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24.08.2020 Author: Vladimir Terehov

No Sunny Weather on the Horizon for US-China Relations

China US

NEO is constantly monitoring the timeline of events in deteriorating relations between the world’s two largest economic powers, yet one always hopes that there will be at least a little good news to tell readers about this time. Thus far, the bilateral trade agreement signed on January 15 this year remains almost the only glimmer of light that has trickled through the overwhelmingly gloomy picture of relations between these countries. The wordy official name of the trade deal is usually shortened to the “Phase 1” trade agreement.

To be more precise, the actual signing of the deal is not the real cause for cautious optimism, but the fact that the document has not been crumpled up into a ball and thrown in the trash yet, as one might expect going by the prevailing shades of gloom in the picture that has been painted, is what gives the author this glimmer of hope. Threats have been made in the form of rousing political rhetoric by both sides over the past few months.

Yet the parties have almost miraculously continued the dialog on how the main points in this document will be implemented. They have kept the ball rolling with telephone calls between government officials and through direct negotiations. In this respect, a general sense of satisfaction has been expressed with how the “Phase 1” agreement is being implemented, although it has come up against a fair share of objective problems. These have mainly been the necessary restrictions placed on trade networks and communications due to the coronavirus pandemic.

On May 17, the first meeting since January 15 was held in Honolulu, Hawaii where Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with Yang Jiechi, director of the Chinese Communist Party’s Office of Foreign Affairs. The details of what was discussed have not been reported, but Spokesperson Morgan Ortagus describes comprehensive and businesslike negotiations in a brief press release from the US State Department. However, they did not manage to lift US-China relations out of what has justifiably been described as “the lowest point” they have reached in years.

A video conference which was supposed to take place on August 15 to review the implementation and prospects for implementing the “Phase 1” agreement could have given us at least some cause for optimism about the future of US-China relations. The talks were to be attended by United States Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin, as well as Vice Premier of the People’s Republic of China Liu He, who is considered to be President XI Jinping’s trusted confidant and his top adviser on economic policies. But the day before the event was to be held, AFP News Agency reported that it was to be postponed indefinitely, referencing a certain source.

This is where the positivity about the future of US-Chinese relations unfortunately ends, and we have to move back to discussing the negatives.

The first thing that needs to be noted is that the general political setting in which positive events have both taken place and been “postponed” continues to be filled with all kinds of negativity. A summarized list of these negative developments was recently outlined by NEO, a list which has managed to grow within the past two or three weeks.

One of these episodes worth highlighting was the attack by none other than Mike Pompeo on the Chinese “Confucius Institute” in the United States. This organization for educational partnership has now been categorized as “a foreign mission of the PRC” and “part of the Chinese Communist Party’s global influence and propaganda apparatus.” At the same time, it is stated that “the United States wants to ensure that students on US campuses have access to Chinese language and cultural offerings free from the manipulation of the Chinese Communist Party and its proxies.”

In any event, the “Taiwan question”, which is now almost a key issue in US-Chinese relations, has continued to make itself known. Firstly, it should be mentioned that news broke on August 15, the same day that had been scheduled for the video conference, that US aircraft manufacturer Lockheed Martin had sold 66 of the latest F-16 fighter planes to Taiwan. This deal worth more than $ 8 billion had been discussed for about ten years, and it was approved last fall by the Trump administration and cleared by US Congress.

Three days prior to this news, Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-Wen held a video conference with viewers in the United States organized by the Hudson Institute, which has long been developing an argument about America’s exceptional power, which apparently gives the country the right, as a leader, to get involved in the problems of countries all over the world.

The main topic of President Tsai’s discussion was the overall situation in Hong Kong, particularly focusing on the arrest of Jimmy Lai, the owner of the Hong Kong tabloid Apple Daily, who was soon released on bail. The Taiwanese President spoke of a “beacon of civil liberties” being extinguished.

Tsai Ing-wen also returned to the topic of Hong Kong, speaking about a meeting of activists led by the President’s Democratic Progressive Party. She also sad that she shared the “enthusiasm” of her fellow party members over back-to-back visits to the island by a delegation led by the US Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar (the most senior US official to visit the island in more than 40 years), and a delegation from Japan led by former Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori (from April 2000 to April 2001).

It is also worth noting the send-off given to former Taiwan president Lee Teng-hui with a huge number of Taipei residents in attendance, who died on July 30 at the age of 97, and had been a strong advocate of Taiwanese independence.

When it comes to “big politics”, the following questions are being asked by more and more people: Could the extremely serious situation in America’s domestic politics be at the root of the current dramatically deteriorating relations between the two world powers, especially given that we are now in the run-up to the United States House of Representatives elections and presidential elections? And what can we expect to see once the results are announced?

Most predictions are pessimistic, without any difference depending on who gets elected president on November 3. This in itself is remarkable, considering that the Democratic Party’s candidate Joe Biden still looks most likely to win the presidential election, a party that has long been suspected of having some sort of connection with the Chinese leadership, since the days of Bill Clinton, and until recently was still considered to have this connection. A cautious preference for Joe Biden was also expressed in China up until recently.

However, Biden’s recent outburst against the “Phase 1” deal seems to have brought the Democratic candidate down to the same level as Trump, who expressed an equal level of unacceptable hostility in Beijing’s eyes.

In this regard, the choice of candidate for vice president by the leader of the Democratic Party is noteworthy. Biden chose Senator Kamala Harris from California. There is no doubt that two socially progressive factors contributed to this choice. First of all, Senator Harris is a (young) woman. Secondly, her parents are immigrants. Her father came to the United States from Jamaica, and her mother is from India. With this choice, the Democrats are first and foremost challenging the Trump administration’s anti-immigration policy, and secondly, they are taking into account the growing weight of India’s involvement in Washington’s anti-Chinese games.

This choice certainly did receive attention in New Delhi, but it was mostly a reserved and fairly neutral reception, as Kamala Harris is still considered more American than she is (half-)Indian. In any case, the Indian Ministry of External Affairs declined to make any comment on the US Democratic Party’s nomination.

Finally, it must be said that the fears in the United States about China becoming a global power are rather bewildering, some may even argue completely irrational, as China is offering the world a wholly positive project. Surely these fears are all of the notorious Chinese leadership, which one could hardly call rational.

Of course, everyone has the right to live in a their own fantasy world. However, it is not a good idea to allow myths and pseudo-scientific theories, perhaps about the Chinese leadership, to enter real life. Attempting to do so is counterproductive, which was very accurately illustrated by a truly reputable Hong Kong newspaper, the South China Morning Post.

Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the issues of the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

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