Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Beyond COVID-19, Part 6: U.S.-China Relations at a Standstill
Beyond COVID-19, Part 6: U.S.-China Relations at a Standstill

Beyond COVID-19, Part 6: U.S.-China Relations at a Standstill

We’re now in week four of social distancing and quarantine. Today, we’re welcoming our second guest to the Beyond COVID-19 discussion. Jacques deLisle is joining me to discuss important issues related to China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and East Asia. While China has been in the news due to it being where COVID-19 originated, not much else related to China has been covered widely in the news. This discussion will cover some important topics, such as Chinese political warfare, penetration into the American education system, the trade war, and Hong Kong, among other things.

This Round Table features a conversation between Thomas J. Shattuck, Research Associate in the Asia Program at FPRI, and Jacques deLisle, Director of the Asia Program at FPRI and Stephen A. Cozen Professor of Law, Professor of Political Science, and Director of the Center for the Study of Contemporary China at the University of Pennsylvania. The intention is to convene these conversations twice a week (Tuesdays and Thursdays) for the duration of the crisis (with occasional guests popping in), so that readers will not miss pertinent information and stories from the areas that FPRI covers.

General reminder to our readers to keep up to date with guidelines coming from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; continue to stay home as much as possible; and when you must leave your home and engage with people, be mindful of social distancing practices; and wash your hands frequently with soap for at least 20 seconds.

Thomas Shattuck: Jacques, thanks for agreeing to do this. I know it’s quite a struggle to discuss China without focusing on COVID-19, but that’s our fun challenge for today. Our special issue of Orbis on Political Warfare in East Asia was just released. Political warfare remains an important issue to focus on, particularly political warfare coming from Beijing. I know that before the pandemic, the U.S. Department of Justice charged a Harvard University Professor and two Chinese nationals. What does this case tell us about China’s reach into the American education system?

Jacques deLisle: You are referring to the case of Professor Charles Lieber, the chair of the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology at Harvard University. Lieber had been recruited into China’s Thousand Talents Program, which was established more than a decade ago and has sought to attract scientific talent based outside of China—initially focusing on scientists of Chinese origin who went abroad for education and had not returned. The inducements were considerable—well-funded lab facilities, generous pay (up to $50,000 per month in Lieber’s case), and a prestigious title. What Lieber has been charged with, after an investigation by the Department of Justice’s Trump-era “China Initiative,” is lying to investigators (after he had already lied to his employer) about his relationship with the Chinese government-funded program.

But that issue is, of course, a bit peripheral. What we have here are some genuinely tough, inter-related problems. One issue is drawing a distinction between perfectly legitimate international scientific collaboration and transnational funding for important and costly research, on one hand, and calculated, state-led efforts to acquire economically or national-security valuable technology from abroad in illicit ways, on the other hand. Lieber’s apparent failure to disclose and his U.S.-side work on Defense Department grants raise concerns on this front. Another problem is the tension between the scientific academic community’s culture of openness and transparency and mounting U.S. government concerns about STEM-field espionage by China that could harm U.S. national and national-economic security. Universities and the research community understand the latter issues, but are alarmed at signs of an overzealous and overly broad-brush U.S. government response. A final concern is the conflation of these scientific espionage threats from Chinese state-linked actors with the much broader universe of China-origin or even ethnically Chinese researchers who play such major roles in scientific work in the United States and who, in many cases, have perfectly legitimate relationships with China.

In terms of the question you pose about China’s “political warfare,” the Lieber episode reflects major challenges the U.S. faces in responding: sorting out the activity the U.S. might legitimately find threatening and should seek to counter from the much wider swath of cross-national educational and research collaboration, and not causing collateral damage to innocent actors, fruitful collaboration, U.S.-based scientific research capacities, and some of the remaining positive elements in the much-battered U.S.-China relationship.

And since everything these days is about COVID-19, I should note that Lieber’s China lab was at the Wuhan University of Technology, and the crazy conspiracy theory based on that fact and on the January timing of Lieber’s arrest is that he was behind the release of the coronavirus.

Shattuck: This is just one instance of political warfare occurring between the United States and China. Are there any other recent examples worth highlighting?

deLisle: “Political warfare” or “sharp power”—meaning something like the overt and covert use of diplomatic, political, economic, and information means to affect another state’s policymaking or political contexts that shape such policymaking—is an extraordinary multi-front phenomenon. I can give you a quick catalogue of what many observers would include on the list of PRC political warfare targeting the United States. It includes: demanding that U.S. airline and hotel companies change their websites to avoid suggesting that Taiwan has a status incompatible with Beijing’s position that Taiwan is a part of China; threatening the NBA with significant financial consequences for not repudiating a team official’s tweet supporting Hong Kong protesters; Hollywood studios’ reportedly editing content and foregoing subjects that would offend Chinese authorities and thus close off lucrative PRC markets; affecting the content of traditional media and social media reaching U.S. audiences by seeding state-linked media organs and Twitter accounts in U.S. markets, and blocking “anti-China” content on China-based apps widely used in the United States; relying on Confucius Institutes on U.S. campuses to steer, and limit, the content of programming addressing controversial China-related issues; and using state-linked agents or cooperative informants among fellow students to chill the expression of unorthodox views by some of the many tens of thousands of PRC students at American universities.

Such tactics—many of them ham-handed—have produced considerable pushback in the United States, blunting the impact of Chinese political warfare or sharp power. China is not yet in the same league as Russia in terms of its commitment or ability to undermine U.S. political processes, but its capacities and will to turn to political warfare and sharp power are significant and growing. This turn to political warfare and sharp power is partly because China’s formidable “hard power” still lags that of the United States and would be politically, economically, and reputationally costly to use, and partly because Chinese “soft power” has always been weak and recently has been in serious decline.

I would refer anyone interested in a deeper dive into these issues to look at several of the articles in the just-published issue of Orbis, as well as the policy and scholarly literatures cited therein.

Shattuck: Before the pandemic, Hong Kong and the massive protests made the news almost every day. Has the situation calmed down in Hong Kong? What can we expect to come out of Hong Kong in the near future?

deLisle: One of the significant, if oblique, effects of the pandemic is that it has quelled street protests around the world, including in Hong Kong. Hong Kongers with high and undiminished passion for the issues of police and government accountability, an autonomous and fair legal system, and progress toward genuine democracy are not reprising the massive demonstrations that were such a dramatic story through much of 2019. Risks to protester and bystander health are all too vivid to a population that suffered through the SARS epidemic in 2003 and that saw the initial spread of COVID-19 from across the much-crossed border between the Special Administrative Region and the rest of China. The Hong Kong government imposed significant restrictions on large-scale gatherings, which were easily justified as public health measures. And the Hong Kong authorities regained some of their much-battered standing with a much-alienated public through early success in containing the outbreak—at least in initial months—putting Hong Kong in an elite group with South Korea, Singapore, and Taiwan in avoiding massive community spread without resorting to severe and sustained lockdowns.

But the fundamentals of Hong Kong politics have not changed and are likely to reemerge into full public view. After pro-democracy candidates critical of Beijing and the Hong Kong government swept to overwhelming victory in the elections for the grassroots district council members in November, Beijing sacked its top official in Hong Kong, Wang Zhimin, who had failed to contain or manage the mounting protests, replacing him with Luo Huining, a veteran official with almost no Hong Kong-related experience and past assignments that included dealing with restive ethnic Tibetans in Qinghai province and rooting out pervasive corruption in Shanxi province.

The next foreseeable focal point will be the elections for the Legislative Council—the SAR’s legislature—scheduled for September 2020. The key issues to watch will be: whether the Hong Kong government or Beijing will force disqualification of some “pan-democrat” (pro-democracy) candidates, as occurred in connection with the preceding legislative elections four years ago; and how pan-dem candidates fare, especially in the half of the legislature’s 75 seats that are from one-person-one-vote geographic constituencies. If much of the public sees the elections as producing results that illegitimately suppress pro-democracy voices, the energy behind the protests is likely to return in force.

Even if the elections are accepted as free and fair, it will not solve the underlying and long-running struggle over the character and basis of legitimate government in Hong Kong—one that dates to the 1980s and 1990s—between those who demand what they see as universal and now locally embedded principles of democracy, on one side, and those who see the legitimate order as the one created by the Hong Kong Basic Law as an act of PRC law-making for a Chinese territory, subject to the national government’s interpretation and, if need be, amendment.

Shattuck: The U.S.-China trade war has taken a backseat to the COVID-19 response. The two sides signed a “phase one” deal in January. Has there been any additional progress on the economic front?

deLisle: The “phase one” trade deal did not amount to much in terms of addressing the major issues in U.S.-China economic relations. China committed to a $200 billion increase in purchases of U.S. manufactured goods, agricultural and energy products, and services in return for the reduction of some, but not all, of the tariffs the Trump administration imposed as part of the “trade war.” China also promised to address some concerns about protection of U.S. intellectual property, pledging more effective civil and criminal enforcement against infringers, ending technology transfers as a precondition for market access or administrative approvals to do business in China, and curbing state support for Chinese outbound foreign investment targeting technology acquisition.

The agreement was rightly criticized on several, inter-related grounds: prioritizing a potential election year political win for Trump on the economically less significant issue of the bilateral trade deficit; failing to address some of the most important intellectual property issues, such as cyber-theft; making no progress on thorny and fundamental questions such as China’s ambitious industrial policy, backed by state money and legal measures, to make China a world leader in major emerging technology sectors, and the unlevel playing field for U.S. competitors created by China’s statist approach to economic policy more generally; and lacking reliable, effective enforcement mechanisms.

So, many of the big issues were left over for a “phase two” or later deal. There was a good deal of well-founded skepticism about the prospects for a significant phase two deal in the near term. The overwhelming impact of COVID-19 has, if anything, made such a deal even more unlikely. The coronavirus disruption also has increased the volatility, especially in the negative direction, of Trump-era U.S.-China relations, with the U.S. president alternately praising Xi Jinping for what has been a mixed record in responding to the outbreak, and resorting to xenophobic, blame-deflecting references to the novel coronavirus as the “Wuhan” or “Chinese” virus.

A curious effect of the pandemic may be to strengthen, at least for a time, the pro-decoupling agenda of “China hawks” in the Trump administration. The massive economic disruption triggered by policy measures to shutdown economies—including factories in China and their customers in the United States—has achieved a level of decoupling, in the short run, that White House China economic policy advisor Peter Navarro previously could only have dreamed about. The dependence of the United States on imports from China of medical equipment, including personal protective equipment for hospital staff and reagents for COVID-19 tests, has given a national security and public safety gloss to what were once more narrowly economic arguments for re-on-shoring production of essential goods. This aspect was exacerbated when China threatened to weaponize this interdependence by blocking, or allocating according to political-diplomatic choices, the export of such materials, although this was partially off-set by Beijing’s soft-power gains through relief supplies from China arriving in hard-hit areas in the U.S. and Europe.

Shattuck: Let’s move across the Strait and discuss Taiwan. I briefly discussed the TAIPEI Act’s passage last week. Can you explain the law’s importance to Taiwan and U.S.-Taiwan relations at large?

deLisle: The cutely acronymed “Taiwan Allies International Protection and Enhancement Initiative Act” is the latest in a series of laws passed by Congress in the last few years that seek to signal enhanced U.S. support for Taiwan. The others include two rounds of the National Defense Authorization Act, the Taiwan Travel Act, and the Asian Reassurance Initiative Act. Collectively, and sometimes with overlapping content, they call for clearer and stronger ties between Taipei and Washington, and diplomatic and tangible manifestations of U.S. backing for Taiwan in the international system. They reaffirm the U.S.’s policies of opposing coerced changes to the cross-Strait status quo, as reflected in the now-four-decade-old Taiwan Relations Act and later policy measures (such as the Reagan-era Six Assurances). They address specific issues, such as higher-level diplomatic contacts, more robust arms sales and military cooperation, and so on. The TAIPEI Act has two notable features. It calls for the U.S. to use foreign policy carrots and sticks to reward, or punish, other states that have upgraded relations with Taiwan, or undermined Taiwan’s security or prosperity. It also calls for the U.S. to support Taiwan’s membership in international organizations that do not require statehood as a condition of membership, and observer status for Taiwan in states-member-only organizations. The act also includes a rather diffuse call for pursuing a long-stalled bilateral trade agreement.

Ultimately, these laws require little in terms of changes to U.S. policies or actions. Mostly, they variously state the policy views of the Congress, urge the president and administration to take—or, in the case of the TAIPEI Act’s carrots and sticks, merely consider—action, and reaffirm long-standing and deeply entrenched principles of U.S. policy toward Taiwan and cross-Strait issues. If these laws were to purport to require much more, the executive branch would push back, interpreting them narrowly or rejecting congressional demands as encroachments on the president’s foreign affairs powers.

These laws are, therefore, symbolic. But symbolism matters in terms of helping Taiwan secure international space—and, in turn, its own security—in the face of mounting coercion from the PRC, especially following the election and, more recently, reelection in Taiwan of President Tsai Ing-wen, whom Beijing regards as too “pro-independence.” Beijing’s moves have included poaching one-third of Taiwan’s dwindling corps of diplomatic partners—a development that prompted the TAIPEI Act.

This surge in legislation supporting U.S. support for Taiwan reflects the endurance of long-standing policies, solidarity with a long-standing friend and fellow democratic regime, and a pushback against Beijing’s increased bullying of Taiwan. But it also reflects the broader sharply negative turn in U.S.-China relations. In contrast to, say, a dozen years ago, the bipartisan view in Washington is now that Taiwan is no longer a likely source of an avoidable conflict in a basically good relationship with China; Taiwan is now seen as an asset in an increasingly rivalrous U.S.-China relationship.

Here, too, the coronavirus rears its ugly, multi-crowned head. One of the major past gains in Taiwan’s now-imperiled engagement with major international organizations—a focus of the TAIPEI Act—was the acquisition of ad hoc observer status at a principal WHO-related body. This came about with U.S. support because of China’s lack of transparency and cooperation in the early phases of a serious respiratory ailment emanating from the Chinese mainland: Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS).

Shattuck: Jacques, thanks for taking the time to answer my questions. I hope you’re staying healthy and safe.

deLisle: Thanks. I hope the same for you and our readers.