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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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Weakness or calculation? How the pandemic undermined the US world leadership

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Anyone watching the numerous doomsday movies, happily churned out by Hollywood, will see American doctors saving the planet from space-borne viruses and the plague epidemic that turn people into zombies. However, the very first serious test in a decade has shown that the US healthcare system is actually inferior even to the Russian one, created during the Cold War years. And this despite the fact, that for the past 30 years, the Russian medical system has been suffering from “optimizations,” cuts and underfunding. Moreover, while the Kremlin, even for propaganda reasons, has managed to provide real assistance to a number of European countries, and has been the first to launch a vaccine on the market, Washington’s actions can be regarded as a sign of weakness, and a very dangerous one to its allies at that.

More than a year after the start of the global lockdown, we can already sum up the initial results, which look disappointing to Washington. The US healthcare system has collapsed under the pressure, thus laying bare the country’s inability to bring the outbreak of a less-than-deadly disease under control. As for Russia, despite its lack of America’s vast resources, it still managed to win the vaccine race and become the first to come up with a viable antidote.

More importantly, Moscow has also come out on top in the information “war” with the West, with its Sputnik V vaccine proving to have far fewer side effects than its Pfizer and Moderna counterparts. Therefore, the US and British lobbying of their own vaccines, and their attempts to close the European market for the Russian vaccine look unethical, to say the least, all the more so amid numerous European media reports about people having  died from side effects after being inoculated with Western vaccines. At the same time, there are simply no reports about similar complications caused by the Russian vaccine, even though the European Commission and Brussels have been keeping a close eye on the effects of its use in European countries, including Serbia and Hungary, which have already taken the first deliveries of the Sputnik V vaccine.

What is the reason for the US demonstrating its weakness? How come that in the midst of the epidemic Washington was unable to find the resources to demonstrate its readiness to lend a helping hand to its European allies? Unfortunately, one of the reasons was that the Americans simply freaked out. The truth is, the US healthcare system is rather decentralized and unorganized. People with good health insurance have little to worry about. However, in a situation of a pandemic, the US medical facilities are pretty hard to manage, so one has to do it manually. Compounded by the general atmosphere of panic and the fact that the poorest strata of society, who have no health insurance and constitute the main risk zone (obesity due to malnutrition, advanced chronic diseases and other COVID-inducing conditions), the system simply collapsed. Therefore, it is not surprising that the Trump administration tried to keep maximum resources at home. Moreover, the businessman-turned-president, who had openly spoken about “exporting security,” never missed a chance to make it clear to his allies that US assistance is never free. As a result, he was replaced by Biden, a Democrat who advocates maximum support for all democratic forces. However, Democrats usually provide moral or military support, but they have proved equally unprepared to line up any serious assistance to the countries hit the hardest by the pandemic.

Moreover, it was actually at the suggestion of the United States and the UK that the COVAX system, a global initiative aimed at providing equitable (but not free) access to COVID-19 vaccines for countries in need, stalled. It turned out (who might have guessed?) that both the US-developed Moderna and the British AstraZeneca vaccines are primarily needed by their own electorates, and only then by countries that need them, but are unable to produce their own vaccine. Meanwhile, India with a population of over 1 billion, managed to fulfill its obligations, and Russia is ready to launch the production of vaccines in Europe. However, bending under Washington’s pressure, the European Union has banned the import of Russian, Indian and Chinese vaccines, without bothering to explain the reasons for this ban.

A country, claiming world domination cannot lead in everything, of course.  Therefore, it is not surprising that the healthcare systems of many European countries, like Sweden and Switzerland, are way better that what they now have in the United States. That being said, the world leader still bears full responsibility for its allies and cannot leave them to their own devices, not only in the event of a military conflict, but also in the midst of a pandemic. However, this is exactly what it did…

From our partner International Affairs

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The legacy of 2020, and 2021 in the prospects of the United States and China

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image source: cnn.com

2020 was a crucial year because of Covid-19, which disrupted the evolution of the world order in the direction of differentiation and transformation. This is the most severe crisis the human world has faced since the Second World War.

As of 10 May 2021, According to the Hopkins University Global New Crown Epidemic Statistics Report, as of May 10, 2021 there have been 158,993,826 confirmed cases worldwide and 3,305,018 deaths.

The pandemic is like a fatal global social test. On the basis of a world order that has already undergoing a crisis, it has not only caused a pause and thus a deceleration of economic development, but it has also stepped up social division and the transfer of power from the political to the technical sphere.

Although the most experienced analysts and leading research institutions have published various reports, currently none of them can accurately predict in detail the huge impact of the pandemic on the history of the 21st century.

The pandemic, however, will bring about major changes in four areas.

Firstly, it will accelerate the general trend of global economic recession and differentiation. This is due to the currency over-issue policies adopted by several countries and to intensified domestic social polarisation. Since 2018 the global economic and financial crisis has not yet been solved. On the contrary, the crisis has only been concealed by the short-term response of monetary policy.

Secondly, the pandemic will speed up internal changes and the reorganisation of the international political and economic order precisely due to internal social differentiation. Owing to the turbulent influence of domestic and international policies, economic and political risks in fragile regions of the world will intensify or have knock-on effects.

Thirdly, the pandemic will strengthen the digital society and competition between countries in building new technologies will become more intense. The most significant impact of digital society is the silent arrival of a transparent society that exists but has no human contacts.

Fourthly, the pandemic promotes the rise of vaccine nationalism and accelerates the revival of the community value of East Asian countries, which has epochal significance from the perspective of the history of world civilisation.

The most influential political and economic event in 2020 was the US elections and the related change of Administration. The US elections represented the sharpest but also the most frustrating change in US history. Although Donald Trump lost the election, 74,216,154 citizens voted for the outgoing President.

For the United States, the change in direction cannot be seen as the advent of a resolute and determined policy along one single line, as the basic reality of the highly divided American society was not changed, but indeed strengthened due to the general election. The huge impact promoted the spread of political violence and protests in the United States.

Source: The US Crisis Monitor, Bridging Divides Initiative, Princeton School of Public and International Affairs’, Liechtenstein Institute on Self-Determination.

First of all, Donald Trump lost the election, but the spectre of Trumpism has remained in the United States and even in Europe, which is generally not conducive to advancing the strategy of developing relations with China.

Secondly, the “antagonism” of the US strategy towards China has not changed radically. Trump hadopened a political-economic dispute with China. Itisparticularlynoteworthythat the younger generation of the Republican leadership isgraduallybecominghostile and negative towards China, and exertsgreatinfluence in Congress.Thisdoesnotfavours world peace.

Thirdly, if this attitude is not contained, it will lead to negative long-term impacts between high-tech decoupling and ideological competition. Finally, China’s policy towards the United States has been perfected and refined: although the government is still adopting a wait-and-see attitude, the voice of seeking cooperation and being rational and pragmatic is still the mainstream in China.

Besides the issue that China will reduce its dependence on the world and increase world’s dependence on China itself, China will reduce its dependence on traditional growth models and increase its care for social, green and environmental sustainability.

The year 2021 is proving that the focus of the analysis of global political and economic trends will still be competition between China and the United States. President Biden’s Administration still regards China as its main strategic competitor, but the methods of addressing the issue are quite different from those of Trump’s Administration. The main difference lies in the fact that President Biden focuses on solving domestic problems and does not exclude the most important issues with China.

President Biden’s Administration has adapted its strategy for China as the influence of major lobbies and interest groups – such as the US finance and military industry – on policy is constant compared to the previous Administration. Nevertheless, the Chinese factor in the chain of global interests keeps higher levels.

Indeed, voices from both parties in the US Congress calling for curbing China’s rise are also increasing.

In short, in terms of China’s policy direction, President Biden’s Administration is expected to oppose a trade war because it harms the core interests of the US business community. However, there are likely to be problems for Taiwan, Xianggang (Hong Kong), Xinjiang Weiwu’er (Uyghur), South China Sea, Xizang (Tibet), as well as other issues.

The possibility of renewed trade negotiations between China and the United States is expected to increase significantly in the future and the US strategy of constructive competition will be reformed.

Regardless of changes in Sino-US relations, China will certainly promote greater bilateral and multilateral investment cooperation, while seeking new development and shaping new models of cooperation.

The key areas which are currently the most important and noteworthy are, firstly, China’s joining the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and seeking to adhere to the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), which shows that China’s top leadership has decided to continue the reform strategy of internal and external promotion.

The RCEP is a free trade agreement in the Asia-Pacific region between the ten States of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (Brunei, Cambodia, Philippines, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam) and five of their free trade partners: Australia, China, the Republic of Korea (South Korea), Japan and New Zealand. These Member States account for approximately 30% of world’s population and GDP, thus making it the largest trading bloc.

The CPTPP, instead, is a draft regional investment and regulatory treaty in which negotiations, until 2014, twelve Pacific and Asian countries participated: Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, the USA and Vietnam.

Indeed, between the RCEP and the CPTPP, there is not only the interconnection of the industrial chain and commonality -and more reasons for unity than differences – but also the influence of great powers’ strategic factors.

The main difference between the two is that the CPTPP has higher economic quality requirements, while the RECP is more inclusive. Secondly, the China-EU trade and investment agreement is likely to be signed, which has clear short-term interests for Europe and long-term strategic interests for China. China, however, still needs to take a cautious attitude towards European policy and its legal systems based on double standards. Thirdly, China and Russia are strengthening comprehensive strategic cooperation and there will be new opportunities for their cooperation in the energy and military sectors.

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Why Congress should be rough on Chris Miller at his testimony on Wednesday

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FBI director Chris Wray’s weak congressional testimony in March left most of the Capitol attack questions unanswered and most of us scratching our heads: if the chiefs of the intelligence agencies don’t know, then who does?

As I argued back in March, before Senate Wray picked the low hanging fruit questions — such as confirming that the Trump mob that stormed the Capitol was indeed Trump’s mob and not some other people — while conviniently glazing over the real questions.

This is why the congressional testimony by former acting Secretary of Defense, Chris Miller, this Wednesday matters. The national guard mystery is still the elephant in the room that’s still sitting in the corner in loud, deafening silence.

The House Oversight and Reform Committee has been looking for answers from federal intelligence agencies on Trump’s role in the Capitol insurrection since day one. They have knocked on pretty much any door they could think of, requesting information from sixteen offices in total. That brings us to Wednesday when the Committee will hear from Chris Miller, as well as Jeff Rosen, former acting Attorney General, and Robert Contee III, District of Columbia Police Chief, in a hearing titled “The Capitol Insurrection: Unexplained Delays and Unanswered Questions.”

Back in March, when Senate grilled Wray, the FBI director could not answer why the national guard was not sent in to quell the attack. Wray vaguely put the decision on local policy makers, conveniently circumventing federal responsibility.

Then months later, defense officials actually stated that the national guard was delayed for reasons of “optics” and worries over how it would look if Trump’s mob was pushed out forcefully, as they should’ve been. Miller dragged his feet for hours before giving the green light, as he wanted to imagine what exactly the national guard’s intervention will look like. The actual deployment took only 20 minutes, logistically speaking.

Miller has already spoken about Trump’s “cause and effect” words responsible for inciting the Capitol attacks. And some commentators like Sarah Burris at Raw Story already predict that Miller is about to throw Trump under the bus on Wednesday.

But that’s not enough. Where was Miller back then? The delay was his decision and no one else’s. The Congressmen and Congresswomen of the House Oversight and Reform Committee chaired by Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney, should not go easy on Miller only because now, after the fact, he is willing to speak up against Trump. Now it’s easy. Now it doesn’t count.

Trump removed Secretary of Defense Esper over his objection to sending the national guard on the Black Lives Matter movement that sparked up exactly one year ago. That’s why Trump replaced Esper with Miller. Miller could have also said no to Trump but he played along. That’s why Miller doesn’t get to play hero now. There are no heroes in the Trump Administration’s aftermath. Some “cause and effect” talk and hypocritical outrage after the fact don’t count. Now doesn’t count. The House Oversight and Reform Committee shouldn’t buy this. The time for cheap spins and late awakened conscience is up. Now is the time for real answers. Miller and Rosen should get a rough ride on Wednesday. Anything else would not be acceptable.

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