Caixin
Jul 25, 2020 06:27 AM
OPINION

Opinion: China-U.S. Relations Hit Turbulence but Can Still Land Safely

China ordered the United States to close its Chengdu consulate in response the Trump administration’s order for Beijing to close its Houston consulate.
China ordered the United States to close its Chengdu consulate in response the Trump administration’s order for Beijing to close its Houston consulate.

The relationship between China and the United States is running into turbulence. But as anyone with airline travel experience knows, it may mean a bumpy ride and fastening your seatbelt, but it doesn’t mean you can’t safely reach your destination.

If you are sensitive to the changing pulse of American politics, you can see that this round of U.S. moves against China has its reasons.

First is President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign. Both nationally and in swing states that really matter in the election, Trump’s support lags behind Joe Biden’s by double digits.

With a fading outlook for the U.S. to eradicate the Covid-19 pandemic in a short time and quickly restore the economy, Trump is calling himself a “wartime president,” trying to switch the theme of the campaign from taking accountability for poor response to the pandemic to another topic. This has become Trump’s game plan of last resort.

After the United States broke the basic norms of international diplomatic practices by forcing the Chinese consulate in Houston to close, China had to take reciprocal countermeasures, ordering the closure of the U.S. consulate in Chengdu.

But China waited two days after the American action to announce a measured response

rather than an angry, knee-jerk reaction that could immediately derail the relationship between the world’s two great economic powers. The 72-hour window China gave the U.S. to close the consulate and the reasons behind the conflict make it clear to the world that China is not the initiator of this round of rare provocation in bilateral relations using the fulfillment of diplomats’ work as a tool.

On the U.S. side, since Trump called the coronavirus “the China virus” and slammed the World Health Organization, the idea of “attacking China” as a central theme of the campaign with an intention to remove the president’s responsibility from the government’s failure in pandemic response is not news. But the actual effect has been rather limited, even in the polls in America’s declining traditional industrial areas and Rust Belt states that were critical to Trump’s victory in 2016.

In a survey published by New York magazine that was conducted by Republican data firm WPA Intelligence, 21% of American voters could be moved by a campaign message focused on “holding China accountable.” However, it would be counterproductive for 23% of voters.

In particular, in the key Rust Belt states of Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, much of the rhetoric’s effect will be offset by a backlash sparked by the uncertain economic outlook.

In Michigan, 16% of voters would be responsive to a “tough on China” message and 12% would recoil, and in Pennsylvania, those numbers are 29% and 28%. In Wisconsin, such a message would resonate with only 8% of voters and be counterproductive with 25%, the survey showed.

In Michigan, 49% of voters backed Biden and 40% supported Trump, according to a poll released Thursday by pro-Trump Fox News. In Pennsylvania, 50% of voters backed Biden and 39% backed Trump. And in Minnesota, 51% supported Biden and 38% supported Trump.

In the election four years ago, Trump won largely thanks to a “pivot” by the traditionally Democratic states along the Rust Belt. But if the 2020 presidential election were held tomorrow, Trump would have slim odds to win in those states. Now, the front line of the presidential battlefield has entered the traditionally Republican stronghold of Texas.

“If Democrats wins Texas, it’s all over,” said Texas Republican Senator Ted Cruz, another China hawk.

Actually, some officials in the Trump administration have already sensed ominous signs for Trump’s campaign and are making their own plans. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who has made a number of high-profile appearances recently, is one of them.

Many in Washington say Pompeo is trying to build an image as a “Churchill of this era” by launching and leading this round of rhetorical attacks on China. His long-planned China policy speech was less an echo of Churchill’s “iron curtain” speech than a warm-up as he slowly sails away from the Trump ship and prepares for his own campaign in the 2024 election.

In the speech, Pompeo repeatedly bragged about how he coordinated with other senior U.S. officials, including White House National Security adviser Robert O’Brien, FBI Director Christopher Wray and U.S. Attorney General William Barr to deliver a series of China-related speeches.

Pompeo said O’Brien spoke about ideology, Wray about espionage, and Barr about economics, and Pompeo’s own role was to put it all together. Pompeo’s media presence on the China front seemed to trump that of Vice President Mike Pence, who twice delivered policy speeches on China at the Hudson Institute. Not surprisingly, throughout his speech, Pompeo didn’t mention Pence, one of his biggest potential Republican rivals.

With only 102 days before the Nov. 3 election, will China be able to stand still in the face of what is likely to be an endless stream of political racket? Current signs show that there is no need to panic.

“China’s U.S. policy remains unchanged,” Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi said July 9 at a China-U.S. Think Tank Media Forum. “We are still willing to grow China-U.S. relations with good will and sincerity. As an independent sovereign country, China has every right to uphold its sovereignty, security and development interests, safeguard the achievements that the Chinese people have made through hard work, and reject any bullying and injustice imposed on it.”

In a July 19 interview with CNN, Chinese Ambassador to the U.S. Cui Tiankai was asked whether he was surprised by the changes in Trump’s rhetoric toward China. Cui didn’t answer directly. After pondering for a few seconds, Cui said China is always open to working with the U.S. government, any administration. China still has full confidence in the good will of the American people, and “we have the same kind of good will toward the American people,” Cui said. The ambassador also said the two countries shouldn’t allow suspicion, fear or even hatred to hijack foreign policy.

There are reasons to be confident that Chinese policymakers are cool-headed and have long-term vision in the face of the present turbulence.

Who is right and who is wrong on the issue of consulate closures? Can the party that initiated the conflict provide convincing evidence of “science and technology patent theft” or infiltration and intervention? And to what extent does this tumult in advance of an election override the principle that foreign policy should not serve partisan interests? At this point, the answers are clear.

On July 24, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said the decision to order the U.S. closure of its consulate in Chengdu was a justifiable and necessary response to the unreasonable act of the U.S.

"The current situation in China-U.S. relations is not what China desires to see, and the United States is responsible for all this," the ministry said in a statement.

This shows that China values and is committed to maintaining relations with the U.S. and developing cooperation between the two countries, which is also highly in line with public opinion in China. Meanwhile, the Chinese Foreign Ministry left open a window for the situation to be resolved.

“We urge the United States to immediately retract its wrong decision and create necessary conditions for bringing the bilateral relationship back on track," the ministry said in the statement.

Will the U.S. embark on the path of normalizing relations between the two countries, or will it continue to engage in a long cycle of stabbing scarecrows and then attacking them? China can also wait with patience for the U.S. decision.

Xu Heqian is a world news editor at Caixin Media.

Translated by Denise Jia (huijuanjia@caixin.com)

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