A stupefying stench hangs over the rotting remains of the trade talks as they slowly decompose amid acidic rhetoric.
In this compost heap of diplomacy, China and the United States have embarked on an economic Cold War which threatens to pollute global growth and broaden the dispute into a clash of civilizations.
Washington, and in particular under President Donald Trump, has failed to build a coalition of the willing. His scattergun approach has alienated allies such as the European Union, Japan and trusted US friends in Asia.
Many are just as concerned as the White House about Beijing’s trading practices and the slow pace of further reforms. They are also deeply worried about President Xi Jinping’s brand of nationalism, which has seen the militarization of the South China Sea and the PLA Navy moving into the Pacific.
Nearer home, Hong Kong has felt the authoritarian grip of China’s ruling Communist Party in the form of controversial changes to the city’s extradition law, while Taiwan has come under increased pressure.
“Regardless of which country people think is the current leading economic power, one thing is consistent: Most publics surveyed prefer the American leadership,” a report released by the Pew Research Centre, a Washington-based think tank, revealed.
“When thinking about the future, a 25-country median of 63% say they prefer a world in which the US is the leading power, while just 19% would favor one in which China leads,” it continued in a survey published at the end of 2018.
“In the Asia-Pacific region, few say they prefer China. Among China’s immediate neighbors, preference for the US is particularly high: 81% of Japanese, 77% of Filipinos and 73% of South Koreans all favor a future where Washington, not Beijing, leads. In Australia – where 52% say China is the current leading economic power – nearly three-quarters still say they prefer a future where the US is the world’s dominant power,” the study, which included the Asia-Pacific, Europe and Latin America, added.
Sifting through the debris of Sino-US relations has shown the depth of the chasm that now exists between the world’s two largest economies.
Apart from the trade conflict, there are other scenarios in play.
To the rest of the world, Beijing projects an image of openness with its signature foreign policy program, the Belt and Road Initiative, despite lingering debt concerns from the US, the European Union and its neighbors.
But domestically, a suffocating bamboo curtain has been drawn over political dissent, rigidly enforced by an army of censors manning the Great Firewall, and stifling online debate. Algorithms hunt down banned words such as “democracy.”
Then, of course, there are the “internment camps” in Xinjiang province, where Muslim groups are being detained.
Former “prisoners” have described being tortured during interrogation, living in crowded cells and being subjected to a brutal daily regimen of CCP indoctrination, according to the Reuters news agency. Many have committed suicide.
“ [China’s] Communist Party is using the security forces for mass imprisonment of Chinese Muslims,” Randall Schriver, the assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs, told a recent Pentagon briefing during a broader discussion about China’s military. “[Detained Muslims could be] close to three million citizens.”
The United Nations has been at the vanguard of exposing this tragedy, estimating that one million Uighurs have been interned.
In response, Deputy Foreign Minister Zhang Hanhui has dismissed both numbers as “fabrication” in an attempt to “vilify” Beijing.
“For some time, certain people have been campaigning to vilify the Chinese government and its policies in Xinjiang,” he told a media briefing. “They even fabricated some figures, claiming that up to one million people have been detained in XUAR [the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in Northwest China] and this is absolute nonsense.”
What is certainly not “nonsense” is the Party’s use of internal repression.
Even in Hong Kong, there are growing fears that its special status is being eroded after proposed changes to an extradition law sparked the latest flashpoint.
The planned piece of legislation, which has since been suspended, would allow mainland China to pursue fugitives, as well as government critics, in the former British colony.
Last weekend, up to one million people poured on to the streets to protest against the bill while tens of thousands continued the campaign outside the Legislative Council on Wednesday.
Violent clashes later broke out as police used tear gas to stop protesters storming the building.
Suddenly, gaping cracks started to appear in the “one country, two systems” policy just five years after the pro-democracy Umbrella Movement in the city.
After all, this was the foundation of the Joint Agreement between the United Kingdom and China, paving the way for the reunification of the former British colony with the motherland in 1997.
In a commentary for Asia Times earlier this week, Hong Kong lawyer Neville Sarony wrote:
“The people of Hong Kong’s objection to their government’s bill to enable anyone within its jurisdiction to be extradited to mainland China is a microcosm of the clash of legal cultures between the PRC [People’s Republic of China] and its Special Administrative Region.
“That the Hong Kong government responds with blatant lies, misrepresentations and an obdurate refusal to face the truth, is evidence that it no longer represents the population over which it presides. This is a very dangerous precedent to set.
“Misrepresentations and lies dressed up as truth are the very meat and veg of Chinese Communist policy.”
Indeed, the ramifications will not be lost on Taiwan. Part of the reunification plan with China revolves around the “one country, two systems” model.
Communist Beijing constantly reiterates the mantra. Democratic Taipei finds it distinctly unappealing.
A public opinion survey conducted last month by Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council showed that 83.6% of the citizens on the island oppose the policy.
For the CCP, that is completely irrelevant as Xi’s administration regards the ROC as a renegade Chinese province.
Moreover, Lieutenant General Shao Yuanming fired a warning shot across the bows of Washington three weeks ago after reports emerged that the US was preparing to sell a military package worth more than US$2 billion to Taiwan. It would include state-of-the-art tanks and missile systems.
“If anyone wants to separate Taiwan from the country, the Chinese military will resolutely defend the unity of our motherland at all costs,” he said at the Shangri-la Dialogue defense summit in Singapore.
Issues also exist on the diplomatic front. Back in May, media reports confirmed that high-level security officials from the US and Taiwan met for the first time in nearly 40 years.
“I believe we’re inching closer & closer to Beijing’s red line on US-Taiwan senior official mtgs [meetings] – those that are publicized at least,” Derek Grossman, a senior defense analyst at the RAND Corporation, a California-based think tank, said on Twitter.
Still, the sound of saber-rattling has become deafening in the past year.
At the end of last month, Acting US Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan warned that China’s militarization of the disputed South China Sea had been “excessive” by building military installations on artificial islands and reefs.
“Perhaps the greatest long-term threat to the vital interests of states across this region comes from actors who seek to undermine, rather than uphold, the rules-based international order,” Shanahan said at the Shangri-La Dialogue.
“We’re not going to ignore Chinese behavior and I think in the past people have kind of tiptoed around that,” he added at Asia’s biggest security forum.
It was yet another reminder of the stench wafting through the compost heap of rotting diplomacy.