US-China Cold War Brinksmanship Tested In Houston

BEIJING’S RETALIATION FOR the United States ordering the closure of its consulate-general in Houston, Texas will be telling. Will it be ready to up the ante and escalate the tensions with the Trump administration, in line with its more confrontational diplomatic stance of late?

The initial rhetoric has been combative. Wang Wenbin, the Foreign Ministry spokesperson, said at today’s regular ministry press briefing:

For some time, the US government has been shifting the blame to China with stigmatization and unwarranted attacks against China’s social system, harassing Chinese diplomatic and consular staff in the US, intimidating and interrogating Chinese students and seizing their personal electronic devices, even detaining them without cause. The unilateral closure of China’s consulate general in Houston on short notice is an unprecedented escalation of its recent actions against China.

Yet will more cautious voices in Beijing hold sway, as has been appearing to happen with the carefully calibrated proportionate responses to recent sanctions coming out of Washington?

The leaked recording of a telephone conversation between Foreign Minister Wang Yi and his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov gives a sense of what Beijing sees as the stakes, with Wang saying that Beijing feels the United States is reviving a ‘Cold War mentality’ in its policy toward China. Wang, himself may feel doubly concerned as his recent ‘olive-branch‘ speech calling for better bilateral relations was brushed off by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

Our man in Washington sends word that a similar discussion is going on there about whether ‘Cold War’ is the right term for the rapidly deteriorating state of bilateral relations.

The Trump administration is repeatedly doubling down on its belligerent line towards China. It is seeking to reduce the interaction between the two countries, perhaps because it believes the enemy you do not know is easier to vilify. More likely, it is because, as outlined in its 2019 Worldwide Threat Assessment report to the US Congress, the administration sees all Chinese nationals in the United States — from diplomats to state journalists, students and workers at US technology companies — as witting or unwitting Party agents providing a conduit for US trade secrets, medical research and other US intellectual property to be spirited off to China.

It is determined to cut that off, disrupting Chinese technology companies’ supply chains, pressing allies to exclude Huawei Technologies from their 5G networks, suspending non-immigrant student visas and naming and shaming hackers. However, the general hardening of attitudes against China is occurring across the US political spectrum.

The critical question is, where does each side think the brink lies and is it the same place for both of them. Both leaderships are making that calculation through a domestic lens that focuses on retention of power, albeit in diametrically different political settings.

If the gap between the two answers is significant, it could be ruinous for everyone. An authentic Cold War’ between China and the United States would be more costly, destructive and dangerous than anything we have seen to date.

2 Comments

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2 responses to “US-China Cold War Brinksmanship Tested In Houston

  1. Pingback: Air Force Academics Open New US-China Front | China Bystander

  2. Pingback: In China, We Distrust | China Bystander

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