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China-US relations

Deeper, underlying tensions exposed in Sino-US ties

  • Without careful management it is a relationship that could get worse before it gets better and do nothing to enhance regional and global stability
PUBLISHED : Sunday, 30 December, 2018, 9:39pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 30 December, 2018, 9:48pm

Beneath the ups and downs of the China-United States relationship run narratives of people-to-people relationships. If these are positive and receptive, they can help absorb shocks and smooth out bumps at the bilateral level. If negative and distrusting, they can echo disharmony rather than constructive engagement. Sadly the latter has been more in evidence. It predates friction arising from Canada’s arrest of a Huawei executive on behalf of the US.

These narratives are shaped by feedback from researchers and scholars who engage with the other side. Their perceptions are heavily influenced by personal experience of their access to information and sources. As we have reported, greater assertiveness recently from Beijing that has irked China hawks in Washington has also tested support among more moderate members of the policy community, including vocal advocates of engagement with China.

In this environment, the maintenance of people-to-people dialogue is paramount to greater understanding. However, a report by the Hoover Institution, a conservative think tank, on China’s alleged influence operation in the US runs contrary to that. It highlights restrictions that US scholars now face in visiting China and recommends reciprocal US treatment of Chinese nationals, including restricting visas and refusing to host Chinese scholars at think tanks.

Tit-for-tat ‘may be only way to stop Beijing’s US influence drive’

There is no question that access to information in China has been tightening. At the same time, however, Chinese academics and researchers have reported a similar atmosphere in the US, including abrupt cancellations by US consular authorities of 10-year visas intended to facilitate frequent travel, and closing the door on Chinese students. The researchers and scholars in question are go-betweens, who bring fresh information and intelligence to the foundations of the bilateral relationship. If both sides target them and the access that is so fundamental to their role, they are embarking on a perilous path.

Already we are seeing worrying fallout from the arrest of Huawei’s Meng Wanzhou over an alleged breach of US sanctions against Iran, with China warning people in hi-tech sectors to avoid non-essential travel to the US or remove any sensitive material from their devices. A Chinese official has said detained former Canadian diplomat Michael Kovrig may have been working for an unregistered non-government organisation. This has been denied, but it is a reminder that China passed a foreign NGO law over concerns about foreign interference. Jack Ma, executive chairman of e-commerce giant Alibaba, owner of this newspaper, is right to warn that the trade war is just the tip of the iceberg hiding deeper, underlying tensions. Without careful management it is a relationship that could get worse before it gets better and do nothing to enhance regional and global stability.