July 27, 2020 US State Department’s order to abruptly shut the Chinese consulate in Houston has stirred up and escalated tensions between US and China in recent days.
Many scholars, political analysts, commentators or insiders in diplomatic community are wondering whether this move is a sustainable strategy to contain China or a part of a series of provocative and reckless steps rolled out in recent weeks by the Trump administration. Perhaps one true reason the Trump administration did not or could not say was Trump’s re-election.
Declining popularity in the polls
According to RealClearPolitics, Senate Joe Biden is leading Trump in all recent polls.Even in the swing states that helped Trump win in 2016, Biden is leading.Foreign Policy magazine reveals that some top Republican leaders believe China-bashing is immensely popular among Trump supporters. To salvage Trump’s re-election, some of his campaign advisors and supporters believe the “blame China” theme can help him get reelected in November.
Trump’s Republican allies and his White House inner circle staff, including his son-in-law Jared Kushner, began arguing that one way to energize the President’s political base is by blasting China over its “failure to stem the spread of the disease” early on, according to CNN which Trump often accuses it as a fake news source.
While Trump is mostly concerned with elections, people around him took advantage of that to push their own agendas. “Rather than looking at America’s problems and trying to solve them, Trump has blamed China for America’s problems, whether it’s the loss of jobs, a loss of competitiveness, and now the deaths from COVID-19.Trump doesn’t take responsibility, but rather tries to blame China,” said Jeffrey D. Sachs, professor and director of the Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia University, on Dialogue, a Chinese TV network CGTN. “In the midst of a presidential re-election campaign and with the US economy and society battered by the COVID-19 pandemic, Mr. Trump has determined that there is political advantage in playing the China card.” BBC commented on the incident.
A Closure of China’s Consulate under unclear pretexts
The Trump administration attributed the Houston consulate closure to the need to “protect American intellectual property and Americans’ private information.” US officials including Senate Marco Rubio are describing the Houston consulate as a nest of espionage activities. However, the activities cited by US officials are so vague. They have offered little specific details and no concrete evidence to back that up.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin, on the other hand, described the allegations as “malicious slander” and said the “unreasonable” move had violates international law and had “severely harmed” bilateral relations. One prompt for the closure appears to have been the treatment of US diplomats returning to China in the post-pandemic era. They have been shuttled around different locations for COVID-19 tests, two-week quarantine mandates. If they test positive, they would have to be chartered their private flights back to US.
While China agrees that US diplomats should retain their diplomatic immunity, China’s public health authority, however, insists no one is immune to the highly contagious noval corona virus, and that the nation must not expose itself to the risk of returning US diplomats infecting the local population. In spite of the tensions, a flight carrying an unspecified number of US diplomats reportedly left Washington last Wednesday evening for Shanghai.
The State Department was also planning two additional flights, one of which was tentatively scheduled on July 29, bound for Tianjin and Beijing to restaff US missions in China.
In June, some US diplomatic staff had returned and reopened US consulate in Wuhan, which was previously closed and evacuated due to COVID-19 outbreak in January.Between January and February, some 1300 US diplomats and their family members evacuated from China.
“Closure of a consulate outside of wartime is an exceedingly rare move in diplomacy,” said Susan Thornton, who had a 28-year career as an American diplomat focusing on Asia, during a PBS Newshour interview. “And right now, it seems like we have a tough attitude and a lot of provocative measures that don’t account for a strategy and don’t have any clear accomplishments.” added Thornton who is also current visiting lecturer at Yale Law School.
Trump administration embarks on an escalation strategy
Influential and hardline Republican strategists have suggested the approach, “Don’t defend Trump, attack China”.The US strategy appeared to be “very much start with one and move on to others if need be. And it’s the escalation strategy.” according to Richard Grenell who served until recently as acting director of US national intelligence.
Since last Friday, US federal agents and law enforcement officers have entered the Chinese consulate compound along with locksmiths after the mission was shut down. Up to four Chinese Scholars holding J-1 visa have been detained citing of visa violations and/or connections to People’s Liberation Army.
“Things may get worse before it gets better,” said President Trump referring to the current COVID-19 pandemic in US. This may apply to US-China relations as well. If the ties between the two nations of the world’s biggest economy will ever get any better, we probably have to wait till the upcoming November’s general election.
By Karen Douglas