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US signals change in China strategy to ‘defensive’ and ‘competitive’ approach

Donald Trump and Xi Jinping (Daniel Scavino Jr./WikiCommons)
May 23, 2020

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

The White House on Thursday signaled an end to the U.S.’ two-decades-old policy of engagement with China, vowing in a new strategy report to combat Beijing’s attempts to impose a “new world order” based on its model of authoritarian government.

Deepening engagement had done little to encourage fundamental economic and political change in China, the 20-page report said.

“The Chinese Communist Party has chosen instead to exploit the free and open rules-based order and attempt to reshape the international system in its favor,” the report said.

It said Beijing’s expanding economic, political, and military power was being used to “compel acquiescence” from other countries, and harming U.S. interests in the process.

Rather than focusing on China’s domestic situation, the U.S. will instead adopt a “competitive approach” to the country to resist growing Chinese influence and “compel Beijing to cease or reduce actions harmful to the United States’ vital national interests,” the report said.

Cooperation with China would be welcome where interests and values were shared, it said.

It said the decision by General Secretary Xi Jinping to remove presidential term limits was emblematic of the direction he is taking China in.

United Front tactics

The report said Beijing “uses a range of actors to advance its interests in the United States and other open democracies,” under the aegis of the ruling party’s United Front.

“United Front organizations and agents target businesses, universities, think tanks, scholars, journalists, and local, state, and Federal officials in the United States and around the world, attempting to influence discourse and restrict external influence inside [China],” it said.

China’s “malign behaviors” include the misappropriation of technology and intellectual property, failure to appropriately disclose relationships with foreign government sponsored entities, breaches of contract and confidentiality, and manipulation of processes for fair and merit-based allocation of Federal research and development funding, the report said.

Chinese nationals on U.S. soil are often compelled to report on and threaten fellow Chinese students, protest against events that run counter to Beijing’s political narrative, and otherwise restrict the academic freedom that is the hallmark and strength of the American education system, it said.

“The United States will continue to take a principled stand against the use of our technology to support China’s military and its technology-enabled authoritarianism,” the report said.

Former Tsinghua University politics lecturer Wu Qiang said that far from being a weapon for President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign,the report marks a turning point in China-U.S. ties.

“This is a re-evaluation of the China relationship, particularly in the wake of the coronavirus epidemic,” Wu said. “It will affect policy and have an impact for a long time to come, regardless of which party or candidate wins the presidential election.”

‘Hegemonic assertions and excessive claims’

The report also focused on Chinese behavior toward its neighbors, including in the South China Sea, where China has undertaken massive land reclamation works on disputed features in the Paracels and Spratly Islands to establish military bases and advance its sweeping sovereignty claims.

“Beijing contradicts its rhetoric and flouts its commitments to its neighbors by engaging in provocative and coercive military and paramilitary activities in the Yellow Sea, the East and South China Seas, the Taiwan Strait, and Sino-Indian border areas,” it said.

“As part of our worldwide freedom of navigation operations program, the United States is pushing back on Beijing’s hegemonic assertions and excessive claims. The United States military will continue to exercise the right to navigate and operate wherever international law allows, including in the South China Sea.

Wu said the U.S. is opting to push back against China’s bid for global influence.

“It’s kind of a blueprint for a new Cold War, but in a globalized economy,” he said. “It is a counterattack against Chinese expansion, and against globalization with Chinese characteristics.”

Wu said the report will also influence which countries the U.S. develops alliances with in future.

Hong Kong current affairs commentator Sang Pu said the report comes at a time when the U.S. is reviewing, under the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, whether to continue to treat Hong Kong as a separate jurisdiction from China, given Beijing’s growing insistence on wielding direct political power in the city.

“Hong Kong really is the at the front line of the U.S.-China relationship,” Sang said. “That has been made very clear throughout the anti-extradition movement since June 9, 2019.”

Sang said the fact that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had recently issued a direct congratulatory message to Taiwan president Tsai Ing-wen on her re-election, in spite of Washington’s ongoing support for the “One China” policy under which Beijing refuses to see the democratic island as a separate country, suggested the White House report also had his backing.

“The report also makes it clear that the United States must ensure that Taiwan has sufficient defense capabilities,” Sang said. “[This means that] the U.S. will continue to support Taiwan, even if it moves further and further away from China, so this could be a major step forward for Taiwan as well.”