by Tonio Galea
Relations between the United States and Chine are at their lowest point in decades, arguably at their most fragile since Nixon’s attempts to bridge the rift in the 1970s.
At the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, optimistic analysts hoped that the global crisis could spur some sort of rapprochement between the two biggest economies in the world, but the early gestures of goodwill between Beijing and Washington soon gave way to a flurry accusations flying in both directions. The exchange of rhetoric was reminiscent of the Cold War and quickly culminated into the recent closure of consulates in both countries.
The US fired the first shot with the shutting down of China’s consulate in Houston over fears of espionage. It only took Beijing three days to respond, ordering the closure of the US consulate in Chengdu.
Although it is not unprecedented that the US moved to close a foreign mission, it is a rare step and usually finds a difficult path back.
The closure of diplomatic missions is the most significant development yet in the deterioration of relations in the past weeks, inflating quickly from smaller punitive actions such as visa restrictions and new rules on diplomatic travel, as well as the expulsion of foreign correspondents.
In recent months, Washington and the US have openly traded blows, taking the fight to disagreements ranging from the origin of the coronavirus and Taiwan’s inclusion in the World Health Summit to Huawei’s 5G infrastructure and the company behind the popular TikTok app.
China’s recent introduction of a national security law in Hong Kong combined with accusations of repression of the Uighur Muslim ethnic minority, triggered several rounds of new US sanctions.
But the storm clouds have been gathering over years. Since assuming power in 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping adopted a more assertive and authoritarian line than his predecessors. The US, on its part, never did much to veil its distrust of the rising competitor.
Nevertheless, Beijing does not appear to be seeking further escalation of tensions and the indications are that President Trump does not want any serious confrontation, certainly not a military one.
However, these are sensitive times particularly for American political cycle. With less than a hundred days to the US elections and with the GOP trailing in the polls, the Trump administration looks eager to play the hard-on-China card that served the presidency bid so well in 2016.
Add to that hawkish White House advisors, chief among them Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and China’s recent Wolf-Warrior diplomacy approach, and the world stage is set for a daring dance of brinkmanship between the two powers.