In a surprise move, the United States ordered People’s Republic of China (PRC) on 21 July 2020 to close its consulate office in Houston, Texas within 72 hours with the State Department clarifying that the step was taken in order to protect American intellectual property. In its initial and immediate response, China's foreign ministry spokesman said that the US move was outrageous and unjustified. Tension has been brewing between the only global superpower and superpower in the making for a considerable time due to alleged unfair and unethical commercial and trade practices as also the hegemonic and expansionist behaviour of the latter globally and more particularly in the Indo-pacific region. However, the chief spoiler has undoubtedly been the Wuhan virus, which flared up but remained largely localised in Wuhan, Hubei province of China while spread like a wild fire in rest of the world paralysing life with tremendous human casualties and destroying economy world over; the worst affected country being the US and it is still a mystery why China had least impact.
A consulate office of a country is not exactly like an Embassy or high Commission in diplomatic status but functionally has similar responsibilities like dealing with the individual persons and businesses, as defined by the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations. The Passport and Visa Office of China Consulate General in Houston was operating since 1979 giving coverage to eight southern American states. Ordinarily, more than one consular office exists in bigger countries outside the capital for the purpose of fostering the commercial affairs of citizens in that foreign country and performing such routine functions as issuing visas and renewing passports. In the recent past, President Donald Trump had repeatedly criticised China over the trade, coronavirus pandemic and Chinese hegemony in the South China Sea. Immediately after the news broke, one of his party men and Republican senator from Florida, Marco Rubio tweeted: #China’s consulate in #Houston is not a diplomatic facility. It is the central node of the Communist Party’s vast network of spies & influence operations in the United States. Now that building must close & the spies have 72 hours to leave or face arrest.
US Action is not Abrupt and Extemporaneous
Earlier in the day, the US Justice Department had accused China of sponsoring hackers targeting the research facilities engaged in developing Covid-19 disease vaccine specifically identifying two Chinese nationals who were allegedly involved in spying US research organizations and managed assistance from the state agents for thefts. The allegation, however, was not abrupt or spontaneous as the US government had accused Chinese ‘cyber actors’ of trying to steal COVID-19 vaccine research in May 2020 too. In fact, the FBI alongside the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) had issued formal warning in May 2020 accusing China of funding and operating hacking cells dedicated to stealing coronavirus vaccine research from the US and its allies. Such allegations have not come as surprise to many because the countries like China and Pakistan have often been involved in covert operations in India and Western democracies.
Immediately after the decision was conveyed, some unidentified persons in the consulate office were observed burning documents in bins in the building's courtyard. Ordinarily, official documents and files are destroyed after they outlive their prescribed tenure following due procedure but this fire incident in Chinese consulate was apparently not such case. In all likelihood, consulate was burning sensitive papers out of fear that its seizure or disclosure might bring serious embarrassment to the mainland Communist regime. After the sharp reaction of the Chinese spokesperson in Beijing on 22 July, the US State Department released another statement that they have directed the closure of PRC Consulate General Houston in order to protect American intellectual property and America's private information and that the US would not tolerate the PRC's violations of American sovereignty and intimidation of people, just as they have not tolerated the PRC's unfair trade practices, theft of American jobs, and other egregious behaviour.
The aforesaid action against the PRC is neither abrupt nor extemporaneous as US had taken a slew of measures since its trade war started with the former in 2018. It is everybody’s knowledge that the US has been worst victim and sufferer of coronavirus pandemic both in terms of human casualties and economic disaster. Ever since the disease hit the countries outside China around March 2020, the US has more than 4.3 million corona positive cases (15.9 global count) with over 148 thousand deaths (643 thousand global deaths) and it’s still counting with no hope of respite in the near future. President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has constantly blamed China for the negligence in timely alerting global community and stopping overseas travel Ex-Wuhan that spiralled the spread of virus world over. The role of WHO, particularly its Ethiopian Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, has been under clouds for the alleged siding with China during the crisis, which is apparent from the fact of the WHO’s appreciation on record of the Chinese incredible commitment to isolate the virus and minimize spread to other countries. On the contrary, the fact is that Wuhan was isolated for the Chinese populace but hundreds of thousand Chinese and other people travelled overseas destinations spreading infection in other countries.
The China–United States trade war started in 2018 with the President Donald Trump took proactive steps setting tariffs and other trade barriers on China with the goal of forcing it to make changes to what the US considered "unfair trade practices". These trade practices and their ill-effects include the growing trade deficit, theft of intellectual property (IP), and the forced transfer of American technology to China. The US Department of Commerce reported that in 2018 alone the US trade deficit with China was $621 billion. Currently the US and China are the world's two largest economies; the former is larger in nominal GDP, whereas the latter has a larger GDP on the scale of purchasing power parity. Also, the US is world's largest importer and China the largest exporter; in fact, most countries have an unfavourable import-export trade vis-à-vis China. During the last two years, the US took several punitive measures in trade by imposing tariffs and other restrictions on import of the Chinese, and the latter too has retaliated likewise despite some reconciliatory moves and dialogue. However, it is not the US alone but many other countries too have similar crib and complaints against the PRC. Even the European Union (EU) had filed a complaint with the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2018, arguing that foreign companies are forced or induced to transfer IP to their Chinese partner, and establish research and development in China, as "performance requirements" to receive government approval in several sectors, which the EU argued as the violation of WTO rules requiring fair treatment of domestic and foreign companies.
As the Coronavirus pandemic started hitting hard the US and other world economies since early this year, the US and China had exchanged blames and counter blames on the pandemic. Strangely enough, the Chinese virus was severely restricted in Wuhan by Xi Jinping led communist regime but the same virus created rampage and chaos worldwide with US as the worst victim. Then rather than being sorry or sympathetic to world community, the PRC preferred to mock and ridicule countries like US and India for their Covid-19 disease handling, attempted to turn the pandemic into opportunity for commercial gains by supplying non-standard and often defective material to many countries in their endeavours to fight disease, funded and encouraged own banks and companies to buy shares and ownership of vulnerable companies in other countries, and almost simultaneously started flexing muscles with its neighbours including India to accomplish its hegemonic and expansionist territorial and maritime ambitions on the Western border, and East and South China Sea. While the Chinese government tried to take away democratic freedom of Hon Kong through a new legislation, its military violated sovereignty of the neighbouring countries like Vietnam, Taiwan, Philippine, Japan in various ways while having a bloody clash with Indian army in Galwan valley leading to significant loss of life on both sides.
In a significant move against the proposed Chinese legislation curtailing democratic rights of Hong Kong, the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act of 2019 was notified by the United States in November 2019 enabling their government to impose sanctions against the PRC and Hong Kong officials considered responsible for human rights abuses in Hong Kong, which is now part of China but placed under a special status by a separate legal and economic system as agreed between China and Hong Kong's former colonial power, the UK, before sovereignty was restored to Beijing in 1997. The new security law passed by PRC prohibits criticism of the Chinese government, severely curtailing the democratic rights of the citizens of Hong Kong and is considered as the most sweeping change in its political system since its transfer to mainland China. As China has gone ahead with the proposed change in June 2020 by imposition of the sweeping new national security law in Hong Kong, the US has revoked the region's preferential economic treatment in retaliation through an executive order by the US President in July, a move that was severely criticized by China as it will hit its economic interests.
In yet another move, the US Senate passed a bill in May 2020 to delist Chinese companies from American stock exchanges. This bill was approved by unanimous consent and would now require companies to certify that they are not under the control of a foreign government. Experts believe that this legislation would lead to big Chinese companies like Alibaba Group Holding Ltd., Baidu Inc. and many others being barred from the US stock exchanges. Militarily too, the US has gone for significant deployment in the Indo-pacific region and particularly strong posturing in the South China Sea, on which China is staking a unilateral claim for years now amid increasingly tense relations between the world’s two largest economies. Two US aircraft carriers, the USS Ronald Reagan and USS Nimitz, are now in the waters of the South China Sea and, reportedly, it is the first time since 2014 that the world’s only superpower has deployed two carriers in the area along with associated strike force. The move is significant in view of growing Chinese rough and rash dealing with its neighbours, more particularly Taiwan, and at the same time it has considerably increased the risk of an accidental war.
During the last few years, China has arbitrarily constructed several artificial islands and military bases in South China Sea claiming control over approximately 3.5 million square kilometres of maritime zone, ignoring EEZ sovereignty rights and claims of the neighbouring small nations like Vietnam, Philippines and Malaysia, as also the verdict by the International Court of Justice. Ever since China started increasingly casting the South China Sea as its maritime domain, the US Navy had responded by occasionally sailing military vessels through these waters to assert that this is international maritime zone and China too routinely objected to any US military presence in these waters. Unlike mighty power like US and other regional powers, the problem with China is that it wants everything for its own power, prosperity and consumption without sharing it with other nationalities. But at least five other governments have claim on all or part of the sea, through which approximately $5 trillion in goods are shipped annually. So clearly the presence of two aircraft carrier groups in the South China Sea is not merely a coincidence but a purported design and objective of the US not to allow Chinese dominance in the region.
These are not the only measures, in fact, the areas of conflict and confrontation have been expanding since 2018 but the current Covid-19 pandemic and Chinese hostile conduct with its neighbours for its territorial claims in the South China Sea zone has further escalated it. Ties between the world’s only superpower and aspiring superpower have worsened sharply this year over a range of issues including the bilateral trade, telecommunications, student visas, the South China Sea, media, the Hong Kong's autonomy issue and now closure of Houston consulate. Earlier President Trump had also alleged that China has taken total control over the WHO and pressured it to mislead the world over the origin of the pandemic. Recently, he even announced to end US relationship with the world health body in protest and divert the fund to other useful causes. Besides tightening the Visa regime to certain categories of Chinese nationals including students for advanced studies particularly in fields like aviation, robotics and advanced manufacturing, the Trump administration had announced in June 2020 to enforce ban on all commercial passenger flights by Chinese carriers. The US has charged that the authorities in PRC are using some Chinese students as spies to steal secrets, mostly post graduate students and post-doctorate researchers operating as non-traditional collectors of intellectual property.
So clearly the aforesaid developments and US moves are not just abrupt and extemporaneous but appear a well thought out strategy and plan to say “enough is enough” and challenge the adversary both economically and militarily, if need be. The decision to close an important consulate is not taken in ordinary circumstances; instead, it is usually done either when hostilities break out during the countries on account of an all-out war or political and diplomatic relations take a nose dive due to utmost differences and disputes. Though It is hard to believe that China will not take counter measures by some equivalent response but it is also fraught with further spiralling of tit-for-tat reaction, in which some other US allies might also join soon. It has been for considerable time now that discontent and dissatisfaction against the communist nation is building in US, India and many other democratic countries for its slippery and suspect role in Covid-19 pandemic, unfair and unethical trade practices and hegemonic tendencies world over, and appears quite natural when the US takes a lead in commensurate response against the belligerent nation.
Now Many Countries Geared Up for Retaliatory Measures
However, it is not the US alone but many countries in the world fraternity have gradually learnt the bullish conduct of the PRC and have started upping the ante against it. The most significant in the process is India of course which has suffered as victim of Chinese bullish conduct for the decades. While the most previous Congress governments willy-nilly had a wavering attitude towards China under the impression that India cannot stand to military and economic might of the communist neighbour as also admitted in the Parliament in September 2013 by a senior leader and long-time defence minister of the country’s oldest party. The present leader Shri Narendra Modi of the National Democratic Alliance government initially tried to improve relationship with it by trying to forge personal rapport and understanding with the Chinese Supremo Xi Jinping but the recent betrayal through People’s Liberation Army (PLA)’s unilateral action of secretly occupying certain disputed areas once again proved Chinese true character as also its hunger for land and untrustworthiness.
The recent killing of twenty Indian soldiers including their commanding officer in a surprise cross-border attack by the PLA has strengthened the Indian resolve to call the Chinese bluff once for all. Although in immediate retaliation of the Indian soldiers, at least forty to fifty PLA soldiers too were killed but the treacherous neighbour didn’t divulge with the details of casualties on their side. The ensuing tension across the Indo-Tibetan border has brought two largest armies of the world face to face in many areas in a war like situation. The process of the de-escalation and restoration of peace appears to be very slow and tricky which might take months together. While India has taken all measures in a tit-for-tat military response, it has simultaneously turned heat on PRC through combined political, diplomatic and economic measures. While the world has been briefed about the Chinese plot through political and diplomatic channels, several measures have been domestically taken to contain the Chinese influence. The Chinese goods have been boycotted by the Indian masses, FDI laws have been revised, restrictions have been imposed on dubious Chinese firms to participate in infrastructure and communication sectors and in a sweeping move some 59 Chinese Apps have been banned in India.
The recent Chinese muscles flexing in Taiwan Strait threatening the latter to subjugate through bombing, establishment of administrative districts in some disputed islands, giving a new name to Mount Everest, sinking of a Vietnamese fish trawler in its own territorial waters, unlawful aggregation of nearly 275 Chinese vessels and boats around Philippine's Thitu Island in the Spratly Island chain for weeks, intrusion in Japanese waters near Senkaku Islands and border transgressions along Sino-Indian Borders are some of the blatant examples of Chinese arrogance and expansionist agenda in threatening sovereignty of small countries in the region. It is their recent aggressive designs and hegemony in the East and South China Sea threatening regional peace that has prompted US to dispatch its naval fleet and warships in South China Sea in support of small nations and assert navigation rights in international waters. Also, these developments have prompted other regional powers like India, Japan and Australia to forge a working relationship and military bond with the US to safeguard common interests from the Chinese misadventures, popularly known as the quadrilateral security dialogue or QUAD.
It’s an open secret that China had ordered to destroy the initial coronavirus samples for undisclosed reasons. Later, in response to Australia’s call for investigation of the origin of the coronavirus to fix accountability, China imposed trade restrictions and even warned to ruin its economy for taking sides with the United States in an article published in the state-controlled tabloid Global Times. Similarly, its aggressive posturing towards Taiwan has increased with a tacit warning to toe its line else be ready to face consequences what Israel did to Lebanon by bombing. Such and similar other provocative actions taken against the neighbours in the region have increasingly antagonized nations to respond by taking counter measures for their defence. For instance, Japan has geared up to significantly increase its defence budget keeping the Chinese threat in view in the East China Sea besides putting aside a handsome sum for its companies to return to Japan or shift bases to other countries from the mainland China; its recent move to acquire latest technology 105 F-35 joint strike fighters from the US firm, the Lockheed Martin, is only part of this mission. Similarly, Taiwan too has plan to acquire the F-35 stealth fighter to maintain air superiority over China after its earlier decision to buy the F-16V from the US to match the Chinese J-20 stealth jets. Needless to mention, India has already geared up to modernise its armed forces with the state-of-the-art technology through indigenous efforts and foreign purchases mainly keeping the Chinese threat in view.
And this is not on military front alone, similar challenges exist on the economic fronts too; consequently, countries in various parts of the globe are becoming increasingly apprehensive and aware of the Chinese designs as well as modus oprandi and taking both corrective and retaliatory measures. For illustration, such major threat is perceived in the telecommunication sector too with a worldwide phenomenon during the last decade or so of the expanding Chinese mobile companies and software technology operating at much cheaper cost compared to other international brands, posing simultaneous threat of data pilferage, theft of sensitive information, hacking, and so on with threads connected to remote servers in the mainland China. Several countries have opposed the Chinese major Huawei which is facing allegations of corporate espionage to steal competitors' intellectual property. For instance, US banned Huawei for semiconductor chips, UK banned 'core' parts of its 5G network, Australia and Japan have blocked Huawei gear, and Canada is likely to take similar action. China has recently threatened Britain of retaliatory measures if the UK government bans the Chinese telecommunications company from its 5G network.
Apparently, the Chinese Supremo Xi Jinping had considered the pandemic time an opportune moment to assert its domination over the world, most countries being at their vulnerable best with population suffering and economy in tatters but if the reaction and responses are of any clue, this ulterior move has clearly backfired. India is certainly not intimated and its preparations and responses suggest that it is geared to take more economic sanctions at home and ready to take on enemy at borders for prolonged period with a firm resolve to push aggression back to restore status quo ante at the LAC. A large Indian populace has boycotted Chinese goods and the government has asked the online retailers to disclose the manufacturers of goods. Somewhat similar saga commensurate with the Chinese violations is being repeated elsewhere; many European countries, Australia, Japan, Philippine, and so on have gradually learnt the true character of the Chinese communist regime, threat posed by it to thriving democracies, and are taking necessary corrective measures.
For instance, the countries like Italy, Spain and Germany have tightened their FDI rules to safeguard their companies from the Chinese juggernaut. After the PRC promised $24 billion investment, Philippine had leaned towards it by terminating its Visiting Forces Agreement with the US, when President Rodrigo Duterte was elected in 2016 but between the choice of the Chinese vessels anchoring in its waters or US naval presence, it has now opted for the latter. With the fate of over seven million people of Hong Kong in limbo after the passage of new Chinese security legislation, UK has offered British citizenship to nearly three million Hong Kongers and has even dispatched its aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth in South China Sea to work in tandem with the US Navy and Japan Maritime Self Defense Forces. Fed up with Chinese continued nuisance, Australia has bolstered its defenses and resolved to minimise its economic dependence on the former. Similarly, to counter the current surge in cyberattacks, Australia is recruiting large numbers of cyberwarriors besides bolstering own online defenses. In short, the Chinese Supremo Xi Jinping and the Communist Party of China has so obnoxiously treated their neighbours and global community that several countries of the world have geared up to unite against China.
Chinese Reaction to Global Opposition
On their part, China neither appears remorseful for its actions nor is willing to concede that they have erred somewhere. When their trade war started with US in 2018, they reacted with equal vehemence to the US actions by imposing similar tariffs and trade restrictions on US goods in retaliation. When US imposed Visa restrictions on certain categories of Chines travellers and students, the PRC too reacted by denying Visa to American citizens in some cases. It has strongly objected to US naval presence and has even indulged in military drills in the region accusing US of escalating tensions in the South China Sea. Even to the recent US decision to close Chinese Consulate at Houston, Texas, China has promptly reacted by ordering US to close its consulate at Chengdu in China's Sichuan province in a tit-for-tat retaliation levying similar spying charges. Clearly, the current diplomatic spat between US and China is set to spiral more tension and retaliatory measures from either sides and only time will tell where it stops.
In their dispute with India at the Indo-Tibetan border, after the deadly Galwan clash the Chinese side appeared to take some quick reconciliatory measures which led to negotiations at the Corps Commander level followed by meeting of the Chinese Foreign Minister and Indian National Security Advisor through tele-conferencing. Subsequently, there were indications that both the armies will return to their original position under verifiable supervision. However, the process in one of the main tussle areas i.e. Pangong Tso appears to have stuck up with the PLA’s reluctance to vacate the occupied posts on which both the countries stake their claim; the difference being that the Indian claim is constant and continuous, while the Chinese side keeps on changing it to suit their convenience. So it appears that after initial reconciliatory gesture, the Chinese side has resorted to its usual tricky and treacherous ways which means things could escalate leading to dangerous confrontation any time yet again.
The Chinese conduct with the countries whom it treats adversary or potential rival for its economic or military aspirations has remained by and large same and predictable over the decades with the difference that it slows down or temporarily calls truce in adversarial circumstances only to resume again finding it conducive. It is a common knowledge now that till late 1970s, the communist regime of China was almost treated untouchable by the developed and prosperous West, or even the world community at large. The détente in the China-US relations resumed after the former Republican US president Richard Nixon visited China in 1972 during the peak of the Cold War, the ground for which was secretly prepared by the then US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who came on visit to Pakistan and quietly disappeared for a day to visit Beijing to hold secret dialogue with the Chinese leadership. Despite sharp ideological differences of both sides, the rapprochement of China-US relations reshaped the geopolitical structure of the Asia-Pacific region as also the opening-up of China towards West in late 1970s paved way for sustained progress and development of the PRC.
Initially, US wanted to use this warming up of relations to counter the Soviet influence and then US also found the huge potential of the Chinese market as lucrative for own business interests. As has been the global trend in the post-World War II era, many developed countries of the West and Japan have naturally gone with the US interests and, in the process, China too was benefitted with tremendous investment. Hence it is the US alone which is responsible for the creation of the Frankenstein’s Monster or the legendary Bhasmasur of the Indian ancient tales, who is now eager to dominate and subjugate the entire world including US under its heels. Although Chinese media and CGTN orchestred worldwide publicity campaign vouch for the China’s overall innocence and its actions being only driven by Chinese people’s earnest desire to get rid of poverty and become prosperous; clearly, there are no more takers of their alleged innocence. They sell to the world that China is a strategically defensive country without any ambition to expand but their actions worldwide altogether reflect a different picture.
The ongoing diplomatic spat and other conflicts between the US and PRC are likely to escalate further as FBI has now alleged that the Chinese Consulate at San Francisco is harbouring a military-linked fugitive scientist accused of visa fraud. This being an election year for the US President, the possibility cannot be ruled out that the current tension might even be politically used to heighten nationalist sentiments during the election campaign by the prospective candidates. Notwithstanding, it is indeed a serious and delicate situation and even any miscalculation or unintended error from either side could trigger war hostilities in the South China Sea and other Asian regions. Similar real threat exists on the Indo-Tibetan border too where Indian Army and PLA is locked in a face-to-face stand-off, and the Chinese side is indulged in the dangerous game of testing the grit and perseverance of the Indian counterparts.
While reckoning who is right or wrong between the US and PRC, even the former doesn’t have a good track record. On many occasions in the past, the US has been found supporting dictatorial regimes or even committing excesses and war crimes over those countries who refused to toe their line, if their regional or global interests so demanded. For instance, till about 11 September 2001 al-Queda attack on US, it was actively supporting successive military or names-sake civilian regimes in Pakistan against the Indian interests and during 1971 Indo-Pak War too, it had dispatched its 7th Naval Fleet in Indian Ocean to intimidate India. However, its current stand in South China Sea to challenge Chinese hegemony, protect international sea route and interests of smaller countries in the region appears to be justified and in order commensurate with its global identity and obligation owing to superpower status.
If the choice is between the US and PRC, the former undoubtedly deserves consideration for a vote due to many reasons. The US is a genuine democracy and, sans its political interests, the country stands for human rights, transparency and sharing of global resources and riches. In contrast, the PRC has totally opaque and autocratic regime, denies basic human values and ethics, and wants to monopolise all resources for own consumption. This could be illustrated with the trend of global investment by the two countries. Wherever US has invested in any country in the past, its companies have established manufacturing bases in the host country, generated local employment and the venture has economically benefitted both countries. As against this, the standard Chinese investment pattern is to buy maximum shares (i.e. ownership) or the entire vulnerable company itself in the foreign land to assert own control and influence over the country. Clearly an evil empire is in the making that would necessitate a day of reckoning too sometime time in the near future.