The policy that the United States has recently been pursuing towards China would give you the impression that America’s political elite are suffering from a form of political schizophrenia. Moreover, not only can the signs of political division be seen in the deepening divide in American politics, but even the behavior of individual high-profile politicians is inconsistent.
Although America’s hard-line anti-Chinese stance in foreign policy has unofficially been spearheaded by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, he still attended a meeting with China’s foreign policy chief Yang Jiechi n Hawaii in the middle of June, where he spoke about the need to honor the obligations of the bilateral “Phase One Deal” concluded in mid-January.
This document seemed to have drawn a line under the standoff in economic relations between the United States and China which had dragged on for almost two years. The press began referring to this standoff as the “trade war”.
The main grievance from Washington’s point of view is America’s long-standing trade deficit with Beijing, which reached over $ 400 billion in the past two years. Both sides saw the “Phase One Deal” as the first important step on the road towards evening out the trade balance, a journey that would take about two years. After a period of exchanging tit-for-tat economic blows, which inevitably also took on a political tone, the network of relations between the world’s two most powerful countries began to look reasonably healthy.
That changed in late January through to early February, when the world came up against the global threat of the coronavirus pandemic, which led to catastrophic consequences in the United States almost overnight. Given that the only way to fight the spread of the pandemic remains to cut people off from each other (social distancing and quarantine were used in the Middle Ages to fight the Black Death), these necessary measures have put the US economy, and the economies of all other countries, on the brink of collapse.
The usual question was posed by the American electorate: Who’s to blame, and what should we do about it? As a rule, and this is true for every country, the average person would tend to have a simple answer for this crudely phrased question, which seems to reflect some of unpleasant realities of the world we live in: The person in charge is to blame, we need to find a replacement.
The United States was not spared this judgment in the first half of 2020. As coronavirus cases rose and the economic situation deteriorated, confidence in the incumbent president and his fellow Republicans quickly began to slide among certain segments of the population, who no longer saw these guys from the “Grand Old Party” as people who could be trusted to lead the country for the next four years from November this year.
That is why the Republicans need to convince the average American that they have not quite drawn the right conclusion, they need to be shown that the person to blame for all of the suffering America has endured over the past months, along with many other problems, which they just happened to have never talked about before, is not even a person in the United States, it is a country several thousand miles away. The culprit’s name is “China”, and the accomplice spurring them on is Russia.
Alas, this political stunt seems to have failed, because Donald Trump’s chances of getting reelected on November 3 for a second term in the White House now look slim to none. This is despite the fact that at the beginning of the year it looked like he would almost certainly be reelected.
However, far more harm has been caused by the concrete measures Washington has taken in recent months to fend off alleged Chinese espionage schemes, which have had the most negative consequences for relations between the world’s two leading powers, not to mention the overall global situation.
There are some examples that can be mentioned: attempts to brand China “guilty” for the SARS COV-2 pandemic; Washington’s intervention in events in Hong Kong, and a greater involvement in the Taiwan issue; the adoption of a variety of bills by Congress with references to human rights “violations” in Xinjiang, Tibet and Hong Kong; a huge show of force in the South China Sea, which is strategically crucial for Beijing, and the subsequent joint military exercises between the Indian Navy and the United States in the Bay of Bengal; and more jabs from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo aimed at China over the India-China clash in Ladakh.
The closure of the Chinese Consulate in Houston at the end of July, giving the Chinese officials three days to pack up and leave, was almost like the icing on the cake to top off this trend in relations. As soon as this three-day period had expired, employees of certain American agencies entered the territory of the former consulate, which is seen in China as a violation of the 22nd Article of the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations.
Beijing’s swift mirror-like response, which is almost mandatory in such cases, was to close the American Consulate in Chengdu, the largest city in the Sichuan Province. Washington was given the same 72-hour period to complete the same procedure.
We have already touched briefly on the question which naturally arises here, the question of who needed to bring US-Chinese relations back down to the pits again and why, when six months ago they seemed to be beginning to crawl out of the hole they had been stuck in for almost two years. Once again, the view taken in this article is that President Donald Trump could possibly have his own vested interests tied up in this move, who recently named the “Phase One Deal” as one of his administration’s most important achievements in the international arena. It fits all of his current anti-Chinese campaign rhetoric, which remains highly controversial.
The fundamental deviations from Donald Trump’s original campaign promises are unmistakable: “America First”, “Make America Great Again” and the slogan “Transition to Greatness”. That last slogan (while it may be impossible to give it a halfway decent definition) is the one repeated by Donald Trump’s domestic political opponents, who he refers to when he talks about “draining the swamp” in Washington. This slogan gives Americans a basis to claim a moral high ground internationally and spread extremely narrow set of American “values” throughout the world, including by force.
Let’s not forget that when Donald Trump spoke at the 73rd Session of the United Nations General Assembly in the fall of 2018, he stressed that his administration has no intention of telling anyone “how to live or work or worship”. A fundamental statement that went almost unnoticed by the American press. The reason is obvious. The American media (with a few rare exceptions) is controlled by this “Washington swamp”, and they would not be very happy to see this policy realized.
Donald Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama already knew when he was US President that the made-up labels like “global leadership” and “international terrorism“ play an instrumental role in giving the leading world power a pretext to deploy its military might and use its economic power for certain unspecified purposes, where it is the ”leader’s” duty to fight terrorism with zero tolerance.
It was Barack Obama who outlined a policy to scale back the American military presence overseas, with a particular emphasis on withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, where the US was allegedly playing its role in line with their made-up labels. The real reason they were there appears to have been far less heroic: the US, as a state with a population of 300 million, was working in Afghanistan for someone else’s interests in opioids. The United Kingdom of Great Britain had similar interests when it fought in the Opium Wars in China in the mid-19th century.
Trump’s political opponents who disagree with him actually following through with Barack Obama’s policy (albeit with public anti-Obama rhetoric) is the second motive for the flare-up in US-Chinese relations, yet perhaps it is an even more important motive than that of his election campaign.
Finally, there is another question that is generally being asked which is no less important, and it concerns everyone living on this planet: will the relations between the two global powers continue to deteriorate in line with the current trend, or is there any hope that they could be gradually restored at some point (for example, after the 2020 United States elections are held on November 3)?
In this regard, it is worth looking at the assessment of what is happening in Sino-American relations given by a leading Indian voice, the Times of India, a newspaper which offers us a good representation of the Indian perspective, as relations between China and America are of great importance for India, a country which is becoming increasingly influential in global affairs.
The ToI article talks about an irreversible end to “50 years of Sino-American embrace”, a period of relations between China and the United States initiated by the Secretary of State at the time, Henry A. Kissinger, in early 1970s.
It should be added that this was a decisive move that affected the entire geopolitical game during the Cold War period between 1945-1990, which intentionally put the USSR in a losing position strategically, and spelled its defeat. In this regard, the famous political movement for reformation known as “perestroika” may actually be considered an attempt by the Soviet leadership to find a way out of the strategically hopeless situation it found itself in by that stage.
However, this move was key to the subsequent economic miracle China experienced, which was essentially a consequence of the geopolitical situation during the Cold War period.
The period we have known is coming to an end, but it is not the end for US-Chinese relations, because the exceptional significance of the economic ties which developed over the last 50 years cannot disappear overnight.
The restraint China is showing in the current tense situation just goes to show how strong these ties are. Cautious forecasts are being made about the next round of talks planned back in August on the topic of agreeing where the two sides stand to prepare for the “Phase Two Deal”.
All of this gives this author some hope that the inhabitants of the “Washington swamp” who are rocking the boat will not be able to sink US-China relations.
Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the issues of the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.