The Trump Administration’s sudden shuttering of China’s Houston consulate was followed in short order with Beijing announcing Friday that it would close the U.S. consulate in Chengdu, further ratcheting up tensions in the escalating Sino-U.S. conflict.
News of the expulsions featured firefighters outside the building in Houston as diplomats torched documents inside the complex’s courtyard.
Strong TV drama. And good fuel for tweets. Hardline U.S. Senator Marco Rubio proclaimed that the site was “the central node in the Communist Party’s vast network of spies and influence operations in the United States.” Wow. How come no one noticed until it was an election year?
American spooks would like to know what documents Chinese officials burned after being ordered out of the country with just 72 hours’ notice. Other Americans just would like to know what President Trump’s China strategy is.
If leaders on either side of the Pacific had a long-term strategy of working together, it’s been thrown out in favor of confrontation. Which is not really a strategy. The U.S. seemingly has decided to meet wolf-warrior tactics on China’s side with jungle diplomacy on its part.
The Henry Kissinger school of Oriental inscrutability peddled the canard that Chinese leaders epitomized a unique ability to conduct long-term, patient statecraft. Nobody told China’s president, Xi Jinping, or his wolf-warrior diplomats to be patient. If Xi had been more patient, much of East Asia would have been dominated by China within the next decade. Instead, he is goading countries around the region to resist China.
China’s strategy looks like taking advantage of a distracted and weakened U.S. to establish regional domination, at least. Never since the 1949 establishment of the People’s Republic of China has the country taken on multiple enemies, as it has done this year. Whether it’s sinking Vietnamese fishing boats or clashing with Indian troops, China is letting the neighborhood know that it’s arrived.
Whatever happened to Deng Xiaoping’s dictum that China should bide its time and hide its strength? Deng survived Mao’s purges and went on to set in motion China’s economic reform and opening as well as to establish the principle of term limits for China’s leaders.
Deng is Communist China’s greatest leader. Yet Xi has effectively thrown Deng onto the dust heap of history, reaching back to the past in nurturing his neo-Maoist policies. It’s hard to see how China can build a creative and dynamic economy when people aren’t allowed to joke about Winnie the Pooh. The hammering of Hong Kong is yet more evidence of the urge to smother dissent that has long been common in other peripheral areas, Tibet and Xinjiang. Arresting people for holding up blank sheets of paperafter threatening them under the new National Security Law, as happened in a shopping mall recently? Really? In a place where China solemnly agreed to a mini-Constitution guaranteeing freedom of speech?
Historian Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers portrays a half-awake Europe stumbling into the horror of World War I. Much has been written comparing the world that Clark describes with the brewing Sino-U.S. conflict. Our world is both simpler and more dangerous. Today, two aggressive leaders, men who like to make bold bets, are each waiting to see if the other will back off.
Think of Sino-U.S. relations now as a ratchet. A ratchet only goes one direction—tighter. China and the U.S. are taking turns ratcheting up the pressure. Let’s hope that we aren’t ratcheting tensions so tight that an unexpected event provokes a conflict. For accidents do happen. In 2001 a Chinese pilot collided with a U.S. spy plane, which made an emergency landing on Hainan Island. The Chinese pilot was killed while the U.S. air crew was captured. That dramatic incident was resolved peacefully. It’s hard to believe that we would be so fortunate today.