Beijing's tightrope: Stand tough, but avoid a full rupture with the US

Behind the scenes, senior Chinese officials seem to have little desire to escalate the tensions with the US even further. PHOTO: AFP

BEIJING (NYTIMES, AFP) - Two weeks ago, China's Foreign Minister, Mr Wang Yi, pleaded with the United States to step back from the brink and find ways to work together.

Just days later, he complained to his Russian counterpart that the US had "lost its mind, morals and credibility".

The question now is what China can do about it. The Trump administration's broad assault on China has left its leadership with few options that would not threaten a complete breach in relations.

If that happened, it could leave Beijing even more isolated at a time when China is also clashing with India, Britain, Canada, Australia and many other countries.

It could also hurt the Chinese economy when it is already reeling from the coronavirus pandemic and the global fallout.

The order on Tuesday (July 21) to close the Chinese consulate in Houston with only 72 hours' notice was only the latest action by the administration that has infuriated officials in China.

In a matter of weeks, Beijing has endured a stepped-up campaign against its 5G wireless technology, sanctions against officials overseeing Hong Kong and the largely Muslim region of Xinjiang, and now accusations that China has dispatched scores of soldiers under cover to steal commercial, military and even medical secrets.

A spokesman for China's Foreign Ministry vowed again on Thursday that the government would retaliate in kind to the closure.

A day later, China revoked the licence for the US consulate in the south-western city of Chengdu. The move is a "legitimate and necessary response to the unreasonable measures by the United States", the Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman had dismissed the administration's accusations as "a malicious smearing".

The furore is inflaming anti-American sentiment in China and emboldening more hawkish voices.

Nationalists are calling for China to go further than a measured tit-for-tat response and even consider shutting down the American consulate in Hong Kong.

"Let them sweat," Mr Hu Xijin, the editor of The Global Times, a nationalist Communist Party newspaper, wrote of American diplomats in the embassy and six consulates.

He said the mission in Hong Kong was "obviously" an intelligence centre, while vastly exaggerating the size of the staff.

He then referred to the frantic reaction to the closure at the Houston consulate, where people could be seen in a courtyard burning documents in metal bins.

"Have each of their consulates make an emergency plan, pack up all the files and prepare to burn."

Behind the scenes, senior Chinese officials seem to have little desire to escalate the tensions even further, concerned that any moves could play into President Donald Trump's hands as he mounts his re-election campaign.

A highly visible showdown with China could distract Americans from Mr Trump's botched response to the pandemic and allow him to campaign as a leader who is defending his country against a foreign power.

"This is a classic game, to find an external distraction and rouse the people behind the president," said Professor Lau Siu-kai, a senior Beijing adviser on Hong Kong issues.

At the same time, Beijing cannot afford to appear weak in the face of the barrage of attacks from the US. A rising sense of national pride, instilled by the country's schools and amplified by state media, demands that Chinese leaders stand strong when challenged from abroad.

"China needs to protect its own honour and sovereignty," said professor of international relations Shen Dingli of Fudan University in Shanghai.

Mr Wang Wenbin, the Foreign Ministry's spokesman, made clear at the ministry's daily briefing on Thursday that Chinese officials were acutely aware of their dilemma.

"We are not interested in interfering in the US election; we also hope that the US side will not play the China card in the election," he said, while immediately cautioning the Trump administration as well.

"We advise the US side not to make mistakes again and again, otherwise China will certainly make a legitimate and necessary response."

Rising tensions with Washington have laid bare divisions in Beijing over how to respond to a confrontation that has become even broader and more aggressive than Chinese officials expected only weeks ago.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, delivering a speech on Thursday at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library in California, said the Trump administration would persist in challenging China around the globe.

He did not mention any issues of common interest or grounds for constructive engagement.

"General Secretary Xi Jinping is a true believer in a bankrupt totalitarian ideology," Mr Pompeo said, referring to the Chinese leader.

He added: "I call on every leader of every nation to start by doing what America has done - to simply insist on reciprocity, to insist on transparency, and on accountability from the Chinese Communist Party."

On one side are officials in the country's security services and the military who oppose any conciliatory stance that might be interpreted by the US as weakness, according to several people involved in Chinese policymaking who spoke on the condition of anonymity, given the diplomatic sensitivities.

Other officials, generally those focused on the economy, have sought a more measured response to the US actions - keeping the trade truce intact, for example.

Even after the closing of the Houston consulate, China remains committed to the so-called phase one trade agreement with the US signed on Jan 15, the people familiar with Chinese policymaking said.

If China wanted to hurt Mr Trump in the election campaign, Beijing could halt the large purchases of US food that it agreed to make as part of the trade truce negotiated before the pandemic broke out.

That would penalise American farmers, who could prove an important voting bloc in some states.

So far, China has kept buying large quantities of US corn, wheat, sorghum and pork this summer, said Mr Darin Friedrichs, an agricultural commodities specialist in the Shanghai office of INTL FCStone, a large Chicago trading firm.

Less than two weeks ago, China made its largest single purchase ever of US corn, just four days after another major transaction.

China's leader, Mr Xi Jinping, remains the ultimate arbiter of the policy debate in Beijing, but has not spoken out on the deterioration in relations.

On Wednesday, when the closing of the consulate became public, he toured distant Jilin province, seemingly undisturbed by the diplomatic confrontation.

On Thursday, he visited the Air Force Aviation University, talking instead about China's national celebration of its military in August.

"Beijing's policy has always been adjusted by Xi himself," said Mr Wu Qiang, an independent analyst in Beijing. "He steps on the gas himself and then hits the brake himself."

The Chinese appear to have been taken aback by the sharp deterioration in relations. In a speech on July 9, Foreign Minister Wang appeared to outline a path for stabilising relations.

"President Xi Jinping has underlined on many occasions that we have a thousand reasons to make the China-US relationship a success, and none whatsoever to wreck it," he said.

"As long as both sides have the positive will to improve and grow this relationship, we will find ways to steer this relationship out of the difficulties and bring it back to the right track."

Instead, the Chinese faced confrontation on a multitude of new fronts. In the latest salvo over the consulate, the Trump administration accused Chinese diplomats of aiding economic espionage and the attempted theft of scientific research in numerous cases across the US.

Chinese officials angrily denounced the closure of the consulate, calling it a provocation that would further undermine already soured relations.

Mr Cai Wei, China's top diplomat in Houston, said the move against the consulate, the first Beijing opened in the US after re-establishing ties in 1979, was "very damaging".

In previous tense moments, the two leaders, Mr Trump and Mr Xi, sometimes smoothed over differences with a long phone call or a meeting.

It has happened in the past when trade fights boiled over, as well as early in the coronavirus outbreak, when the rhetoric between both sides intensified.

The tone now in Washington, though, has worsened. And Mr Trump no longer seems interested in defusing the crisis.

"Xi Jinping could take the initiative instead," said Dr Susan Shirk, the chairman of the 21st Century China Centre at the University of California, San Diego.

"Xi could also demonstrate China's benign intentions by inviting the US to join with it in leading an international effort to plan now for the testing, manufacture and fair distribution of Covid vaccine."

The tough policies and tougher rhetoric from Washington indicate that the US, not China, is setting the ever more confrontational tone in the bilateral relationship.

"I think originally you could have faulted the Chinese for much of the imbalance," said Prof Orville Schell, the director of the Centre on US-China Relations at the Asia Society. "But now the US doesn't seem as ardent about leaving the door open for remedy, as it is arching its back against China."

Given the breadth of American actions and increasingly bipartisan support, it is not clear that China can hope for an improvement even if Mr Trump's challenger, Mr Joe Biden, wins the election.

Prof Schell noted that as vice-president, Mr Biden met Mr Xi frequently, even travelling together.

"There's a kind of symmetry there that he could use to recast the relationship," he said.

"The real question is whether Xi can respond the same way - whether giving a little to get a little is seen as weakness.

"I do think that Biden and his people are perfectly capable of working out a new balance point," he added. "I have much less confidence that China will find that easy to do."

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