Pressuring China

Print edition : August 14, 2020

Protesters hold up signs and flags outside the closed Chinese consulate in Houston on July 24. China is fast becoming an election issue in poll-bound U.S. Photo: AFP

THAT relations between Washington and Beijing are spiralling downward has been apparent for some time. If any more evidence was needed, it was provided by the Donald Trump administration’s decision to summarily ask the Chinese government to vacate its consulate in Houston, Texas, on July 22. The administration alleged that the consulate was “a hub of illegal activity” and gave it only three days to close down. China had no option but to reciprocate. Two days later it asked the Americans to vacate their consulate in Chengdu in Sichuan province in the south-western part of the country. 

The order for the closure of the United States mission in Chengdu came a day after yet another bellicose speech by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Speaking at the Richard Nixon library on July 23, he declared that the U.S. would henceforth target every aspect of the bilateral relationship. “We must admit a hard truth that should guide us in the years to come, that if we want to have a free 21st century, and not the Chinese century of which Xi Jinping dreams, the old paradigm of blind engagement with China simply won’t get it done,” he said. “We must not continue it and we must not return to it.” President Nixon was the first U.S. President to establish full diplomatic relations with China. Pompeo, a conservative Republican like Nixon, representing another right-wing Republican administration, is more intent on starting a new Cold War. 

The closure of consulates was preceded by tit-for-tat restrictions that the two countries imposed on the movement of diplomats. In June, the Trump administration initiated visa restrictions and expelled Chinese journalists. Washington sharply reduced the number of Chinese journalists allowed to work in the U.S., claiming that they all worked for their government. The Chinese side has reciprocated by asking many American journalists to leave.

The Trump administration has started the process of revoking the visas of thousands of Chinese students and researchers in U.S. universities, claiming that they had ties with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the Chinese government. The more than 3,00,000 Chinese students form a huge source of revenue for the U.S. The Chinese government has not taken any action against the thousands of Americans working in China.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson said the closure of the U.S. consulate in Chengdu was a “necessary response” to the U.S.’ “unjustified act”. China apparently chose the Chengdu consulate for closure because of its proximity to the autonomous provinces of Tibet and Xinjiang. If it wanted to retaliate in a stronger way, it could have ordered the closing down of the consulate in Hong Kong, which is full of Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) operatives and covert agents. 

‘Concentration camps’

According to the U.S., more than a million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities such as Tajiks are being detained in Xinjiang. In late July, Pompeo for the first time went to the extent of stating that there were “concentration camps” in Xinjiang.

The Chinese government flatly denies the allegation. At a meeting on the sidelines of the National People’s Congress held last year, Shohrat Zakir, chairman of the Xinjiang government, said: “Some voices internationally have said that Xinjiang has concentration camps or re-education camps. These claims are pure lies.” He said that what the West described as concentration camps were in fact “educational training” centres where people were taught vocational skills and these were part of a “de-radicalisation” programme. 

Making trouble

Many Uyghurs had joined radical groups like the Islamic State and the Al Qaeda and were in the forefront of the fighting in Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq. Some of them were involved in heinous terror incidents inside China. China has blamed the separatist East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) for the attacks. The U.S., incidentally, had held 22 Uyghur terrorists in Guantanamo Bay on charges of terrorism. Yet, Washington has once again started supporting the Uyghur separatist movement, giving it the kind of importance that it accords to the Tibetan separatist movement. The CIA-funded National Endowment of Democracy gives financial support to the World Uyghur Conference and the American Uyghur Association. 

Chinese officials point out that the U.S., which has the biggest prison population in the world, should be the last country to complain about mass internment. The Trump administration recently ordered Federal troops into cities to put down peaceful protests.

Trump has been floating the idea of expanding the G7 grouping into a G11 grouping by including Russia, India, South Korea and Australia. China is pointedly excluded. Prime Minister Narendra Modi was quick to accept Trump’s invitation to attend, to the chagrin of the Chinese government. Russia, on the other hand, has chided the U.S. for not including China. Excluding the world’s second biggest economy from such a grouping is laughable.

Egging Taiwan on

The U.S. has also been encouraging Taiwan to adopt a belligerent position on the reunification issue. China wants Taiwan to rejoin the motherland under the “one country, two systems” formula. In order to prevent this, the Trump administration has virtually changed the “one China” policy that the U.S. followed after the establishment of diplomatic relations with Beijing in 1979. After being elected President, Trump talked to Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen before making a call to Chinese President Xi Jinping. In July 2019,the Trump administration approved a $2 billion arms deal with Taiwan despite strong objections from China.

Only a few countries support the Trump administration’s hard-line policy against China. The European Union has refused to side with attempts to diplomatically isolate China over a host of issues, including the passage of the national security law in Hong Kong. Even Japan refused to join the U.S. in condemning the recent steps China has taken in Hong Kong. It is even less likely that America’s allies will back its military containment policy against China. 

The Trump administration has been trying to divert the American public’s attention from the serious mismanagement of the pandemic as the presidential election approaches. After the latest development, China’s foreign ministry spokesperson said: “We are not interested in interfering in the American elections. We also hope that the American side will not use the China card in the election.”

China has been buying large quantities of American wheat, sorghum, pork and corn. It has so far not reneged on its commitment to the Phase-1 Trade agreement it signed with the U.S. in January this year. If it stops importing the large amounts of food from the U.S. that it has committed to under the agreement, the American farming community, which voted massively for Trump in the last election, will receive a hard blow. But China does not want to burn all its bridges with the U.S. It would prefer to wait and watch until the results of the U.S. presidential election are out.

John Cherian