Why China pulls its punches when dealing with Washington

Beijing is trying to walk a fine line with Washington as it seeks to present a hardline stance to its domestic audience without causing irrevocable damage to the relationship.
Analysts say that despite the so-called Wolf Warrior attitude of Chinese diplomats, official rhetoric and nationalistic online sentiment, Beijing has stopped short of overly provocative steps and has been unwilling or unable to retaliate with equal force to American diplomatic volleys.
Tensions flared last week when the US ordered China’s consulate in Houston to close within 72 hours over alleged espionage activities. Beijing reacted by closing the American consulate in Chengdu, rather than shuttering a high-profile office such as the one in Wuhan or a more significant consulates in Shanghai or Hong Kong.
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Despite the Chinese government framing the closure in Chengdu as “necessary” and “reciprocal” – and allowing it to be live-streamed to millions – the move highlighted its balancing act in projecting strength domestically without pushing relations to the brink.
“It intended to show that China stands firm but does not want to escalate the situation,” said Zhang Baohui, a political science professor at Lingnan University in Hong Kong.
Tensions between China and the US began to simmer when, in mid-2018, Washington fired the first shots in a trade war that continues to this day. Although US President Donald Trump has dismissed further trade talks with China, Beijing has maintained it was still committed to the “phase one” trade deal the two sides signed in January.
Relations only worsened as the two powers clashed over technological rivalry, corporate espionage, the coronavirus pandemic and Beijing’s actions in Hong Kong, Xinjiang, Taiwan and the South China Sea.
Last Thursday, when US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urged democratic-leaning Chinese citizens to more aggressively “induce change,” Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said he was “launching a new crusade against China.”
In early July, Foreign Minister Wang Yi made a public call for reconciliation “as long as the US is willing.” But just over a week later, he said the US had “lost its mind, morals and credibility” and said the Trump administration’s “America First” policy had led to bullying and egoism.
Cui Lei, an associate research fellow at the China Institute of International Studies in Beijing, said the Communist Party was seeking to ease the situation, as it had after tense moments such as the US’ 1999 bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, and the 2001 collision of a US aircraft and a Chinese fighter jet off the Chinese coast.
“Beijing’s strategy is both to maintain stability… and to preserve, at least on the surface, a sense that they will not give in,” Cui, a former diplomat, said. “As long as the US does not want to go to war, there is still room for negotiations.”
When the US sanctioned senior Chinese officials in July over Beijing’s repressive treatment of mostly Muslim minorities in Xinjiang, China responded by sanctioning lawmakers Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz and Chris Smith, and the less well known Sam Brownback, the US ambassador at large for international religious freedom.
Also in July, Beijing reacted to the state department’s approval of a US$620 million missile upgrade sale to Taiwan by sanctioning Lockheed Martin, a move of little consequence because the US weapons supplier has limited business interests in China. Beijing considers self-ruled Taiwan a wayward province that it must reclaim, by force if necessary.
Shi Yinhong, a government adviser and US specialist at Renmin University in Beijing, said China had largely avoided matching US actions in recent years.
“China has less in its toolbox to retaliate with, compared with sanctions that the US and its closest allies, including the UK and Australia, could use,” he said. “Regular use of tit-for-tat could also give Trump exactly what he wants, and further isolate China internationally. And it would get the domestic public used to a strong response and fu…