On Sunday, Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman – the US’s second-highest-ranking diplomat – will meet with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Tianjin, China in what looks set to be tense talks dominated by friction on a number of fronts.
Last Monday, US President Joe Biden – along with NATO, the European Union, Australia, the UK, Canada, Japan and New Zealand – slammed China for a wide-reaching cyberespionage campaign, which Secretary of State Antony Blinken said posed “a major threat to our economic and national security”.
The US Department of Justice also charged four Chinese nationals working with China’s Ministry of State Security with a campaign to hack into the computer systems of dozens of companies, universities and government entities in the United States and abroad between 2011 and 2018.
The allegations were refuted by Beijing as “fabricated out of thin air“, and on Friday it announced sanctions on US individuals as a response to US sanctions on Chinese officials in Hong Kong, ratcheting up the tension in US-China relations already strained due to trade disputes, China’s military buildup, tension over the South China Sea, Beijing’s crackdown on Hong Kong democracy activists and the treatment of Uighurs in its Xinjiang region.
Despite its rapid buildup, China is still out-muscled by the US militarily; however, online it has found a more level playing field.
“China has long sought asymmetrical areas where they could exert influence in a way that didn’t challenge US predominance and preeminence… It takes a lot of money, time and know-how to build a modern navy, but in cyberspace there’s a lower threshold for having an impact,” said Matthew Funaiole, Chinese foreign and security policy analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Earlier this month, Chinese President Xi Jinping celebrated the centenary of the Chinese Communist Party – the nation’s central nervous system – with an hour-long chest-thumping speech which included threats for other nations to stay out of China’s affairs, telling the party faithful: “We will not accept sanctimonious preaching from those who feel they have the right to lecture us.”
This status quo is a far cry from when the two superpowers first thawed diplomatic relations a half-century ago. With Sino-Soviet relations at a nadir due to an ideological split and subsequent border spat, Mao Zedong – China’s Great Helmsman – thought it pragmatic to plot a diplomatic course closer to the US, also at odds with Moscow through the pair’s proxy war in Vietnam and led by the Realpolitik of US President Richard Nixon. Nixon’s National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger secretly visited China in July 1971, paving the way for the US president’s visit the following year.
“It was a counter against the Soviets – the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” said Isaac Stone Fish, CEO of Strategy Risks and author of America Second: How America’s Elites Are Making China Stronger. “[It] was a success from a foreign policy perspective… and mostly removed or de-fanged China as a threat to the US.”
This relationship continued throughout the Cold War, and although President Ronald Reagan was ideologically and initially more pro-Taiwan, he later pivoted to accept China due to its strategic importance.
“It was pointed out to Reagan that the Chinese are basically a member of NATO – as they hold down over a million Soviet troops; plus, we put a CIA listening post in Xinjiang to monitor Iran, the Middle East and the Soviets. We had a tacit alliance,” said Stephen MacKinnon, professor of Chinese history at Arizona State University.
The relationship soured in 1989, after China’s bloody suppression of student-led protests in Tiananmen Square. Although President George H W Bush expressed the US’s revulsion and halted arms sales to China, his political foes made easy capital of his strong ties to Beijing, having been stationed there in 1974 as the US’s Chief Liaison Officer – the precursor to an ambassador before diplomatic ties were established.
“[Bill] Clinton very explicitly took that issue on when he ran against Bush in ’92… [calling] his response to Tiananmen weak-kneed and pledging to take a tougher line on human rights,” said Bennett Freeman, who worked on Clinton’s election campaign and later became chief speechwriter for his secretary of state, Warren Christopher.
This pledge manifested itself in a policy that leveraged the most-favoured nation status (MFN) – coveted by China as it reduced trade tariffs – with overall progress on human rights at a time when it was accelerating market reforms.
“The line – ‘the software of freedom will prevail over the hardware of repression’ – perfectly captures the optimism at the time… that opening up China’s economy would ultimately open up its political system,” Freeman told Al Jazeera.
That optimism had been buoyed by the recent implosion of the Soviet Union, which many in the West saw as capitalism’s victory over communism. However, this apparent end to the Cold War had the indirect effect of removing both China and the US’s need for a geopolitical counterweight.
In 2001, China’s MFN status was made permanent, removing this point of leverage. Over the past 20 years, US companies’ growing reliance on China’s huge market and cheap manufacturing as well as the fact Beijing had become the US’s second-largest creditor saw China gain its own set of levers.
“There’s an almost evangelical movement to bring democracy to China through Boeing and Microsoft and McDonald’s… and you could argue that it was something that has cheapened American democracy,” said Stone Fish.
“You can also argue, with hindsight, it embedded the CCP [Chinese Communist Party] into the US system and that has caused a lot of the [current] problems US corporations have – too exposed, but fearful of speaking out against Chinese human-rights abuses,” Stone Fish told Al Jazeera.
“It would have been impossible for Nixon and Kissinger to imagine this scenario – no one is that prescient.”
Due to the US’s interdependence with China, the Biden administration will have a more difficult time than Clinton in bringing Beijing to book using trade barriers to leverage human rights concessions; however, some are optimistic that China’s near orbit issues may offer an opportunity to exert pressure.
“There have been a lot of compromises in promoting economic relations with China… not necessarily focusing on human rights, but that might be shifting a little,” Funaiole said, listing “issues in Tibet and Xinjiang, a crackdown on Hong Kong and worries [it’s] being more assertive towards Taiwan”.
This month saw the US Senate pass The Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, banning imports from the Xinjiang region unless producers can prove they were not made with forced labour by the estimated more than one million people imprisoned there.
“There’s plenty of [places] we can source cotton from… you have Biden pushing for greater adoption of renewable energy, but we get a lot of our solar PV tech from China and now we have questions about whether or not there’s integrity in that supply chain,” said Funaiole.
“Our relationship with the PRC will be competitive when it should be, collaborative when it can be, and adversarial when it must be. The common denominator is the need to engage the PRC from a position of strength,” a US State Department spokesperson said.
In marshalling the developed world to jointly take a stand against China’s online operations, maybe the US can take a page out of China’s playbook and use access to their markets as a bargaining chip.