- The rhetoric out of the Munich conference suggests reaching phase two of the agreement, especially during an election cycle, may not be easy.
A presidential election campaign, not yet in full swing, can be high season for China-bashing in the United States.
Hopefully the preseason is not a good guide of what to expect. But the recent Munich Security Conference is not encouraging. Foreign Minister Wang Yi found himself defending China against a concerted attack from US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defence Secretary Mark Esper. There was little constructive in the exchange for bilateral relations or multilateral approaches to conflict resolution.
Esper devoted his speech to the perceived threat of China's rise. Pompeo compared Beijing to Moscow, saying it was a threat to both Europe and America. Wang dismissed their comments as "lies" and said China was committed to upholding multilateralism to preserve world peace. He said its handling of the virus outbreak showed the advantages of its political system.
This tit-for-tat polemic is driven by US efforts to keep Europe onside in its rivalry with China over cybersecurity, technology and trade, highlighted by a global campaign to block Huawei's 5G mobile technology. In that respect, the rhetoric was enlivened by a question from retired senior Chinese diplomat Fu Ying, now chairwoman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the National People's Congress.
US warns Europe not to follow China in the 'wrong direction'
Noting that China had adopted Western technologies without threat to its political system, she asked how adoption of Huawei's 5G technology would threaten Western political systems. It was an example of how a more confident China has no hesitation in rebutting the American narrative on the international stage.
The coronavirus outbreak makes rivalry with China a more complex issue in the presidential election campaign. As Wang is reported to have said, restrictions on movement between the US and mainland China complicate implementation of the phase one trade deal to lift US farm exports to China, intended to clear the decks for President Donald Trump's campaign.
At home, Trump faces internal criticism over an increasingly authoritarian style, including highly divisive meddling in the justice system. If he faces a domestic political backlash and implementation of the trade deal is lagging, China-bashing could serve as a distraction for voters. That would do nothing for prospects of a badly needed wider trade deal.
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