After years of cyber warfare, intellectual property theft, subversive foreign interference and human rights transgressions at home, Beijing was caught by surprise.
A diplomatic conflict that had been percolating away for months, suddenly and viscerally vaulted into the real world after the US ordered the shutdown of China's consulate in Houston
on Wednesday evening, Australian time.
China's Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin. CREDIT:AP
The US claimed the Chinese mission had illegally transferred medical research, turned over information to Chinese institutions and coerced fugitive Chinese citizens to return home. Barrels of documents were burned
in the Texan courtyard of the consulate before four Chinese researchers were charged by the Department of Justice for allegedly lying about their links to the People’s Liberation Army.
China had 72 hours to decide how it would react. It used up nearly 48 in the hope of a diplomatic reversal that never came. Beijing had to appear strong to placate nationalists at home but avoid provoking America into a deeper economic, diplomatic or even military confrontation that neither side is prepared for.
The aggressor had become the appeaser.
"It severely damages bilateral relations, a move that undercuts the bond of friendship between Chinese and American people," said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin in response to the Houston decision.
Beijing chose the middle ground and gave Chengdu the chop
That middle ground is becoming increasingly narrow for both sides and their allies as tensions fray to their lowest point in a generation.
Beijing's public forays over the coronavirus, Hong Kong, the South China Sea and Huawei are starting to match its decades of covert preparation. China's assertive diplomacy is also feeding off a bombastic White House.
On Thursday, in the third China set speech in as many days from the Trump administration, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned the “old paradigm of blind engagement” had failed and the world was in the middle of a battle between the “free world” and “new tyranny”.
“We must induce China to change in more creative and assertive ways, because Beijing’s actions threaten our people and our prosperity," he said in a speech delivered at the library of the first US president to open diplomatic relations with China, Richard Nixon. “Even now, some are insisting we preserve the model of dialogue for dialogue’s sake."
The combination of those words from the US's top diplomat and the events of this week is ominous. Washington believes the time for talk is over.