PARAPHRASING OSCAR WILDE, to lose one citizen may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose two looks like political retaliation.
China detained two Canadian citizens following the arrest of Huawei’s chief financial officer, Meng Wanzhou, in Canada at the request of the United States, which has charged her with fraud in connections with alleged violations of US sanctions against Iran (charges the company says are baseless).
The two Canadians will be charged with undermining China’s national security.
One is a think tank researcher, and the other runs a cultural association. The work of both concerns North Korea, which would have meant they would already have been under the observation of Chinese authorities as well as making accusations of their being spies plausible.
Beijing’s fast and furious response to Meng’s arrest will reinforce perceptions in the West that Huawei and the Chinese government work hand in glove, just as in China, Meng’s arrest confirms suspicions that the West is out to kill Huawei.
US President Donald Trump has tweeted that he will intervene in Meng’s case — presumably by ordering the US Department of Justice to drop the case — if he believes it will sabotage the trade deal he is working on with President Xi Jinping. Trump has been bigging up both the scale of the deal —“the largest trade deal ever made” — and its imminence.
China’s resumption of soybean purchases from US farmers and announced the lowering of tariffs on US car imports from 40% to the 15% charged on cars imported from elsewhere suggests a deal of some sorts in the making.
It would be to Beijing’s advantage if the conflict with the United States returned to compartmentalised confrontation, rather than advance towards the so-called ‘whole government’ cold war.
But that would go against the fact that the Trump administration has been stepping up the pace of bringing US legal actions against Chinese entities and individuals for various alleged economic crimes from intellectual property violation to coerced technology transfers.
Those actions are in line with sentiment in the US Congress swinging behind the growing disenchantment in the United States, particularly among businesses, with engagement and a general strategic mistrust of China.
The uncertainties and variabilities of US policy remain; not just the Meng charges but also, for example, this week’s speech by US National Security Advisor John Bolton outlining the Trump administration’s policy towards Africa.
It was a speech remarkable for being as much if not more about China (and Russia) than it was about Africa, and a reminder that the China hawks in the Trump administration believe they are engaged in an existential struggle whereas their president is preoccupied with winning re-election in 2020.
Xi, too, has constraints. He needs to manage internal expectations as China’s economic growth slows while the economy fitfully rebalances. At the same time, the Trump administration’s stance towards China has perturbed the leadership and revived opportunity for critics of Xi’s centralisation of power.
That, more than anything, is why China-US relations will stay on two inconsistent tracks.