u.s.-china tensions
January 10, 2021

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Saturday that he is lifting "self-imposed restrictions" on contacts between American diplomats and their Taiwanese counterparts, ending a practice that was in place to appease China.

The United States, like most countries, doesn't have official relations with Taiwan, which China claims as its territory, but the Trump administration has "ramped up" its support for the self-ruled, democratic country over the years, Reuters notes, and Pompeo's latest move appears to be part of an effort to "lock in a tough approach" to Beijing before the White House transition takes place later this month.

Taiwan's government welcomed the decision, but Chinese state media was unsurprisingly critical. One piece of commentary published by CGTN, the English-language channel of state broadcaster CCTV, called it a "cowardly act of sabotage" that "crossed a dangerous red line." And Hu Xijin, the editor of China's state-owned Global Times, warned — in a since-delated tweet — that Taiwan could face repercussions for Pompeo's actions, The Associated Press reports. "The option of using military means to solve [the] Taiwan question will also be put on the table," the tweet reportedly read.

The move may not be universally applauded stateside, either, per Reuters. Bonnie Glaser, an Asia expert at Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies, predicts the Biden administration will "rightly be unhappy that a policy decision like this was made in the final days of the Trump administration." Read more at Reuters and The Associated Press. Tim O'Donnell

August 19, 2020

American officials familiar with a new internal report conducted by U.S. intelligence agencies said the findings affirm previous claims that local officials in Wuhan and Hubei Province hid coronavirus information from Beijing at the beginning of the pandemic, The New York Times reports.

The U.S. report certainly doesn't exculpate the central government from wrongdoing, which occurred at all levels of the Chinese Communist Party, but it does make for a more nuanced reading of the pandemic's origins and complicates the Trump administration's narrative pinning the spread of the virus directly on Beijing's malfeasance.

Michael Pillsbury, a China Scholar at the Hudson Institute who informally advises Trump, said "it makes a huge difference" if Wuhan officials were actually shielding the central government from key information. If Chinese President Xi Jinping wasn't primarily responsible for any cover-ups, Pillsbury told the Times, then his subordinates likely had not engaged in "total deceit" on the coronavirus. That could reopen a door for "good-faith negotiations" between Washington and Beijing that have stalled in large part due to divisions over the virus.

Pillsbury, for what it's worth, is a proponent of the U.S. competing with China, but also wants the U.S. to stick to the January trade agreement signed by Trump and Xi. Read more at The New York Times. Tim O'Donnell

August 9, 2020

It's not hard to read between the lines of Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar's visit to Taiwan to meet with health officials about the coronavirus pandemic.

Azar arrived Sunday, making him the highest-ranking U.S. cabinet official to embark on a diplomatic visit to the island since 1979 when Washington broke relations with Taipei as a concession to China, which claims Taiwan as a territory. Since then, the U.S. has remained a de facto ally of Taiwan, but has largely refrained from demonstrating any semblance of official ties. The Trump administration has increasingly played fast and loose with those guidelines of late, however, as the U.S.' relationship with China deteriorates, especially in light of the pandemic. And it certainly feels like Azar's trip is part of the possible "strategic shift," The Financial Times reports.

While some experts acknowledge Taiwan deserves better treatment from the U.S., there's also a sense that Washington is creating risks for Taipei, FT reports. "We ought to push the envelope because the envelope was sealed by us, and we have opened it before," said William Stanton, a former director of the American Institute in Taiwan. "But there is the worry — and it is one Taiwan needs to consider as well — that the China threat is constantly there."

Additionally, Shelley Rigger, a professor at Davidson College and a leading Taiwan expert, told FT she isn't sure how serious President Trump is about supporting Taiwan and predicted he could back down if things with China really get heated, leaving the island vulnerable. "If I were Beijing, I would be asking myself: 'If the U.S. gives us a justification to attack Taiwan, what are the odds that he will change is pattern of cutting and running?" Rigger said. Read more at The Financial Times. Tim O'Donnell

July 13, 2020

The United States has previously said it considers Beijing's territorial claims over most of the South China Sea unlawful, but Washington has officially remained neutral, refusing to pick a side between China and Southeast Asian countries like Brunei, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Vietnam that have clashed over the crucial body of water, instead advocating for freedom of the seas.

But in a statement Monday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the U.S. is strengthening its policy on the issue and making clear that China's claims "are completely unlawful, as is its campaign of bullying to control them." The statement appears to be a preview of an expected position paper that officially rejects specific Chinese claims for the first time, people familiar with the matter told The Wall Street Journal.

A draft of the paper seen by the Journal did not mince words. "China's maritime claims pose the single greatest threat to the freedom of the seas in modern history," it reportedly reads. "We cannot afford to re-enter an era where states like China attempt to assert sovereignty over the seas."

The Associated Press notes the U.S. will technically remain neutral in territorial disputes, but in effect the Trump administration is siding with the Southeast Asian countries. It's unclear if there will be any tangible effects as a result of the announcement, but that could depend on how the U.S. responds to claims by other countries making similar excessive maritime claims.

Either way, it's another example of heightening U.S.-China tensions. Read more at The Wall Street Journal, as well as Pompeo's full statement. Tim O'Donnell

June 2, 2020

Tensions between the United States and China continue to run high, and they likely won't simmer when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo meets with survivors of the Tiananmen Square massacre Tuesday afternoon.

In 1989, student-led demonstrations aiming for democratic reforms in China were held in Beijing before the government forcibly suppressed the movement. Pompeo extending a hand to the surviving participants certainly seems like a shot at the Chinese Communist Party, especially as it cracks down on a contemporary pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong. Earlier Tuesday, Pompeo blasted pro-Beijing authorities in Hong Kong for denying permission to hold a vigil in remembrance of the massacre for the first time in 30 years.

But some critics of the Trump administration think the secretary's gesture is hypocritical, since just a day earlier federal police used tear gas and flash grenades to disperse a peaceful protest against police brutality at Lafayette Square across from the White House so President Trump could pose for a photo-op in front of the historic St. John's Church, and police have clashed violently with demonstrators across the country over the last several days. Tim O'Donnell

May 24, 2020

Wang Yanyi, the director of the Wuhan Institute of Virology, told Chinese state media Sunday the lab was working on three live strains of bat coronavirus, but the closest genetic match to the virus that causes COVID-19 and sparked a global health crisis was only 79.8 percent. Therefore, Wang said, claims by the likes of President Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that the virus may have escaped from the facility are "pure fabrication."

As tensions between the U.S. and China have heightened since the outbreak, Trump and Pompeo have leaned into the lab-origin theory. But the scientific consensus remains that the pathogen was passed from bats to humans through an intermediary species at a wet market in Wuhan last year, although it's becoming more challenging to pinpoint the animal.

China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi said Sunday that some political forces in the U.S. are trying to push the two global powers "to the brink" of "a new Cold War" and endangering global peace. Wang's concerns were broader than just the back and the forth over pandemic blame, however; he also criticized the U.S. for slowing nuclear negotiations with North Korea and warned Washington not to cross Beijing's "red line" on Taiwan. Wang did say foreign interference concerning Hong Kong's renewed anti-government protests was unwelcome, but he didn't single the U.S. out in that regard. Read more at The Guardian and Bloomberg. Tim O'Donnell

May 9, 2020

The back-and-forth continues.

The Department of Homeland Security said Friday the United States will shorten the visa length for Chinese journalists working for non-American news outlets to 90 days. Previously, journalists with Chinese passports were granted open-ended visas. They can apply for extensions under the new rules, but renewed visas will also last just 90 days. The new limit won't apply to reporters from Hong Kong, Macau, or to mainland Chinese citizens who hold green cards.

It's the latest development in a media war between Washington and Beijing that has intensified during the coronavirus pandemic. American officials said the rules were meant to counterbalance the "suppression of independent journalism" in China, whose government expelled journalists from The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and The Washington Post in March. Before that, the U.S. reduced the number of Chinese citizens employed by multiple state-controlled Chinese news organizations to work in the country.

The New York Times notes the move wasn't unexpected; U.S. intelligence officials have long believed some journalists at Beijing-run outlets are spies, and the Trump administration has designated some Chinese news agencies as foreign government functionaries.

The heightened tensions between the world's two biggest powers didn't just show up in the media world Friday. U.S. lawmakers wrote to nearly 60 countries asking them to support Taiwan's participation in the World Health Organization, a move that likely won't sit well with China. And Washington also blocked a United Nations security council resolution calling for a global ceasefire during the pandemic because it indirectly referenced the WHO, which the U.S. has blamed in conjunction with China for failing to suppress the outbreak. Tim O'Donnell

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