “ripped off the United States.”
But it adds a heavy dose of blame to how Beijing has handled the coronavirus outbreak as the president’s notes on his own response fall. The message is that China is responsible for the Covid mess in the country, not him.
“No” because extremists in his administration, like Mr. Pompeo, have been pushing for harsher action against Beijing for some time and laying the groundwork for such an approach. The president hesitated between this advice and his own desire to strike a trade deal and develop his “friendship” with Chinese leader Xi Jinping.
The closure of the consulate indicates that the Chinese hawks have gained the upper hand for now, aided by genuine anger in Washington over the Chinese government’s lack of transparency over a virus that has caused a global catastrophe.
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What does this say about the state of US-China relations?
They’re bad enough – at their lowest point since President Richard Nixon decided to normalize relations with the Communist country in 1979. And both are to blame.
This has been building since President Xi Jinping came to power in 2013 with a much more assertive and authoritative playbook than his predecessors. China has added to the recent rise in tensions with its harsh national security law in Hong Kong and its crackdown on the Uyghur Muslim minority, which has triggered several rounds of US sanctions.
But his clash with the Trump administration’s America First nationalism is increasingly shaped by an ideological worldview that permeated a speech on China delivered by Mr. Pompeo this week. In Cold War-reminiscent rhetoric, he accused the Chinese rulers of being tyrants seeking world domination and presented America’s competition with Beijing as an existential struggle between freedom and oppression.
Many in the Chinese government believe the administration’s goal is to prevent the country from catching up with US economic might, and are particularly angry at its decision to cut off access to Chinese telecommunications technology. But the vertiginous rise in punitive measures is causing concern and confusion. Foreign Minister Wang Yi recently pleaded with the United States to take a step back and seek areas where the two nations could work together.
Where is that direction?
In the short term, expect a precarious state of tension until the election. The Chinese don’t seem to be looking for escalation, and analysts agree that President Trump doesn’t want a serious confrontation, certainly not a military one.
But Mr Russel, who is currently vice president of the Asia Society Policy Institute, warns of unintentional conflict. “The buffer that has historically isolated US-China relations, the presumption that the goal is to defuse and solve problems… has been removed,” he said.
The long term depends on who wins in November. But while Democratic candidate Joe Biden would be more inclined to relaunch avenues of cooperation, he is also campaigning on a harsh message with China. It’s a popular theme reflecting an extremely rare bipartisan consensus that goes beyond the occupant of the White House.
Jim Carafano, a national security expert at conservative think tank The Heritage Foundation, argues that challenging China’s “destabilizing” behavior is a path to stability, not an escalation. “In the past, we did not specify where the Chinese were violating our interests and they marched,” he told the BBC.
But William Cohen, a Republican politician who served as Defense Secretary under Democratic President Bill Clinton, thinks it’s dangerous that China is seen as an adversary across the political spectrum.
Its military, economic and technological expansions have caused the United States to say “we cannot do business the way we do,” he says.
“But we still have to do business. “