Will U.S.-China Relations Deteriorate Beyond No Return?

United Daily News Editorial, July 25, 2020


Recently, the United States ordered the closure of the Chinese Consulate General in Houston, a decision that sparked diplomatic conflict between the two countries. In response, Beijing revoked the establishment and operation of the U.S. Consulate General in Chengdu, a move which threatens to continue the cycle of retaliation with the United States hinting at more imminent closures. While the situation is still developing, what is certain is that U.S.-China relations are at its lowest point since the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries and may rapidly deteriorate into major conflict at even the smallest flare-ups. 


As Professor Ezra Vogel at Harvard University points out, war can begin with even small incidents, a fact evidenced by World War I. With pressures mounting between the two countries, the situation might escalate quickly if uncontrolled, leading to catastrophic consequences for the world and especially dire situations for certain countries in their sphere.  


According to sources in diplomatic circles, the cause of this standoff can mainly be attributed to what happened after the coronavirus pandemic slowed in the Chinese mainland. American diplomats who had evacuated from consulates in Wuhan and Chengdu returned and refused quarantine, a requirement set forth by the Chinese government, claiming diplomatic immunity. The two sides could not reach a consensus and therefore the staff of many U.S. consulates in China could not be reinstated. The United States determined that this was an unequal relationship and therefore forced the closure of the consulate in Houston. Leading up to this, Beijing has issued similar claims of unfairness, accusing Washington of imposing unreasonable restrictions on Chinese diplomats in the United States in the past two years, opening diplomatic pouches, seizing official supplies and not adequately dealing with bomb threats made against the consulates. 


America claims that the Consulate General in Houston was closed mainly to protect U.S. intellectual property rights and private information. The State Department’s Assistant Secretary for Asia and the Pacific, David Stilwell, accused the People’s Liberation Army of sending people to the United States to study publicly and privately with ulterior motives and that the consulate in Houston was the control center for activities such as stealing U.S. research results. He asserts also that the Chinese consulate in Houston even forged documents and escorted Chinese citizens directly to the boarding gate.


At present, China is citing the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations in criticizing the United States, while U.S. is accusing China of using its consulates to engage in espionage activities. If we look back to incidents like America’s “accidental bombing” of the Chinese Embassy in Yugoslavia in 1998 or the South China Sea collision incident in 2001. We see that the two countries toe the line of military conflict but negotiate and maneuver around these difficult issues. But this time the situation is different. It is different chiefly because of Trump’s unprecedented low approval rates, threatening his re-election in November. Because of this, he may look to diplomatic conflict to bolster his reputation.


Trump claims that he does not rule out ordering the closure of more Chinese diplomatic missions in the United States, ready to escalate the conflict at any time. To add to this, the FBI alleges that the Chinese Consulate General in San Francisco previously hid a suspect who had falsely reported his identity, making that consulate the possible next target. This rhetoric mirrors Secretary of State Pompeo's statement on the South China Sea a few days ago, both pointing to preparations to "legitimize" the conflict. If China fights back, then the United States will inevitably fight back on a higher level. 


Beijing has also prepared for the worst-case scenario, including Trump's possible severing of diplomatic relations. Mao Zedong’s famous saying, "Throw away illusions and prepare for struggle," has recently been put forward again, which has many people wondering, if China does not retaliate, will the United States stop? Moreover, conflicts between two countries rarely end because of unilateral concessions, but often result in the opponents gaining ground and in turn, exerting greater pressure.


On closer inspection, closing the Houston consulate does not seem to follow a plan or step-by-step strategy, nor is it deliberately pressing China to change its behavior. It seems more characteristic of a Trump decision, based on his own political considerations and following in his own “shock and awe” tactics. The purpose of the action is to distract American voters, avert their attention away from Trump's ineffective fight against the pandemic.


Trump's current domestic political performance has earned low marks. His poor handling of the coronavirus pandemic has resulted in the United States topping the charts for infections. At the same time, the country is straining with the pressures of an economic downturn and complicated racial tensions. We see that swing states that Trump won in the last election have flipped in favor of Biden. It seems now then that Trump's only way to turn defeat into victory is to create external conflicts. Beijing chose to close the Chengdu consulate to fight back, which is a reciprocal counterattack, but in this way, it may also force Trump to attack harder and escalate the situation. The next three months may be the most dangerous yet. 


Election day in America is only a hundred days away and the atmosphere is fraught with tension. The United States has proven its willingness to provoke on diplomatic fronts and we can expect that to recur in the next three months, a window of time during which U.S.-China relations and Beijing's strategic determination will be tested at length.


From: https://udn.com/news/story/7338/4729305

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