Houston, we have a problem (with China)

Houston, we have a problem (with China)

Well, the US-China relationship has now deteriorated to the point that the even the fire department is getting involved. Earlier this week, the US government ordered the Chinese consulate in Houston to close, prompting Chinese diplomats there to begin burning trashcans full of documents before leaving.

Why did the US government do this, and what comes next?


The exact reason is still unclear. The US State Department said the move was meant to "protect American intellectual property," but didn't elaborate. David Stilwell, a top US diplomat for East Asia, claimed the consulate was being used by the Chinese military to send spies into US universities. Republican Senator Marco Rubio, who sits on the Foreign Relations Committee, called the facility a "massive spy center." It remains to be seen if the US government will provide more detail or substantiation for the claims.

But the move comes in a larger context of rapidly fraying US-China ties. The two sides have long been locked in a steadily deepening rivalry over global economic, technological, and strategic influence. And lately, Washington has been throwing a lot more punches.

In recent weeks, the US has sanctioned officials involved in China's repression of Uighurs in Xinjiang, as well as those implementing a new security law that strips Hong Kong of its autonomy. Washington has also stepped up efforts to isolate Chinese tech giant Huawei (now with help from the UK), and this week the US indicted two Chinese nationals for trying to steal coronavirus vaccine research. There are plans afoot to ban the popular Chinese-owned video app TikTok, and (less feasibly) to prohibit US entry to the 90 million members of China's Communist Party.

Is the electoral calendar playing into all of this? Quite likely. For US President Donald Trump, hitting China hard is good politics as the election approaches. He has little good news right now on the economy or coronavirus, but suspicions of China enjoy strong bipartisan and popular support these days.

How might China respond? Beijing has vowed to retaliate, diplomatically or economically. A proportionate response would entail kicking American diplomats out of one of China's secondary cities (the hawkish Global Times newspaper is running a Twitter poll about which one it will be). If China wants to play tough, there are also, as always, the darker realms of cyber troublemaking.

Is the US-China trade deal in peril? Neither side wants to blow up the fragile "Phase One" trade deal reached last December, which paused a rapidly growing trade war: after all Beijing is just getting its economic mojo back after (mostly) dealing with coronavirus, and Trump certainly doesn't want another hit to the staggering American economy as his hopes of re-election dim.

But that latter point, of course, might be a reason for Xi Jinping to pull the plug if he wanted to undermine Trump — but he'd have to be very sure it would work: it would hurt China's economy too in the short term, and it's an "if you take a shot at the king you best not miss" type of situation.

The bottom line is that closing the consulate will have little practical effect on US-China ties for now. But the symbolism matters, particularly if it's a sign that the US is committing to a much more aggressive line on China in the coming months. (Pro-tip: for more on that, keep an eye on Pompeo's China speech in Los Angeles later today.)

In other words — to bring it back to those flaming trash cans — the consulate closure itself is mostly smoke, but the fire beneath is starting to crackle a lot louder.

This time last year, world health experts were speculating about why Africa appeared to have escaped the worst of the global pandemic. Younger populations? Natural immunity created by exposure to past viruses? Something else?

They can stop wondering. Africa is now in the grip of a COVID emergency.

More Show less

Get insights on the latest news in US politics from Jon Lieber, head of Eurasia Group's coverage of political and policy developments in Washington:

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi barred two Republican members from serving on the Jan. 6 commission. What's going on?

Well, the Jan. 6 commission was designed to be a bipartisan commission, taking input from members from Democrats and Republicans. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy had the opportunity to make recommendations but the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, could always veto those recommendations. In this case, she did, saying no to two members, Jim Banks and Jim Jordan, both of whom are strongly aligned with President Trump and who voted against certifying the election results in 2020. The Republicans for the most part see the Jan. 6 commission as an opportunity to score political points against them, and the Democrats say this is going to be a fair, non-biased, and nonpartisan investigation into what happened on Jan. 6, starting with a hearing next week with some of the police officers who were involved in the battle with the protesters inside the Capitol.

More Show less

In his New York Times op-ed, David Brooks says the US is facing an identity crisis — protecting liberal and progressive values at home while doing little to stop autocrats elsewhere. But has the US really abandoned its values abroad just because it's withdrawing from Afghanistan? Ian Bremmer and Eurasia Group analyst Charles Dunst take out the Red Pen to argue that the US can advance democracy without being the world's sheriff.

More Show less

When the Tokyo Olympics begin on Friday, Japan watchers will be following more than just the performance of Japan's star athletes, including tennis star Naomi Osaka. They will also be tracking the political fortunes of Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, who is taking a big gamble by staging the event — amid a raging pandemic — in the face of strong and longstanding opposition from the Japanese public. What are the stakes for Suga, particularly with elections on the horizon? Eurasia Group senior analyst Ali Wyne explains.

More Show less

YouTube pulls Bolsonaro's rants: Google-owned YouTube pulled down a series of videos on the channel of Brazil's populist President Jair Bolsonaro, accusing him of spreading misinformation about the pandemic. YouTube removed more than a dozen clips for touting quack cures for coronavirus or claiming, in defiance of scientific experts, that masks don't reduce COVID transmissions. Last year, Twitter and Facebook also removed some content from Bolsonaro's feeds for similar reasons. But critics say that YouTube's move is too little too late, because Bolsonaro has been spreading misinformation about COVID since the pandemic began. Many Brazilians hold him personally responsible for the country's abysmal pandemic response, which has led to almost 550,000 deaths, the second worst toll in the world. Will YouTube's move change Bolsonaro's message? His weekly address to the nation, where he converses not only with government ministers but also various conspiracy theorists and loons, is broadcast on YouTube. Surely he doesn't want to risk losing that — or does he?

More Show less

Boycotts! Bans! Protests! Drugs! Think you've got gold medal knowledge about politics at the Olympics? Test what you know with this special Tokyo Olympics Quiz. And to stay current on all the latest political stories at the Games and around the world, subscribe here to Signal, our daily newsletter. Now, without further ado, the first question is...

More Show less

28: The UK and the EU have again failed to agree on post-Brexit trade rules for Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom. In a 28-page document, the British government had suggested further changes to trade rules that were already negotiated as part of the Brexit settlement, but Brussels was not having any of it.

More Show less

Subscribe to GZERO Media's newsletter, Signal

GZERO World with Ian Bremmer. Watch episodes now

GZEROMEDIA

Subscribe to GZERO Media's newsletter: Signal

GZERO World with Ian Bremmer. Watch episodes now

GZEROMEDIA

Subscribe to GZERO Media's newsletter: Signal