U.S&China: A hybrid war

The Donald Trump administration’s tactics of intimidation against China, including threats to expel Chinese tech companies and the deployment of warships in the South China Sea, have only prompted retaliation in kind from China.

Published : Sep 13, 2020 07:00 IST

The USS Ronald Reagan (in the foreground) and USS Nimitz carrier strike groups sailing in the South China Sea on July 6.

The USS Ronald Reagan (in the foreground) and USS Nimitz carrier strike groups sailing in the South China Sea on July 6.

On July 23, United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivered a speech with the strong title “Communist China and the Free World’s Future” at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library in California. Pompeo said that U.S. policy regarding China for the past 50 years had failed. At Nixon’s own library, Pompeo said that the policy of mutual engagement opened up by Richard Nixon’s visit to China in 1972 had not borne the fruit expected by the U.S.

But Pompeo’s extravagances are not alone, and U.S. pressure has not managed to scare China. For every thrust made by the U.S. government, China has retaliated in kind. When the U.S. threatened to expel Chinese technology companies, the Chinese government threatened to expel U.S. technology firms. The U.S. sent its navy alongside the Chinese coastline; the Chinese fired powerful missiles into the South China Sea. Trump’s intimidation, which threatened a war that no one seems to want, has not worked on Beijing.

At the Nixon Library, Pompeo pointed his finger at the familiar litany of accusations from the U.S. government: that the Chinese government allowed the coronavirus to spread out of control, and that it was repressing freedom in Hong Kong and Xinjiang. But these were not the real issues. The real issue is the advance of China’s economy, particularly in the arena of the next generation’s technology. “We’re seeing staggering statistics of Chinese trade abuses that cost U.S. jobs and strike enormous blows to the economies all across America, including here in southern California,” said Pompeo. This was the heart of the matter. Every other detail was merely icing on the cake.

The real threat to the U.S. comes from the rise of Chinese technology companies. Last year, China’s firms and scientists registered more patents than their counterparts in the U.S., while Chinese scientists have now published more articles in scientific journals. Moreover, there is already evidence that Chinese firms have begun to produce the next range of technology—including 5G and BeiDou (a GPS-type mapping technology)—that would help Chinese manufacturing leap a generation or more ahead of U.S. technology firms.

Next-generation technology

The U.S. government’s political attack on Huawei, which is one of the key 5G firms, is part of this attempt to roll back Chinese economic expansion. At the Nixon Library, Pompeo said, “We stopped pretending Huawei is an innocent telecommunications company that’s just showing up to make sure you can talk to your friends.” Instead, the U.S. sees it as a “national security threat”.

There is a threat to the “security” of the public; this threat has come from the U.S. government. The U.S. government says that Huawei and ZTE are threats because they channel private information to the Chinese government. There has been a public relations campaign to suggest that the real threat to privacy is from the Chinese state, when it is already clear—thanks to the revelations from Edward Snowden and The Washington Post —that it is the U.S.’ National Security Agency (NSA), and its cosy relationship with major telecommunications firms, that threatens global privacy. The Corporate Partner Access Project, BLARNEY, OAKSTAR, FAIRVIEW and STORMBREW—all code words for these projects—are NSA programmes that pay U.S. telecommunications and technology firms for direct access to their networks. The U.S. government has already compromised privacy.

But Pompeo is right. The arrival of the Chinese firms is a threat to U.S.’ “national security”, but not in the way he describes it. The U.S. manufacturing sector’s contribution to its gross domestic product (GDP) has fallen over the past decades; the largest contributions come from real estate and the technology sectors. Any dent in the advantage to the tech sector would not only damage the U.S. economy but also hurt other ancillary sectors that have come to rely on tech growth. If Chinese firms overtake U.S. firms in these key areas of 5G, robots, high-speed rail, and the Internet of All Things, then this would have a major negative impact on the U.S. economy, and so damage its “national security”. What drives Pompeo’s concern, therefore, is not just reckless anti-communism, but a genuine worry that the rise of firms such as ZTE and Huawei will fatally strike the U.S. tech sector.

In late August, Pompeo appeared on the business television channel CNBC to reiterate the U.S. attack on China’s tech sector. Once more, he spoke of “national security” and of the U.S. government’s attempt to protect U.S. citizens from Chinese espionage; as usual, the hosts did not raise the issue of U.S. espionage revealed by Snowden and The Washington Post . But in this interview, Pompeo showed how U.S. rhetoric outstrips the ability of the U.S. to dominate the debate.

On August 14, U.S. President Donald Trump signed an executive order that gave ByteDance, the company that owns the social media app TikTok, 90 days to spin off its U.S. operations. This followed an August 6 order that blocked all transactions with ByteDance, which is based in China. Eighty million users of TikTok, many of them young people, are based in the U.S.; its global audience is 1 billion. Trump pushed for the Chinese firm to sell its U.S. operations to a U.S. firm, with Microsoft and Oracle getting in the queue.

China answers

China retaliated by updating its export control rules. The Chinese government said that any sensitive technology, such as TikTok’s algorithm, would need an export licence. All this is part of a wider Chinese retaliation that suggests that firms such as Alibaba and Baidu might not be permitted to do business in the U.S.. It needs to be said that most of the market for Chinese firms such as ByteDance and Alibaba is not in the U.S. but inside China (the most powerful Chinese firewall is not government intrusion but Mandarin).

No wonder, then, that Pompeo sounded mellower in the CNBC interview. The Trump administration is open to negotiation with Beijing, he said. Yet he added that the U.S. would maintain its tough stance in the interest of U.S. national security. Speaking specifically about TikTok, Pompeo suggested that the U.S. might back off. “I predict that TikTok will no longer share its private information that belongs to the American people to the Chinese Communist Party,” he said. “I’m confident that they won’t be doing that.” This suggests that the Trump administration might be willing to allow ByteDance to continue to run U.S. operations, or at least to take a lighter touch in these negotiations.

South China Sea

Meanwhile, Trump has sent a major naval presence into the South China Sea, where U.S. warships have already faced a serious challenge. The U.S. Navy recently sailed its destroyer USS Mustin near the Xisha Islands. The governments of Vietnam, China and Taiwan all cautioned that the dispute not be militarised. Several U.S. carrier groups and destroyers, such as the USS Ronald Reagan, the USS Nimitz, and the USS Gabrielle Giffords, have sailed through this key shipping channel, buzzing the Chinese coastline, looking for a confrontation.

On August 25, the U.S. sent a U-2 spy plane into a no-fly zone near the Chinese coastline during a Chinese military drill in the Bo Sea, near the Korean peninsula. The Military Museum of the Chinese People’s Revolution in Beijing posted a picture on social media of five U.S. U-2 spy aircraft that had been shot down in the 1960s. The next day, the Chinese military launched two missiles, DF-26B and DF-21D, into the area near the Xisha Islands. These are colloquially called “aircraft-carrier killer missiles”, with the DF-26B having a range of 4,000 km and able to carry both nuclear and conventional missiles.

On August 27, the U.S. government condemned the missile launches, saying that they would “destabilise the situation in the South China Sea”. The next day, in his regular press conference, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian put the onus on the U.S. “The U.S.,” he said, “has frequently dispatched in large numbers advanced warships, fighter jets and reconnaissance aircraft all the way to the South China Sea to project its power and engage in military provocations…. The U.S. has become the saboteur and troublemaker of peace and stability in the South China Sea.”

Meanwhile, as a sign of the complexity of these issues, the Chinese candidate Duan Jielong was elected to a nine-year term on the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea on August 24. This tribunal is part of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The U.S. is not a signatory to the UNCLOS, but nonetheless tried to block the appointment of Duan Jielong. China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said: “China’s success in the election illustrates once again that certain country’s suppression of the Chinese nominee out of selfish interest is both unwelcome and futile.” He was talking about the U.S.

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