By Seema Sirohi
The United States is finally “pivoting” to Asia in a manner that should reassure friends and rattle China. But whether it will accomplish one or both is the question. Over the last two weeks the US has taken a series of actions against China and Chinese companies designed to send a clear message to Beijing – Not so fast. Bide your time.
Cumulatively, the measures constitute a substantial pushback. It began at a rhetorical level, and by this week Washington had shown muscle on maritime, legislative, technology and human rights issues. The battle for primacy had well and truly begun.
Those who said a new Cold War was impossible in an interconnected world have to reconsider their position because something very much like it is in the process. The US has challenged China’s claims in South China Sea, berated Beijing for the border incursions into India, won over the United Kingdom to block Huawei and condemned the incarceration of Uighurs.
Despite what many analysts say, it is not entirely election-related even if President Donald Trump uses the debate to stress that Democratic Party nominee Joe Biden is weak on China. It was a Democrat president who allowed China into the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and then both Republicans and Democrats who followed failed to hold China to account on its trade practices.
In the end the November election is a subset of the bigger fight for maintaining American supremacy and the Democrats know it. And they will fight for it too even if in slightly different ways. Both parties agree China is out to dislodge the US from its number one position in the world order.
Trump often says, “no administration has been tougher on China than this administration.” He did so once again on Tuesday while announcing new measures against Hong Kong. He is right, if you go by the facts. The “pivot to Asia” has indeed evolved into a meatier Indo-Pacific policy during his administration and finally grown a few teeth whether thanks to his gut instincts or a few key officials in the White House who have lived in China and “felt” it or because of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s overreach.
Consider a few recent moves by the Trump administration. This week alone Trump signed into law the Hong Kong Autonomy Act that imposes mandatory sanctions on businesses and individuals that assist China in restricting Hong Kong’s autonomy. He also signed an executive order declaring the US would treat Hong Kong the same as mainland China.
Also of note is the fact the bill was passed unanimously by the US Congress, which shows where the national sentiment is on China. The legislation was bipartisan and enjoyed complete support. That in the highly polarized political climate is a significant achievement.
“This law gives my administration powerful new tools to hold responsible individuals and the entities involved in extinguishing Hong Kong’s freedom,” Trump said in his remarks. The same day, Trump signed an executive order ending preferential treatment for Hong Kong. “Hong Kong will be treated the same as mainland China. No special privileges, no special economic treatment and no export of sensitive technologies.”
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced on Monday that China’s claims across South China Sea (SCS) were “completely unlawful.” He went on to say the “world will not allow Beijing to treat the South China Sea as its maritime empire.” These are certainly fighting words. They are also the most clear and voluble assertion of a 2016 ruling by an international tribunal in The Hague in favour of the Philippines in a case it brought against China in 2013.
This means the US forcefully rejects any Chinese claims to waters around tiny rocks and illegitimate artificial islands China has frantically built over the last decade. Washington has placed itself legally in a position to act should the need arise but more importantly, should the other claimant states ask for help. It is a forward move in terms of policy.
In the meantime, the US Navy is conducting more “freedom of navigation operations” or FONOPs – it did one this Tuesday near the Spratly Islands in SCS. While the FONOPs started in 2015 during the Obama administration, the Trump administration is conducting more of them.
Two US aircraft carriers and four warships are in the region in a show of strength. USS Nimitz and USS Ronald Reagan have conducted rare dual-carrier operations this month. A day after Pompeo’s announcement on China’s maritime claims, US warship Ralph Johnson went through the contested waters of the Spratly Islands.
It’s up to ASEAN countries to take a call on whether to continue doing business with China and stay divided or take a different path. They have a choice.
Moving on to India, both Pompeo and members of Congress have been explicit in their support both publicly and privately in the wake of China’s aggression across the Line of Actual Control, Pompeo said, he and External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar talk frequently.
“We have talked about the risk that emanates from Chinese telecommunications infrastructure there,” he said this week and made a reference to India’s decision to ban 59 Chinese aps. The US is also looking at banning TikTok.
Pompeo told Fox News this week he was taking the whole question of Chinese apps “very seriously” warning people they should only download the app “if you want your private information in the hands of the Chinese Communist Party.” Chinese company ByteDance owns TikTok.
Is the tide turning against China as Pompeo claimed in a press conference on Wednesday? Britain’s decision this week to ban Chinese giant Huawei from its 5G network from next January and remove existing equipment by 2027 in a reversal of policy is an indication that minds are indeed changing. Sustained pressure from Washington, a rebellion from within the Conservative Party ranks about security issues and finally Chinese actions in Hong Kong forced Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s hand.
For its part, the US banned export of US technology to Huawei last year and further tightened the rules in May to block American semiconductor sales to the company the US says is a clear security risk. In addition, the State Department imposed visa restrictions on certain employees of Chinese tech companies who provide material support to regimes engaging in human rights violations. It is an order aimed mainly at the Chinese regime.
As a coup de grace, the Trump administration is considering a sweeping ban on members of the Chinese Communist Party from entering the United States. Details are being worked out and it’s not clear whether Trump would approve it. The ban could affect hundreds of thousands of Chinese travelers since the CCP has more than 90 million members. It would take the aggressive policy retaliation to a whole new level – that of the people.
The views expressed above belong to the author(s).