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Targeting China’s Core Interests Is A Fool’s Errand

Targeting China's Core Interests Is A Fool's Errand

Protesters deface the emblem of Hong Kong.

The U.S.’ great power competition with China is intensifying on a number of fronts simultaneously, namely trade, security, and human rights. Current U.S. pressure on China through the Hong Kong protests actually manages to intertwine all three areas concurrently. However, as with the origins of current U.S.-Russian tensions being traced back decades to several factors, including NATO expansion, it’s unrealistic to expect Chinese restraint to last indefinitely. The eventual collapse of this restraint as it pertains to China’s core interests should be expected and, prophetically, will have unforeseen effects not only on stability between the U.S and China, but on global stability as well.

The U.S.-China trade war has been ongoing and has lasted longer than either side has really anticipated. After the U.S.’ statement that U.S.-China talks in the shadow of the G20 Osaka meeting were “constructive”, U.S.-China trade relations are worse now than ever before with the U.S. now threatening to impose tariffs on virtually all Chinese imports into the U.S., including many consumer goods. While there are legitimate issues which the U.S. has with China relating to trade, current U.S. policy consists of constant moving of the goalposts, combined with conflation of various, seemingly-related, other issues.

With respect to trade, these issues are China’s development of 5G and support of Huawei on the technological side, combined with labeling China’s BRI as “debt-trap diplomacy” on the investment and development side. Additionally, there is now the U.S.’ labeling of China as a currency manipulator, after previously declaring that this wasn’t the case. This conflation and capriciousness on the part of the U.S. are now actually empowering more hardliners in Beijing and, as a result, has led to a more inflexible Chinese stance, leading many Chinese to see continued negotiations with the U.S., in any area, as an exercise in futility.

On the security front, there are several theaters which most concern both U.S. and Chinese strategists. From the Chinese perspective, priority is given to the South China Sea, East China Sea, and the Korean Peninsula, among others. While there are Chinese issues with respect to other states within these areas, no issue quite rises to the prominence of Taiwan. While several states globally may recognize Taiwan diplomatically as a de facto country, for China, this issue is non-negotiable. China will never recognize Taiwan as a state de jure, no matter what the U.S.’ Taiwan Relations Act says.

Concurrently, Taiwan’s importance to the U.S.’ Indo-Pacific strategy has risen in prominence recently with increased U.S. arms sales. However, this pales in comparison to increased U.S. naval pressure, demonstrated by U.S. ship maneuvers through the Taiwan Strait itself. Adding insult to injury, from the Chinese perspective, is similar maneuvers made by vessels from U.S. allies, the U.K. and France. After repeated Chinese warnings, its aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, was recently sent through the Strait as well, as a clear response.

Human rights has always been a sore point in U.S.-China relations, at one point the monitoring of which was explicitly tied to China’s continued MFN status. As important as both trade and security are to the U.S.-China dynamic, it is in the human rights realm where tensions have been increasing exponentially. Tibet and the status of the Dalai Lama have always had their supporters in the U.S..

However, the true lever which the U.S. is employing in this dimension against China is Xinjiang and the status of the Uyghurs within the province. Initially, various U.S. reports pegged the number at 1 million Uyghurs suspected of being imprisoned within the province’s concentration camps. Now, this figure has been inflated to 2 million, with no apparent ceiling in sight. Referencing the issue conflation cited above, these Uyghurs aren’t just being imprisoned, but they are apparently incarcerated in a high-tech fashion, replete with video surveillance, eye retina scans, and telephone-monitoring, among other security techniques.

However, current events in Hong Kong are drawing more U.S. attention and have proven themselves as an even more effective instrument than the Uyghurs in pressuring China on the human rights front. From the Chinese perspective, the Hong Kong demonstrators, far from being peaceful, are part of a concerted U.S. campaign to foster yet another “color revolution”, this time within China itself. Making matters worse, unlike Xinjiang, Hong Kong was a former territory of the Western powers, seized in a moment of weakness in Chinese history. Again, from the Chinese perspective, the unrest in Hong Kong touches upon a number of other issues as well as the city is a leading trade and financial hub for China, in addition to the entire affair being a strict matter of internal security.

All of these issues may apparently be unrelated, but the U.S. has not failed to use all of them in its toolbox to contain China, which it now sees as a “revisionist power”, along with Russia. The similarity among them is that they are all areas that touch upon facets which China considers to be among its core national interests, and therefore not subject to any kind of negotiation. With Taiwan and Hong Kong, China has made this abundantly clear on several occasions. With respect to trade, there may be more space for negotiation on these matters. However, even here, China would argue that a state’s right to choose its own model of economic development, here specifically China 2025 focusing on core future technologies, is indeed a matter of national sovereignty.

Just as with two prizefighters, there must be rules of the road to govern the increasing U.S.-China competition. However, by targeting China’s core interests, areas where  the Chinese have clearly articulated that there will be no negotiation, it appears that the U.S. prizefighter is increasingly hitting its opponent below the belt. However, as all prizefighters are keenly aware of, there are certain areas which are off-limits and, if deliberately targeted by their opponent, invite justifiable retaliation. To date, we have not seen specific U.S. core interests targeted by the Chinese, at least not to the full extent possible if they really wanted to. This restraint won’t be indefinite and the current U.S. policy of  threats and intimidation towards China can only invite more retribution, with concordant long-term, unforeseen ramifications.



Robert Matthew Shines

Robert Matthew Shines is President of Bright Group Consulting L.L.C., where he provides strategic advisory services regarding US-China relations. He has conducted numerous cross-border business policy and feasibility research projects and has been engaged in international geopolitical risk assessment and analysis for over 20 years. He has extensive experience in international business policies in the U.S. and emerging markets and has provided policy advice for numerous firms and institutions. He is a regular contributor to several foreign policy outlets, including the Foreign Policy Association. He received his MBA from the Thunderbird School of Global Management with a focus on U.S.-China relations.

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