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Opinions of Saturday, 21 August 2021

Columnist: Samuel Baid

China is in the crosshairs of the US again

The Biden administration is clearly testing the waters with China to see how far they can go The Biden administration is clearly testing the waters with China to see how far they can go

The US has been playing its diplomatic cards on both sides of the Pacific by engaging with Europe, Russia and China, with a view to determining the direction of its foreign policy in terms of friends and adversaries.

The near simultaneous visit by US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken to India and Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman to China is a story in itself. The bottom line of this diplomacy is to connect and gauge the level to which the US can move forward with China and more importantly, India as the counter to China in South Asia.

That the US continues to view China as an significant adversary, though Russia is pitched as the principal one, became clear in two separate ways.

In Beijing, the US Deputy Secretary of State met with Foreign Minister Wang Yi and discussed American concerns over the human rights situation in Xinjiang and ill treatment of Uyghur.

In New Delhi, Secretary Blinken met with the representative of the Dalai Lama in New Delhi. The meeting in Beijing as per the official US release discussed every aspect of American concern with developments in China including, “Beijing’s anti-democratic crackdown in Hong Kong; the ongoing genocide and crimes against humanity in Xinjiang; abuses in Tibet; and the curtailing of media access and freedom of the press. She also spoke about our concerns about Beijing’s conduct in cyberspace; across the Taiwan Strait; and in the East and South China Seas.”

In India, Antony Blinken began his formal engagements by meeting Ngodup Dongchung of the Central Tibetan Administration, signalling the Biden administration’s support to the Tibetan cause and reaffirming the support for Tibet which had been legislated into law by former President Donald Trump.

The New Delhi meeting was conspicuous as the Americans chose to make it public. Earlier, President Barack Obama had met the Dalai Lama in Washington in 2016 and former CTA head Lobsang Sangay was invited to the White House in November 2020.

The Biden administration is clearly testing the waters with China to see how far they can go, by raising issues of concern to the US, but these would obviously be anathema to China.

The official readout states that Deputy Secretary Wendy Sherman reiterated American concerns about China’s unwillingness to cooperate with the World Health Organization in allowing a second (follow up) investigation into the origins of the Covid-19 virus in China.

The key words used by the US in their talks with China is “commitment to healthy competition” and strengthening the rules-based international order”. While China may be comfortable with the former, the latter is something they do not agree with.

The US side also spoke with Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Xie Feng and expressed American concerns “about PRC actions in Hong Kong, Xinjiang, and across the Taiwan Strait. The U.S. and our allies and partners will always stand up for our values”.

The US calculation must be that while China may start talks with the US, it cannot be trusted and therefore, it is necessary to engage India to ensure its fuller participation in the Quad. A physical Quad Summit at the level of heads of government is expected to take place shortly. The Blinken visit, while silent on China, approached the issue through the Tibetan lens, thus signalling the American approach.

However, China continues the path of following the Communist Party line of aggression and it has hit back at the US, blaming it for the lack of trust and dialogue.

The Chinese know well that their domestic actions, while subject to international scrutiny, will not make the US under Biden take intrusive action.
Take for instance, the recent international media coverage of developments in Hong Kong. Recently, Chinese locals harassed the foreign media correspondents over the coverage of the floods in many cities of China.

The incident started when state media hit out at the BBC Correspondent Robin Grant for his coverage of the floods and criticism of government policy after more than a dozen people died in a train carriage during the flooding.

An official retort on the BBC’s coverage is understandable, but for the social media to take up the issue. Social media platform Weibo was filled with angry posts criticising the coverage of foreign correspondents as Chinese cities witnessed heavy downpours and flooding.

This and other such incidents happened as the state-owned Global Times criticised foreign media reports that the floods had shattered the “myth” of Zhengzhou as a “sponge city”. In 2018, the government had invested RMB$ 50 billion [HK$60 billion] in infrastructure to protect the city from severe flooding. It is estimated that a total of 25 people had died in Henan Province and more than a dozen cities have been affected.

President Xi Jinping said that there had been "significant loss of life and damage to property". While the floods are tragic, the response of the locals in harassing the foreign media indicates the deep-rooted suspicion of the media which appears to be percolated down from the state to the people.

Therefore, it is not surprising that social media Weibo users reacted angrily to the coverage of the floods and locals on Henan’s provincial capital Zhengzhou surrounded journalists Alice Lu, Beijing Bureau chief of the Los Angeles Times and Mathias Boelinger of Deutshe Welle and heckled them for negatively reporting on the floods. Even though this was a case of mistaken identity, it reflected the prevailing mood constructed by the Chinese state against the West.

The Chinese response to the reporting on the floods is a knee jerk reaction, much along the lines of their recent response to the US during talks with Wendy Sherman. The Chinese are clearly rattled by the scale and intensity of global scrutiny of their actions.

There is a lesson to be learnt from this for other countries, especially the Quad countries. The Quad format has to go beyond rhetoric to concrete action, if it is serious about countering China.

Translation of words into solid economic action to support nations wanting to move away from China is undoubtedly the first step. For countries like India, the Quad has to become a more serious platform of interaction.

Walking a tightrope and hedging one’s bets has worked so far with China, but will it work in the future? That is the question uppermost in the minds of India watchers in Washington.