Beijing has retaliated swiftly against Washington’s decision earlier this week to close down the Chinese consulate in Houston by ordering the closure of the US consulate in Chengdu in southwestern China. Beijing called it a “legitimate and necessary response to the unreasonable measures by the United States”. China had also rejected the Trump Administration’s charge that its Houston consulate was engaged in espionage and theft of industrial secrets. This is the first time since the US and China normalised relations in 1979 that the two sides are downgrading diplomatic ties. The closure of consulates in Houston and Chengdu marks a significant escalation of tensions between the world’s two most important powers and is bound to affect all major actors in the international system, including India.
Although the US-China trade war had begun two years ago, with both sides imposing punitive tariffs on imports from each other, Washington and Beijing had continuing negotiations on resolving the dispute. The two sides had announced a phase one of the trade deal earlier this year. But recent months have seen the rapid expansion of the scope and intensity of the conflict. The Trump Administration charged China with spreading the COVID-19 virus that has infected more than four million Americans and killed nearly 1,50,000. Beijing retaliated by alleging that the Trump Administration was blaming China for its own failures in dealing with the pandemic. It also floated the theory that the US Army might have been the original source of the deadly virus. Earlier this week, the Trump Administration accused Chinese hackers of trying to steal US research on anti-COVID vaccines. In recent weeks, the US stepped up its global campaign against China’s telecom giant Huawei and pressed its allies and partners to reject its technology in rolling out the 5G mobile networks.
Beyond the bilateral issues of diplomatic representation, trade, technology and the coronavirus, the conflict between the two great powers has inevitably begun to envelop other countries, especially those in Asia. Last week, the US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, rejected Beijing’s territorial claims in the disputed waters of the South China Sea as unlawful. As he sharpened the US tone on Chinese expansionism across Asia, Pompeo put Washington squarely on the Indian side in the unfolding military conflict between Delhi and Beijing in eastern Ladakh. In his address to the US India Business Council earlier this week, Pompeo underlined the importance of Delhi and Washington working together in countering the China challenge. For some in India, the Trump Administration’s muscular approach to Beijing generates deep concerns about being drawn into the escalating US-China conflict. Many others, however, welcome Washington’s uninhibited support against Beijing in the conflict that China has imposed on India. Official Delhi has been more than careful in its responses to the new US-China dynamic. The NDA government understands the gravity of the conflict on India’s China frontier and the import of the current inflection point in US-China relations. Getting the India-US relationship right is more critical now than ever before.
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