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Sino-US Ties: From Ping Pong Diplomacy to Tit-for-Tat Diplomacy

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In an unprecedented move and in the latest escalation of the on-going tensions between the US and China, the Donald Trump administration ordered China to shut down its Consulate in Houston. This unprecedented move in the steadily deteriorating ties between the world’s two largest economies drifts the world a bit closer to the precipice of a major crisis, the ramification of which could be perilous for the world.

The reasons for the Trump administration’s decision was for the alleged involvement of the consulate and other Chinese diplomatic missions in the country of economic espionage, visa fraud and attempted theft of scientific research. The US announced visa restrictions on students, imposed sanctions on Chinese officials over the new National Security Law passed recently on Hong Kong and considering a sweeping travel ban on the millions of members of China’s ruling Communist Party. China quickly denied the charges. Trump’s drastic measure to close the consulate also meant this was the first time a Chinese mission was ordered to be closed in the US since both countries normalised diplomatic relations in 1979. The US consulate is one of five in the US, not counting the embassy in Washington D.C.

China quickly reacted to the US decision as “political provocation”, rejecting the US justification that there was a need to protect American intellectual property and information from Chinese spying. The justification was premised that under the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations of 1961, nation states “have a duty not to interfere in the internal affairs” of the receiving state. Though no further details were issued, the US alleged that China has been engaging in massive spying and influence operations throughout the US for years and therefore justified its decision on ordering to shut down the Houston consulate.

The first indication to the Chinese retaliation was that it might order the US to close down its consulate in the city of Wuhan. While the Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin attacked the US decision to order closing down the consulate in Houston as an “outrageous and unjustified move which will sabotage” China-US relations, he also warned of the proper and necessary response. This response came soon as a retaliatory measure when China ordered the closure of a US consulate in south-western China in Chengdu in Sichuan province, and ordered to cease all operations, a move that escalates tensions between the two countries to a new level. China was irked that it was given just 72 hours notice to shut down its Houston consulate office and therefore came up with commensurate “legitimate and necessary response”.

Though Beijing did not give a deadline for when the US must close the Chengdu consulate, the state-run Global Times noted that the consulate was also given 72 hours to close its operations, in a tit-for-tat countermeasure. Calling its measure “unprecedented” and “outrageous”, Beijing accused the US diplomats of “infiltration and interference activities”. This has taken bilateral ties to a new low. Defining diplomacy as about reciprocity, the mission in Chengdu was singled out because “some personnel were engaged in activities inconsistent with their status that interfered with China’s internal affairs and security interests”. Interestingly, the Chengdu mission is relatively small compared with other seven diplomatic missions that the US operates in China in Beijing, Guangzhou, Shanghai, Wuhan, Shenyang, and Hong Kong and Macau. It is possible that Beijing resisted from raising the level of escalation high and therefore preferred to keep within manageable level.

This does not mean to suggest that the mission in Chengdu is seen to be less important. This mission oversees the Tibetan autonomous region where Chinese authorities have overseen a harsh crackdown on the Tibetan minority and banned diplomats and foreign journalists from entering the area. The US mission used to serve as key listening post for Tibet developments and ousting  the US diplomats from the capital of Sichuan province – a region with a population rivaling Germany –  could have a bigger impact than shutting  the US consulate in Wuhan, but less closing US missions in the key financial centres in Hong Kong and Shanghai. 

The closures of missions in Houston and Chengdu illustrate the alarming degree to which relations between the US and China have worsened in recent times, as China assumes a more assertive posture on the world stage and the US seeks to check its rise. Raising the temperature ahead of the presidential elections in November, Trump wants to consolidate his domestic constituency by deciding to pursue a robust response to Beijing’s brazen expansionist policies in many sectors – on Taiwan, South China Sea, and Hong Kong, with Japan over Senkaku islands and with India on border issue. The objective is to check the Chinese menace that has become a threat to not only the established global order but has challenged the institutional norms – regional and global – with a view to rewrite the rules on its own terms.

In short, China is being perceived as a new global bully that derives its new-found confidence from its accumulation of enormous economic strength and military muscle. That makes the world shaky and the US is the only power with the capability to address this new challenge. Trump and his aides, particularly Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, have stepped up attacks on China and accused Beijing of spying, cyber theft and causing the coronavirus pandemic. When former President Richard Nixon decided to establish diplomatic relations with China in 1979, he had hoped to induce China into a democratic fold but instead, as it has transpired now, created a “Frankenstein monster” he had once feared.

Other members of the party too saw the activities of the Houston consulate suspiciously. Senator Marco Rubio saw the consulate as the “central node of the Communist Party’s vast network of spies and influence operations in the United States”. China rejected the allegations as “malicious slander”.

Going further, Pompeo in a provocative speech urged the Chinese citizens to work with the US to change the direction of the ruling Chinese Communist Party. Though he avoided mentioning regime change, he reminded the Chinese people that the Chinese leadership is authoritarian at home and aggressive in its hostility to freedom everywhere else. Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman retaliated by comparing Pompeo’s remarks with an ant trying to shake a tree, similar to the words exchanged between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un not long ago that lacked civility and any semblance of diplomatic niceties.   

Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin described Pompeo’s speech in which he highlighted the Chinese leadership of attempting to “tyrannize inside and outside China forever” in pursuit of global hegemony as a “malicious” and “groundless attack” on the Communist party and its domestic and foreign policies and that those were full of “ideological prejudice and a cold war mindset”.

For record, a total of roughly 700 diplomats are assigned to the US embassy and five consulates in China. The Chengdu mission opened in 1985 and covers Chongqing, Guizhou, Yunnan, as well as Sichuan, besides overseeing developments in Tibet, where Beijing is trying to impose restrictions. Cutting off the US in Chengdu also means shutting down America’s links to Tibet and therefore a political blow to Washington. 

This furious week of cold war-style diplomacy is going to do more harm to the world economy and geopolitical landscape than to US-China ties. The consulate closure issue is not the only one to be seen in isolation. There was a plethora of issues, including China’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic and the efforts to squash a democracy movement in Hong Kong by announcing the new national security law. Both sides are unlikely to change their respective hard-line stances until at least the November elections. In the process, bilateral ties are likely to worsen further rather than inching towards any resolution. 

Though it is not difficult to decipher what triggered this unprecedented move by either side, the first time in their 41 years of diplomatic ties, it clearly amounted to a downgrading of the relationship that could cause lasting damage. It was also rumoured that the decision to order closure of the Houston consulate was linked to the dispute over the delay in American diplomats being allowed to return to their embassies and consulates in China as a result of the travel restrictions and quarantine rules introduced by Beijing to contain the spread of Covid-19.

There is also an opinion that Beijing did not honour the principle of reciprocity since it declined the US request to open a consulate in western China, which the US saw as a violation of the terms and conditions at the time of establishing diplomatic relations in 1979. The US lawmakers were keen to establish a consular in Lhasa (the Tibetan capital) and made a prerequisite for granting China’s request to open new missions in Atlanta and Boston. Here, interpretation on the issue of reciprocity comes as another bottleneck. While China sees reciprocity as both sides having the same number of diplomatic representations in each other’s country, for the US it means both numbers and locations. Since there seems to have been no prior communication on the closure issue, the logical conclusion one can deduce that ties were downgraded.

But things are not so simplistic. Bilateral ties have nosedived over a host of issues, ranging from the origins of Covid-19, China’s perceived influence over the WHO, human rights in Hong Kong and Xinjiang, Taiwan, South China Sea, expulsion of journalists from each others’ countries, etc. and therefore the consulate closure issue was an explosion of these accumulation of differences and may not be read in isolation as a single event. Be that as it may, given that both sides have so many stakes economically and otherwise, bilateral ties may not be expected to head towards comprehensive collapse.   What is driving both sides seems to be both legal and political compulsions, which will be tested over time. There could be sudden turnaround should Trump loses the elections in November and yield space to Joe Biden. 

Like other wolf warriors, Chinese ambassador in the US Cui Tiankai remarked that it is up to Washington to decide if it is ready to accept China’s rise and if the two strategic rivals can live together having their own independent space.

While the downward spiral in Sino-US relations is bad news for the entire world, it is no longer only about differences over trade and technology issues but now has snowballed into a larger geopolitical contest between the two powers. Though one might find flaws in some of Trump’s impetuous decisions on global issues, his taking China head-on for defending established global order that has come under assault by China’s unilateral actions could have merit. The Hindu very objectively observed in an editorial thus: “This is a cyclical trap — measures and countermeasures keep taking ties to new lows with no possibility of an exit. If this deterioration is not arrested immediately, the U.S. and China risk a total breakdown in diplomatic relations. That is bad news for the whole world.” The world needs to wait for the outcome how far Sino-Us ties swing from Ping Pong diplomacy to Tit-for-Tat diplomacy. 

Professor (Dr.) Rajaram Panda, former Senior Fellow at IDSA and ICCR India Chair Professor at Reitaku University, Japan is currently Lok Sabha Research Fellow, Parliament of India, and Member of Governing Council, Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi.

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Americas

Prospects for U.S.-China Relations in the Biden Era

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The U.S. presidential election which will be held on November 3 is drawing ever closer. As the Trump administration performs poorly in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, where the death toll in the U.S. exceeded 210,000, the election trend appears to be very unfavorable for Donald Trump.

According to a recent poll conducted by NBC News and the Wall Street Journal, Joe Biden led Trump by 14 percentage points in the national elections. It is worth noting that retired American generals, who have traditionally been extremely low-key in politics, publicly supported Biden this year, something that is quite rare. On September 24, 489 retired generals and admirals, former national security officials and diplomats signed a joint letter in support of Biden. Among them are Republicans, Democrats, and non-partisans, showing that they have crossed the affiliation, and jointly support Biden to replace Trump. Although the opinion polls do not represent the final election, with the election only being one month away, the widening of the opinion gap is enough to predict the direction of the election.

For the whole world, especially for China, it is necessary to prepare for the advent of a possible Biden era of the United States. During Trump’s tenure, U.S.-China relations have taken a turn for the worse, and China has been listed as the foremost “long-term strategic competitor” of the United States.

There is a general view in China that after the Democratic Party comes to power, U.S.-China relations may worsen. The reason is that the Democratic Party places more emphasis on values such as human rights and ideology and is accustomed to using values such as human rights, democracy, and freedom in foreign policies against China. However, as far as U.S.-China relations are concerned, it is too vague to use the simple dichotomic “good” or “bad” to summarize the relationship of the two countries.

However, it is certain that after Biden takes office, his policies will be different from Trump’s. An important difference between Biden and Trump is that Biden will follow a certain order and geopolitical discipline to implement his own policies, and he will also seek cooperation with China in certain bottom-line principled arrangements. It should be stressed that it is crucial for China and the United States to reach some principled arrangements in their relations.

From an economic point of view, should Biden become the next President, the United States will likely ease its trade policy, which will alleviate China’s trade pressure. It can be expected that the Biden administration may quell the U.S.-China tariff war and adjust punitive tariff policies that lead to “lose-lose” policies. If Biden takes office, he might be more concerned about politics and U.S.-China balance. In terms of trade, although he would continue to stick to the general direction of the past, this would not be the main direction of his governance. Therefore, the U.S.-China trade war could see certain respite and may even stop. In that scenario, China as the largest trading partner of the United States, could hope for the pressures in the trade with the U.S. being reduced.

China must also realize that even if Biden takes power, some key areas of U.S.-China relations will not change, such as the strategic positioning of China as the “long-term strategic competitor” of the United States. This is not something that is decided by the U.S. President but by the strategic judgment of the U.S. decision-making class on the direction of its relations with China. This strategic positioning destined that the future U.S.-China relations will be based on the pattern dominated by geopolitical confrontation. Biden sees that by expanding global influence, promoting its political model, and investing in future technologies, China is engaging a long-term competition with the U.S, and that is the challenge that the United States faces.

On the whole, if and when Biden takes office, the U.S. government’s domestic and diplomatic practices will be different from those of the Trump administration, although the strategic positioning of China will not change, and neither will it change the U.S.’ general direction of long-term suppression of China’s rise. However, in terms of specific practices, the Biden administration will have its own approaches, and will seek a certain order and geopolitical discipline to implement its policies. He may also seek to reach some bottom-line principled arrangements with China. Under the basic framework, the future U.S.-China relations will undergo changes in many aspects. Instead of the crude “an eye for an eye” rivalry, we will see the return to the traditional systemic competition based on values, alliance interests, and rules. Facing the inevitable changes in U.S.-China relations, the world needs to adapt to the new situation.

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Third world needs ideological shift

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As nations across the world have been pooling their efforts to contain the COVID-19 spread, the looming economic crisis has caught the attention of global intelligentsia. In the light of health emergency, The policy makers of Asia, Africa and Latin America have been struggling to steer the economic vehicle back to normalcy. Although, the reason for the economic slump could be attributed to the pandemic, it is also important to cast light on the economics of these tricontinental nations. Been as colonies for more than two centuries, these players had adopted the style of economics which is a mix of market economics and socialism. The imperial powers of the then Europe had colonised these nations and had subjugated them with their military and political maneuvers. Under the banner of White man’s burden, the Imperial masters had subverted the political, economical, social and cultural spheres of the colonies and had transformed these self-reliant societies into the ones which depend on Europe for finished products. The onslaught on the economical systems of colonies was done through one way trade. Though, the western powers brought the modern values to the third world during colonial era, they were twisted to their advantage. The European industrial machines were depended on the blood, sweat and tears of the people of colonies. It is clear that the reason for the backwardness of these players is the force behind the imperial powers which had eventually pushed them towards these regions in search of raw materials and markets i.e., Capitalism. Needless to say, the competition for resources and disaccord over the distribution of wealth of colonies led to twin world wars. Capitalism, as an economic idea, cannot survive in an environment of a limited market and resources. It needs borderless access, restless labour and timeless profit. While the European imperial powers had expanded their influence over Asia and Africa, the US had exerted its influence over Latin America. Earlier, at the dawn of modern-day Europe, The capitalist liberal order had challenged the old feudal system and the authority of church. Subsequently, the sovereign power was shifted to monarchial king. With the rise of ideas like democracy and liberty, complemented by the rapid takeoff of industrialization, the conditions were set for the creation of new class i.e., capitalist class. On the one hand, Liberalism, a polical facet of capitalism, restricts the role of state(political) in economical matters but on the other hand it provides enough room for the elite class and those who have access to power corridors to persuade the authority(state) to design the policies to their advantage. Inequality is an inescapable feature of liberal economics.

The powerful nations cannot colonise these nations as once done. The Watchwords like interconnectedness, interdependency and free trade are being used to continue their domination on these players. As soon as the third world nations were freed from the shackles of colonialism, they were forced to integrate their economies into the global economical chain. Characterized by the imbalance, the globalization has been used as a weapon by the Western powers to conquer the markets of developing nations.

The Carrot and stick policy of the US is an integral part of its strategy to dominate global economical domain. The sorry state of affairs in the Middle East and Latin America could be attributed to the US lust for resources. In the name of democracy, the US has been meddling in the internal affairs of nations across the developing world. Countries like Iran, Cuba, Venezuela, Libya, Iraq and Syria have challenged the US,a global policeman. Back in the day,soon after assuming the power, the Left leadership in Latin American countries had adopted socialist schemes and had nationalised the wealth creating assets, which were previously in the hands of the US capitalists. Irked by the actions of these nations, the US had devised a series of stratagems to destabilize the regimes and to install its puppets through the imposition of cruel sanctions and by dubbing them as terrorist nations on the pretext of exporting violent communist revolution. With the exception of the regimes of Fidel castro in Cuba and Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, the US is largely successful in its agenda of destabilizing anti-American governments in the region. The US has a long history of mobilising anti-left forces in Latin America, the region which US sees as its backyard, in an attempt to oust socialist leaders. At present, by hook or by crook, the trump administration has been trying to depose Nicolas Maduro, the president of Venezuela, a socialist.

In addition,The US has been colonising the minds of the third world citizens psychologically with its cultural hegemony and anti-left indoctrination. It is important to understand that the reason for the neo-fascism, which is unfurling across the developing and developed world alike, is rooted in capitalism.The third world citizenry is disgruntled and the ultra-nationalist right wing forces in these countries have been channeling the distress amongst the working class to solidify their position. Growing inequalities, Falling living standards, Joblessness and Insecurity are exposing the incompetence of capitalism and have been pushing a large chunk of workforce in the developing countries into a state of despair.Adding to their woes, the Covid-19 has hit them hard.

The US, with the help of IMF and the world bank, had coerced the developing countries to shun welfare economics.The term “Development” is highly contested  in the economic domain.Capitalists argue that the true development of an individual and the society depends upon economic progress and the free market is a panacea for all problems.Given the monopolistic tendencies in the economical systems across the developing world, the free market is a myth, especially in a societies where a few of business families, who have cronies in policy making circles, dominates the economical and social scene.The time has come for the governments of these nations to address these issues and ensure that the wealth would be distributed in a more equitable manner.

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The Election Circus and an Event in the Cosmos

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The election in the US is held on the Tuesday after the first Monday in November.  A  Tuesday was chosen to allow people enough time to drive to the election site after Sunday, reserved for religious services and rest.  Those were the horse and buggy days and it took a while. The people clearly had greater ardor for democracy then considering we get a less than 50 percent turnout now when voting sites are usually less than a five-minute drive. 

Most states are either heavily Republican or Democrat so the results there are a foregone conclusion.  The winners get the electors assigned to the state on a basis of population.  The electors then vote for the nominees receiving the most votes in the state when the electoral college meets. 

There are about a dozen battleground or swing states; among them Pennsylvania and Florida are prized for their high electoral votes — hence the repeated visits by the candidates.  Trump won both in 2016.  Will he this time? 

Meanwhile two New York papers are busy running negative stories on candidates they oppose.  The New York Times offers tidbits against Trump.  The latest this week is that Trump has a Chinese bank account.  The fact is not new since the information was filed with his tax returns — one has to report foreign bank accounts over $10,000 — but the news is intended as an example of Trump’s hypocrisy for he has been speaking out against doing business in China.  The accounts in the name of Trump International Hotels have been moribund since 2015. 

The New York Post, much less distinguished than the Times, is after Hunter Biden and through him his father, candidate Joe Biden.  Last week the Post unearthed a dubious email purporting to show then Vice President Biden possibly meeting with Hunter’s potential business partner.  This week there is a photograph of the Bidens, father and son, flanked by a Kazakh oligarch on one side and a former president of Kazakhstan on the other.  The latest on the email issue has a certain Tony Bobulinski, one of the recipients, confirming the Post email adding that Hunter sought Dad’s advice on deals.  There is also a proposed equity split referring to ’20’ for ‘H’ and ’10 held by H for the big guy.’  

New York State may be a secure prize for Democrats but news stories these days are picked up on the internet and spread nationally and internationally.  Surely the two newspapers have something really big up their sleeves for the week before the election.  

Charges and counter-charges in the final presidential debate.  Biden repeatedly blamed Trump for deaths from the Covid 19 epidemic.  On almost everything Biden promised, Trump’s rejoinder was why he had not done it in the 47 years he was in public office including 8 years as vice president.  This included mimicking Biden’s previously successful tactic of talking directly to the public.  The same interests fund both major parties and they generally  get what they want except that Trump mostly funded his campaign himself. 

From all the ridiculousness to the sublime.  Images of M87 are the first of any black hole swallowing whatever is within range.  We are told of the discovery of a black hole in the center of our own Milky Way, presumably the eventual destination of everything in our galaxy.  From this perspective the Trump-Biden debate, although quite important for our immediate future, seems to diminish to nothing in significance.  

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