On Sunday, Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman — the second-highest diplomat in the US — will meet with Chinese Foreign Secretary Wang Yi in Tianjin, China, in what appears to be tense talks dominated by friction. on a number of fronts.
Last Monday, US President Joe Biden — along with NATO, the European Union, Australia, the UK, Canada, Japan and New Zealand — criticized China for a far-reaching cyber-espionage campaign, which Secretary of State Antony Blinken said “posed a major threat”. to our economic and national security”.
The US Department of Justice has also indicted four Chinese nationals working with China’s Ministry of State Security in a campaign to hack into the computer systems of dozens of companies, universities and government agencies in the United States and abroad between 2011 and 2018.
The allegations were refuted by Beijing as “made up out of thin air”, and on Friday it announced sanctions against US individuals in response to US sanctions against Chinese officials in Hong Kong, escalating tensions in US-China relations that have already strained. was due to trade disputes, China’s military build-up, tensions over the South China Sea, Beijing’s crackdown on democracy activists in Hong Kong and the treatment of Uyghurs in the Xinjiang region.
Despite the rapid build-up, China is still muscled by the US militarily; online, however, it has found a more level playing field.
“China has long looked for asymmetrical areas where they could exert influence in a way that did not challenge US dominance and superiority… It takes a lot of money, time and know-how to build a modern navy, but in cyberspace it is there is a lower threshold for having an impact,” said Matthew Funaiole, Chinese foreign and security policy analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Earlier this month, Chinese President Xi Jinping celebrated the centenary of the Chinese Communist Party — the nation’s central nervous system — with an hour-long speech threatening other countries to stay out of Chinese affairs, telling the party believers: “We will not accept hypocritical preaching from those who think they have a right to lecture us.”
This status quo is a long way from when the two superpowers first thawed diplomatic relations half a century ago. With Sino-Soviet relations at an all-time low as a result of an ideological split and ensuing border squabbles, Mao Zedong — China’s great helmsman — found it pragmatic to chart a diplomatic course closer to the US, also at odds. with Moscow through the couple’s proxy war in Vietnam and led by US President Richard Nixon’s Realpolitik. Nixon’s national security adviser Henry Kissinger secretly visited China in July 1971, paving the way for the US president’s visit the following year.
“It was a counterbalance to the Soviets — my enemy’s enemy is my friend,” said Isaac Stone Fish, CEO of Strategy Risks and author of America Second: How America’s Elites Are Making China Stronger. “[It] was a success from a foreign policy perspective…
This relationship persisted throughout the Cold War, and while President Ronald Reagan was ideological and initially more pro-Taiwan, he later turned to accept China because of its strategic importance.
“It was pointed out to Reagan that the Chinese are essentially members of NATO – as they hold over a million Soviet troops; plus, we’ve placed a CIA listening post in Xinjiang to monitor Iran, the Middle East, and the Soviets. We had a tacit alliance,” said Stephen MacKinnon, a professor of Chinese history at Arizona State University.
The relationship soured in 1989 after China’s bloody suppression of student-led protests in Tiananmen Square. Although President George H.W. Bush expressed distaste for the US and halted arms sales to China, his political enemies easily made capital from his strong ties to Beijing, after he was stationed there in 1974 as the US Chief Liaison Officer – an ambassador’s predecessor. before diplomatic ties were established.
“[Bill] Clinton took that issue very explicitly when he ran against Bush in ’92… [calling] his response to Tiananmen has weakened and pledged to take a tougher line on human rights,” said Bennett Freeman, who worked on Clinton’s election campaign and later became chief speechwriter for his Secretary of State, Warren Christopher.
This promise was reflected in a policy that took advantage of most favored nation status (MFN) – coveted by China when it cut trade tariffs – with general human rights advances at a time when it was accelerating market reforms.
“The line — ‘the software of freedom will triumph over the hardware of repression’ — perfectly sums up the optimism of the time… that opening up the Chinese economy would eventually open up the political system,” Freeman told Al. jazeera.
That optimism was fueled by the recent implosion of the Soviet Union, seen by many in the West as the victory of capitalism over communism. However, this apparent end of the Cold War had the indirect effect that both China and the US no longer needed a geopolitical counterweight.
In 2001, China’s MFN status was made permanent, removing this point of leverage. The growing reliance of US firms on China’s vast market and cheap manufacturing, and the fact that Beijing had become the US’s second-largest creditor, gave China its own set of levers over the past 20 years.
“There’s an almost evangelical movement to bring democracy to China through Boeing and Microsoft and McDonald’s … and you could argue that it was something that watered down American democracy,” Stone Fish said.
“You can also say afterwards that it embedded the CCP” [Chinese Communist Party] in the American system and that has many of the [current] problems US companies face – too exposed, but afraid to speak out against Chinese human rights violations,” Stone Fish told Al Jazeera.
“It would have been impossible for Nixon and Kissinger to envision this scenario — no one is that far-sighted.”
Because of the US’s interdependence with China, the Biden administration will have a harder time than Clinton to get Beijing to win by using trade barriers as leverage for human rights concessions; However, some are optimistic that China’s near-job problems could provide an opportunity to exert pressure.
“A lot of compromises have been made in promoting economic relations with China…not necessarily focused on human rights, but that could shift a bit,” said Funaiole, who “problems in Tibet and Xinjiang, a crackdown on Hong Kong and lists concerns.” [it’s] be more assertive towards Taiwan”.
This month, the U.S. Senate passed the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, which bans imports from the Xinjiang region unless producers can prove they were not made with forced labor by the estimated more than one million people imprisoned there.
“There is enough of it [places] we can buy cotton from… you have Biden pushing for greater adoption of renewable energy, but we get a lot of our solar PV technology from China and now we have questions about whether there is integrity in that supply chain,” said Funaiole .
“Our relationship with the People’s Republic of China will be competitive when it should be, cooperative when it can, and hostile when it needs to be. The common denominator is the need to engage the PRC from a strong position,” said a US State Department spokesman.
By bringing the developed world together to take a joint stance against China’s online operations, the US may be able to take a page out of China’s playbook and use access to their markets as a medium of exchange.