- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 26, 2020

Chinese onlookers filled the streets Sunday as American diplomats packed boxes, boarded buses and prepared to abandon the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu, the latest casualty of an increasingly bitter tit-for-tat exchange between Washington and Beijing.

The scene outside the complex was mostly peaceful as American personnel prepared for their hasty exit ahead of Monday’s deadline, gathering documents and electronics, while Chinese law enforcement shut down streets and sidewalks outside to keep crowds out.

The frantic evacuation came on the heels of a whirlwind week that brought U.S.-Chinese relations to their lowest point in years. Both nations stepped up rhetorical attacks and stoked fears that a more serious diplomatic crisis — or perhaps even military confrontation between the rival nuclear powers — could be on the horizon.

Chinese officials last week ordered the closure of the Chengdu facility in direct retaliation for the Trump administration’s forced shuttering a few days earlier of the Chinese Consulate in Houston, which the U.S. described as the epicenter of a major Beijing spying operation that threatened American national security.

The diplomatic punch and counterpunch are the latest signs of a deteriorating relationship between the two powers amid the Trump administration’s well-coordinated, newly aggressive posture toward China.

Over the past several weeks, the U.S. has stared down Chinese warships in the South China Sea, arrested a researcher in San Francisco who American officials say is affiliated with the Chinese military, charged two Chinese hackers with trying to steal medical research, and repeatedly blasted the communist nation’s violent crackdown on Hong Kong protests and its broader record on human rights.

All of that comes against the backdrop of the global COVID-19 pandemic, which the administration blames largely on Beijing while arguing that tens of thousands of lives could have been saved if the Chinese Communist Party hadn’t covered up the severity of the outbreak inside its country late last year.

Some of President Trump’s supporters in Congress say that virtually everyone in Washington is coming to grips with the military, economic, human rights and health threats posed by Beijing. That reality, they say, has given the president political leeway to take a much tougher stance.

“People have woken up, on both sides of the aisle, to just how dangerous communist China is. Their lies are taking away people’s lives,” Sen. Ted Cruz, Texas Republican, told CBS’s “Face the Nation” on Sunday.

The administration’s decision last week to close the Chinese Consulate in Houston was perhaps the most dramatic step to date in the increasingly tense standoff, but it wasn’t entirely a surprise to observers who have watched the White House formulate a much more coherent, sharp-edged policy toward China over the past several weeks.

In addition to the closing of the consulate in Houston, top U.S. officials, including Attorney General William Barr and Defense Secretary Mark Esper, made fiery speeches that attacked China on several fronts. The day after the Houston decision, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivered an address in which he assailed decades of U.S. policy that he said produced an untrustworthy, militant and manipulative government in Beijing.

“The truth is that our policies, and those of other free nations, resurrected China’s failing economy, only to see Beijing bite the international hands that were feeding it,” Mr. Pompeo said. “We opened our arms to Chinese citizens, only to see the Chinese Communist Party exploit our free and open society. China sent propagandists into our press conferences, our research centers, our high schools, our colleges, and even into our PTA meetings.

“Whatever the reason, today China is increasingly authoritarian at home and more aggressive in its hostility to freedom everywhere else. And President Trump has said: enough,” he said.

China has given clear indications that it intends to fight back. The nation’s military has shown no signs of slowing its expansion in the South China Sea, and the decision to evict the U.S. from Chengdu shows it is also willing to play diplomatic hardball.

A day after Mr. Pompeo’s speech, top Chinese officials said the overall U.S. approach to geopolitics is evidence of a “Cold War mindset.”

“In order to deflect attention with slanders against and oppression of China and score some political gains, several U.S. politicians have been drumming up ideological rivalry, blabbering about changing China, rejecting China-U.S. relations and driving a wedge between China and other countries,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said Friday. “Their petty tricks cannot fool the American people and the international community. In terms of social systems, China doesn’t intend to change the U.S., and the U.S. surely cannot alter China.”

Although the administration has stopped far short of calling for regime change in China, Mr. Pompeo said the U.S. and its allies “must induce China to change.” It signaled an approach that centers not just on combating specific Chinese military and diplomatic moves but also a broader effort to shift the country’s worldview over time.

Aside from the mutual consulate closings, perhaps the clearest sign of growing U.S.-Chinese turmoil is in the South China Sea, a 1.3-million-mile area that Beijing increasingly claims as its own. The two countries over the July Fourth weekend held dueling military drills in the region, and top U.S. defense officials in recent weeks have pledged to ramp up American activity in the sea.

Specialists say that’s the right approach. The administration’s tough talk toward Beijing, they say, must be matched by a level of tangible military buildup that shows China it cannot and will not have free reign over the Pacific.

“The U.S. needs to improve its ability to push more capability into the theater without shortchanging other theaters in order to do so,” Dean Cheng, senior research fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, and Lt. Col. James Carafano, the foundation’s vice president for national security and foreign policy, wrote recently.

“There are a number of measures worth considering: forward basing more submarines in Guam, proceeding with recommendations that increase the rate of production of Virginia-class attack submarines, and investing in a long-range strike stealth drone that can be launched from a carrier,” they said.

The administration also has taken steps to cut into China’s economic footprint. On Friday, the White House and the State Department announced that they would relax rules on the sale of American-made armed drones around the world. The move will help U.S. weapons-makers tap into a global market that China had dominated.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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