In a speech to the National Governors Association recently, a conference which sees the Governors of States in the United States gather together, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo took the opportunity to launch another attack on China, saying that engagement with the Country brought risks to National Security.
He claimed that all association with Beijing on a local level made the US susceptible to infiltration and that “it affects our capacity to perform America’s vital national-security functions”.
He utilised these claims to make further allegations that the Chinese government was assessing the political positions of each respective governor through a think tank, claiming that a positive US relationship with China was based on a premise that the country would “become a democracy”.
Pompeo has a record for saying these kinds of things. It draws an unusual contrast to US President Donald Trump who has been more supportive of China recently especially in support of its efforts to fight the novel coronavirus epidemic.
Pompeo’s claims are exaggerated, simplistic and not supported by evidence. What is a normal aspect of a business is being opportunistically misrepresented as espionage? It is perfectly normal for businessmen around the world to seek out ties with local governments to build a platform overseas.
At the same time, grassroots bodies in all countries also aim to court investment and exchanges for their local areas. Some figures in Washington seem set on demonising every single aspect of US-China cooperation, and there is nothing that is not subject to conspiracy they claim.
Local governments and central governments do not see eye to eye, mainly because their priorities and stakes are inherently different. You may describe such as a distinction between “high politics” which concerns contentious matters such as national security, military and criminal law and “low politics” which involve less controversial aspects such as local planning, spending and regulations.
National governments focus on an entire country, with much greater scrutiny and responsibility at hand
Local authorities, on the other hand, worry only about some given needs within a local area. This makes their respective attitudes toward given issues different.
For example, in Australia, the state government of Victoria recently joined the Belt & Road Initiative. This marked a huge difference from the national government which has been quite hostile toward China, and the two sides clashed over this issue.
Here in the US, it is likely that attitudes toward China on a federal and state level also differ. Pompeo, of course, has sought to close that respective gap by aiming to emphasise the so-called “threat “from China.
Now whilst it may seem reasonable for the two tiers of government to correlate and exchange views, the secretary of state sought to export the growing McCarthyite sentiment in Washington and push it on state governors, spreading unfounded claims that Beijing wants to “infiltrate” America from the state level.
But this is really a gross misrepresentation of what is actually happening here. Business relations between China and US state authorities are not a form of political subversion.
It is a normal and widespread activity for business people and organisations to court ties with regional governments because it is these ties which are essential for securing trade, investment and exchanges, all beyond the scope of “high politics”.
Local government officials throughout the world regularly make trips overseas for this end, because they want people to invest in their region.
Similarly, within China itself, it is also normal for provinces to seek overseas ties and investment opportunities with their counterparts, both in going and outgoing. This happens autonomously of the central government.
Given this, Pompeo is falsely weaponizing crude stereotypes and conceiving China as a single actor which acts in absolute unity in the pursuance of a sole goal and political strategy, which has malign purposes.
This is a popular aspect of the US conservative imagination
It does not help us understand China, which might be observed as a country with many different people and respective business interests, who do have their own decision-making priorities, outlooks and visions for themselves rather than being simply “commanded” by the central government.
In doing so, the secretary of state is willingly misrepresenting fairly normal relationships with local jurisdictions as a sinister top-down grand strategy. Yet such kind of sweeping assumptions has become completely normal in Washington, with everything related to China being painted as a threat.
As a result, Pompeo’s comments should be rejected as the latest round of opportunistic fear-mongering directed at China from him and other Washington hawks.
There is no harm and no risk in individual states seeking beneficial trade and investment ties with China in uncontroversial areas, something which has gone on for a long time and should continue. As ever, the former Tea Party representative sees his country in a holy crusade against Beijing and is determined to have everyone pin their cross to the mast.