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Foreign Policy

An Era Ends, Another Begins

Aug 06, 2020
  • An Gang

    Research Fellow, Center for International Strategy and Security, Tsinghua University


US President Richard Nixon and National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger met with Chinese Premier Zhou En-lai on the Shanghai Communique, the first communique jointly issued by the US and Chinese governments in February of 1972 during President Nixon’s historic trip to China.

When it comes to relations between China and the United States, Houston, the largest city in the state of Texas, has something to say. It was the third stop on Deng Xiaoping’s historic nine-day visit to the U.S. in January and February 1979.

While watching the rodeo show in nearby Simonton, Deng waved to the public in a cowboy hat. This became an enduring symbol of China-U.S. relations and remains in the American memory as perhaps the most successful diplomacy-shaping photograph ever taken.

China and the U.S. established diplomatic ties on Jan. 1, 1979, and began setting up embassies in each other’s territories. Primarily to achieve an even geographic distribution of diplomatic missions, Houston hosted the first consulate of the People’s Republic of China in the U.S., followed by San Francisco. The U.S. set up its first consulates in Shanghai and Guangzhou.

Houston has a great reputation among Chinese people. In addition to the advanced space center, medical institutions and energy enterprises, it is home to the Houston Rockets of the NBA. When Yao Ming walked out of the Houston Airport alone in 2002, he would not have expected to become the face of China’s brand in the U.S. or the sports ambassador in people-to-people exchanges.

At a National Day reception hosted by the Chinese embassy in Washington, more than 80 members of Congress, hearing that Yao Ming would be present, joined the event, bringing their kids and basketballs. The pre-reception event turned into a virtual Yao Ming autograph party.

China’s national flagship airline, Air China, didn’t establish direct flights between Beijing and Houston until July 2013. As the route brought huge benefits to the 300,000 ethnic Chinese in the Greater Houston area and enhanced China’s exchanges in the southeastern U.S., it was profitable from its first month of operation.

The consulate general of China in Houston covers the southern region of the U.S. The latest statement on its website regarding the potential of bilateral cooperation reads: “Even against the backdrop of trade frictions, China has maintained the top three export markets in Texas, Georgia, Louisiana and Alabama. In 2018, the total trade volume between China and the consular district reached $125.1 billion. Investment by Chinese enterprises in the states of the consular district also witnessed rapid growth. As of September 2019, at least 287 Chinese enterprises have made the south U.S. home, with a total investment of over $23.2 billion.”

Now, everything has changed. Air China flights to Houston have been suspended since early February because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Amid trade frictions, economic recession and strict restrictions imposed by the Trump administration on Chinese enterprises investing in the U.S., China’s economic ties with the southern U.S. have inevitably weakened. This cannot be ameliorated solely by making purchases of agricultural products like soybeans.

Moreover, as a result of the improper Hong Kong-related remarks online by Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey, the team was boycotted by the Chinese press and basketball fans across the board

Additionally, the closure of the Chinese consulate in Houston, ordered by the U.S. Department of State in July has mushroomed into an intense diplomatic battle and triggering a sudden downgrade in bilateral political relations. It brought an abrupt escalation of frictions. It was a Cold War-style visual irritation to see documents burned, flags lowered and the national emblem and nameplate removed from the consulate.

Since the end of 2017, the Trump administration has been altering U.S. strategy toward China, aiming to terminate the engagement policy developed by previous U.S. governments and to direct the relationship with China into a new era of competition.

This new tack has lasted for more than two years. On May 20, the White House released an aggressive policy document — United States Strategic Approach to the People’s Republic of China — and began implementing it. Over the past month, President Donald Trump’s national security adviser, secretary of defense, secretary of state, attorney general and FBI director made speeches assailing China from their respective department perspectives. These screeds conclusively reinforced the ideological nature of the China-U.S. relationship, and confirmed from different points of view its determination to respond to authoritarian expansion with a free, open system and to safeguard its leading role by suppressing its rivals.

In his speech on July 24, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo explained his long-asserted “results-oriented” position: “President Reagan said he dealt with the Soviet Union on the basis of ‘trust but verify.’ When it comes to the CCP, I say we must distrust and verify.”

This sent a clear signal that the U.S. regards China as a tougher rival than the Soviet Union.

The choice of venue for the speech was telling: the Nixon Library in Yorba Linda, California. Pompeo was widely interpreted as having discarded Nixon’s legacy on behalf of the Trump administration. The Chinese press and many academics even considered his speech a clarion call to a new cold war.

But the core of Nixon’s foreign policy was victory without war. It was created against the backdrop of a Cold War that was heating up, combined with an American strategic contraction. Nixon was a realist. The premise he laid down for breaking the diplomatic ice with China (as cited by Pompeo at the end of his speech) was that “the world cannot be safe until China changes.”

The speech can be fairly characterized the final declaration in a China policy adjustment by the Trump administration. With only a few months left in Trump’s term and tight schedules for the 2020 election, it seems there wouldn’t be time for such grandiose declarations. But there has been action.

The closure of the Chinese consulate in Houston not only complements a series of U.S. policy declarations on countering communism and containing China but also marks the beginning of another round of maximum pressure. That will be followed by a slate of actions involving close coordination between U.S. diplomatic, judicial, security and military departments. As a result, China-U.S. relations will be more deeply trapped in a vicious cycle and face an increasing risk of losing control.

In an equivalent countermeasure, the Chinese government ordered the closure of the U.S. consulate in Chengdu, rather than closing the one in Hong Kong, as many netizens had advocated. This is a precise blow with certain reservations, as the U.S. consulate in Chengdu is meaningful for American commercial and cultural interests in southwestern China, as well for its intelligence gathering and analysis relating to the Tibet and Xinjiang Uygur autonomous regions.

Chengdu is also a symbol of China-U.S. relations. In 2008, disaster relief supplies from the U.S. after the Wenchuan earthquake were shipped directly from its Kadena Air Base in Japan to Chengdu Shuangliu International Airport in four military planes. Nonetheless, of the U.S. dignitaries at the cabinet level or above, the only one who gained a deep impression of the city may have been Joe Biden, the presumed Democratic nominee in this year’s presidential election.

In August 2011, Biden paid an official visit to China as U.S. vice president and spent half of his six-day stay in Chengdu. The reason he visited the city, according to the the U.S. consulate, was strengthening people-to-people ties, business and trade cooperation, lower-level dialogue in the government, educational communication and cooperation in humanitarian aid.

Biden’s speech at Sichuan University was built on the statement that “a rising China is a positive development, not only for the people of China but for the United States and the world as a whole.” On behalf of the U.S., which was already deeply trapped in a debt crisis, he promised that America would not default on debt held by China.

However, China-U.S. relations had already started to decline by then, with trust eroding over the South China Sea, economic and trade disputes and the strategic adjustment of rebalancing the Asia-Pacific region by the Obama administration.

So far, Biden leads or is even with Trump virtually across-the-board in election polling all over the U.S. If elected, his first challenge after taking office will be to clean up the mess Trump left in China-U.S. relations, a task equivalent to reassembling pieces from a paper shredder.

The Democrats are remarkably different from the Trump administration with regard to China, though it is a difference in approach, rather than target. Rebutting Pompeo’s speech in a Washington Post article, Richard Haass, president of the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations, cited the famous words of Theodore Roosevelt: “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” And he stressed the importance of the human rights and repairing partnerships with allies and returning to the international agenda of dealing with global challenges.

An increasing number of people in China have come to believe that Trump will make a big gamble for reelection by provoking major conflict with China. Incredibly, when they talk about the China-U.S. relations, they are curious: Will diplomatic ties be severed? Could a war be coming?

They also reckon that even if Trump gives up hope of reelection, he might try to destroy the foundation of China-U.S. relations in a scorched-earth fit. As a result, his successor may find himself in trouble even before taking office. Policy plans could be bankrupt before the inauguration.

In any event, it’s clear that an era has ended in which both China and the U.S. were hopeful and deeply engaged with each other, with both believing their paths generally lead to the same destination.

Another era has begun, in which China and the U.S. compete with each other, exercising meticulous control yet making tough choices while testing and contesting each other. It remains unknown whether this will end with vicious or healthy competition. For China, it remains a mystery whether “Trump shock” is a temporary interlude in American politics or a lasting malady to be endured for the foreseeable future.

During his stay in Chengdu nine years ago, Biden learned a famous couplet from a Chinese leader, which hangs on a famous local temple. It reads:


This can be loosely translated into: those who win the hearts and minds of the governed, the opposition can dissolve by itself; good military leaders know well that be combative and belligerent is the not best strategy, and failure to carefully size up the situation can lead to losses. This is a lesson that future leaders should take by heart.

This is thought-provoking for all those involved in the machinery of China-U.S. relations.

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