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Distrust and verify: US ups ante against China

The US government launched one of its most strident attacks on China yet with secretary of state Michael Pompeo on Thursday repudiating decades-old American policy of engaging with communist China as a strategy that “failed”, and asking allies and world powers to use “more creative and assertive ways” to press Beijing to change its ways.

Pompeo drew on a significant cold war terminology and said China’s military had became “stronger and more menacing” and the approach to Beijing should be “distrust and verify”, adapting President Ronald Reagan’s “trust but verify” mantra about the Soviet Union in the 1980s.

The comments come at a time when Beijing’s ties with Washington, as well as New Delhi, are at their worst in decades, and other countries – such as the UK and Australia – have expressed new concerns over threats emanating from China, particularly those relating to how Chinese companies may be helping the government spy on people around the world and the way Beijing may be flexing its muscles in territorial disputes.

“The old paradigm of blind engagement with China has failed,” Pompeo said in a widely anticipated policy speech at a legacy California library run by the foundation of late President Richard Nixon, who re-established

diplomatic ties with China and paved the way for its opening up to the world with a historic visit in 1972. “If the free world doesn’t change Communist China — [it] will surely change us,” Pompeo added, attacking what is one of the most significant Republican foreign policy achievements in the last five decades. “The free world must triumph over this new tyranny,” he said.

It was Nixon’s visit to China in 1972, the first by an American president since the Communists took power in 1949, that upended a Cold War paradigm and paved the way for the normalisation of relations in 1979. The thaw was precipitated by a deterioration in China’s ties with the Soviet Union. Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping visited the US in 1979 after the establishment of diplomatic ties, smiling in photos as he tried on a cowboy hat in Texas. The Houston consulate that is being shut this week opened later the same year — it was China’s first in the United States.

Thursday’s speech was the fourth in a formatted series by senior members of the Trump administration framing the deteriorating relations with China, which has also been marked by a slew of punitive measures such as, most recently, the closure of the Chinese consulate in Houston. On Friday, China ordered the US to close its consulate in the western city of Chengdu, ratcheting up the diplomatic conflict and prompting the White House to caution Beijing against engaging in “tit-for-tat retaliation”.

“The current situation in Chinese-US relations is not what China desires to see. The United States is responsible for all this,” said foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin. “We once again urge the United States to immediately retract its wrong decision and create necessary conditions for bringing the bilateral relationship back on track.”

China’s state-run broadcaster also quoted Wang as attacking Pompeo’s remarks: “Pompeo’s statement was filled with cold war mentality. It’s a combination of political lies by US politicians recently. We resolutely oppose this.” Also on Friday, the US State Department sent out a notice warning Americans in China of a “heightened risk of arbitrary detention”. “The kind of engagement we have been pursuing has not brought the kind of change in China that President Nixon hoped to induce,” Pompeo said at the lecture, adding: “President Nixon once said he feared he had created a ‘Frankenstein’ by opening the world to the Chinese Communist Party. And here we are.”

He said there was now a need for “a new grouping of like-minded nations — a new alliance of democracies” to change the way they deal with China. He did not specify which these nations were. “We cannot treat this incarnation of China as a normal country,” Pompeo said, adding the United States cannot do it alone because the Chinese have spread far too wide and deep into the world, unlike the Soviet Union, which had remained closed.

When asked if he was urging nations to pick between the US and China, in line with a choice the US presented to the world in the 1940s between itself and the USSR, Pompeo said the choice for them was between “freedom and tyranny”.

“If we bend the knee now, our children’s children may be at the mercy of the CCP (the Chinese Communist Party), whose actions are the primary challenge to the free world,” he had said in his speech, as he was laying out the threat the world faced form China. “General Secretary Xi Jinping isn’t destined to tyrannize inside and outside of China forever, unless we allow it,” he said. The secretary of state also argued for involving the Chinese people in changing the regime.

“We must also engage and empower the Chinese people…a dynamic, freedom-loving people who are completely distinct from the Chinese Communist Party.” he said. He has been meeting Chinese dissidents and victims and survivors of Chinese oppression in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, and some of them were present in the audience at the invitation-only event. Scott Kennedy of Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies said cooperation with other democracies on China would be easier said than done, given the Trump administration’s record of dealing with allies.“How do you form a united front against China when the U.S. is bullying its allies, trashing multilateral institutions and pushing an economic decoupling (from China) that no one else supports?” he said.

(With agency inputs)

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