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‘A new cold war’: China hawks have built a cosy nest in the White House

Scott said: “Communist China should not be allowed to host the 2022 Olympic Games while simultaneously running concentration camps, violating human rights and oppressing the people of Hong Kong.”

Their resolution was just the latest drop in a flood of tough-on-China measures that has poured out of the US Congress.

In today’s deeply-polarised Washington, agreement between Republicans and Democrats on big issues has become virtually impossible.

The exception to that rule is China. There is a strong bipartisan consensus that the US needs take a much more hardline approach to the rising superpower than it did in the past.

This is reflected in the increasingly bellicose language used by US politicians, cabinet members, agency heads and think tank policy wonks.

Attorney-General William Barr openly refers to China as a “dictatorship” in his speeches. Earlier this year, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called the Chinese Communist Party “the central threat of our times”.

In a speech last week to the right-wing Hudson Institute, Rick Scott referred to Chinese President Xi Jinping as “a despot in disguise” and “Mao Zedong with a makeover”.

“Communist China does not want to join the community of nations so much as it wants to rule it,” the Florida senator said. “The result, whether we want to admit it or not, is a new Cold War.”

US politicians are increasingly open in their condemnation of Chinese President Xi Jinping.

US politicians are increasingly open in their condemnation of Chinese President Xi Jinping.Credit:AP

Such talk is a dramatic turnaround from just a few years ago, when both Democrats and Republicans were focused on deepening co-operation with China.

“I have been astounded at how quickly the pendulum has swung,” says Anja Manuel, a former senior State Department official and the author of This Brave New World: India, China and the United States.

“The consensus during the Clinton, Bush and early Obama years was to try to bring China along as part of the international system, to help make it a responsible stakeholder.

“Now there is a much harder, aggressive line from both the left and the right.

“Talk to the big Democrats about this and they are almost as tough on China as the Republicans.”

The centrepiece of Trump’s tough-on-China approach has been trade. Barack Obama tried to curtail China’s economic influence through the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership; Trump has preferred to use tariffs on Chinese imports to gain leverage.

While some Democrats criticised Trump’s unpredictable policy-making style, the Democrats’ Senate leader Chuck Schumer urged the President to hang tough with China on trade. “Don’t back down,” he tweeted to Trump at the height of the US-China trade war. “Strength is the only way to win with China.”

Like Trump, Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has branded China a currency manipulator and has called for new rules to prevent the dumping of cheap Chinese goods in the US.

Chinese President Xi Jinping welcomed Donald Trump to China in November 2017.

Chinese President Xi Jinping welcomed Donald Trump to China in November 2017.Credit:AP

Echoing Rick Scott’s Cold War rhetoric, Democratic senator Mark Warner used a speech last year to warn that the US faces a modern-day “Sputnik moment”; just as it risked losing the space race to the Soviet Union in the 1960s, it is now in danger of being overtaken by China on technology.

“We have to wake this country up to what China is doing,” Warner told the Brookings Institution.

“In areas like 5G, artificial intelligence, quantum computing, semiconductors, robotics, hypersonics, augmented reality and biotech, President Xi is making a play for first place, and he’s doing it using the model that the United States pioneered into technological dominance in the 20th century.”

Anja Manuel says the Washington foreign policy establishment’s assertive turn on China began in the middle of 2015. The hardening of views was largely a reaction to Xi’s increasingly authoritarian and expansionist posture, she says.

It was at this time that the Chinese government released its Made in China 2025 plan, outlining its goal to become an advanced technology powerhouse. The Chinese military also became increasingly active in the South China Sea.

Meanwhile US business leaders were beginning to grasp the systemic barriers they faced in gaining access to the Chinese market.

A few weeks ago, Republican senator Dan Sullivan and Democratic colleague Chris Van Hollen introduced the True Reciprocity Act, which targets what they called the “substantial imbalance” in the US-China relationship. The aim is to get the US government to treat Chinese diplomats, journalists, businesses and non-government groups as their American counterparts are treated in China.

Pompeo’s decree this week that five Chinese media outlets – including the official news agency Xinhua – reduce their US-based staff numbers by 40 per cent was exactly what Sullivan and Van Hollen had in mind. Pompeo’s move was widely seen as an act of retaliation for China’s decision to revoke the visas of three Wall Street Journal reporters last month.

While a more aggressive stance towards China was needed, Manuel says such tit-for-tat policies are going too far.

“We don’t want to ‘out-China’ China,” she says. “Our China policy has become completely un-nuanced.”

Spy game

To his friends and colleagues at Harvard University, Charles Lieber looked like the very model of a respectable university professor. Leiber, the chair of the university’s chemical department, had won prestigious prizes and published hundreds of journal articles.

Then, in late January, FBI agents visited him at his office and arrested him. A few days later Leiber appeared in handcuffs and prison gear at a Massachusetts courthouse to face accusations of “aiding the People’s Republic of China”.

The FBI alleges that Lieber lied about his involvement with the Chinese government’s Thousand Talents Plan, which encourages overseas researchers to bring their expertise to China in exchange for research funding and lab space.

The FBI claims Lieber received hundreds of thousands of dollars from the Wuhan University of Technology, but denied being a participant in the Thousand Talents Plan.

On the same day, the FBI charged cancer researcher Zaosong Zheng with stealing 21 vials of biological research and attempting to smuggle them out of the US on a flight destined for China.

FBI director Christopher Wray labelled Chinese espionage the greatest threat to America's economic prosperity.

FBI director Christopher Wray labelled Chinese espionage the greatest threat to America’s economic prosperity.Credit:Bloomberg

A few days after these charges were laid, FBI Director Christopher Wray gave a major speech in Washington. His message was blunt: Chinese espionage is the greatest threat to America’s economic prosperity.

Chinese spies, Wray said, had “targeted companies producing everything from proprietary rice and corn seeds to software for wind turbines to high-end medical devices”.

“The Chinese government is fighting a generational fight to surpass our country in economic and technological leadership,” Wray said.

“But not through legitimate innovation, not through fair and lawful competition, and not by giving their citizens the freedom of thought and speech and creativity we treasure here in the United States.

“Instead, they’ve shown that they’re willing to steal their way up the economic ladder at our expense.”

Wray said the FBI currently has about 1000 investigations open into Chinese technology theft.

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Chinese academics and students in China say they have recently experienced unusually long processing delays on visa applications, forceful questioning by Customs officers at airports and surprise visits from law enforcement officials on campus.

University leaders, while accepting the need to prevent espionage, say there is a danger the crackdown will lead to a form of racial profiling against native Chinese students and academics at American universities.

In an open letter last year, Massachusetts Institute of Technology president L. Rafael Reif warned that “we must take great care not to create a toxic atmosphere of unfounded suspicion and fear”.

“Looking at cases across the nation, small numbers of researchers of Chinese background may indeed have acted in bad faith, but they are the exception and very far from the rule,” Reif wrote.

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“Yet faculty members, post-docs, research staff and students tell me that, in their dealings with government agencies, they now feel unfairly scrutinised, stigmatised and on edge – because of their Chinese ethnicity alone.”

There have been examples of overreach. In 2015 US prosecutors were forced to drop charges against Sherry Chen, a Chinese-born hydrologist they had accused of spying.

They also dropped charges against Chinese-born American physicist Xiaoxing Xi, whom they accused of sending restricted technology to China.

Bonnie Glaser, a China expert at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, says she believes there would be a slight softening of views if the Democrats seize the White House in November.

A Biden administration would seek to co-operate with China on reducing carbon emissions – something Trump, who calls climate change a “hoax”, has no interest in.

But she says there will be no return to the optimism of the past. The age of the China hawks is here to stay.

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