US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently called on “free nations” to triumph over the threat of what he calls “a new tyranny” from China. The speech was intended to be provocative and US-Chinese relations are set to deteriorate further.

Pompeo’s Provocative Timing

His remarks coincide with Washington and Beijing’s tit-for-tat over the closure of consulates in their respective countries. On Friday, the Chinese Government ordered the closure of the US consulate in the south-western city of Chengdu. They argued it was a “necessary response” to the US, which ordered the closure of the Chinese consulate in Houston, Texas, on Tuesday, July 21, giving the embassy 72 hours to shut down all operations.

The Trump administration argued that its decision was provoked by unidentified individuals being filmed burning papers in bins in the building’s courtyard.

The Coronavirus Has Changed the West’s Relationship With China

The coronavirus has cast a light on the West’s relationship with China and the one nation that has been the most proactive in following the US’s lead is the UK. During his first foreign visit since lockdown restrictions across the world started to ease, Pompeo complimented the British Government for recent actions on China when he visited British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Tuesday. The US Secretary of State heaped praise on British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab for his government’s decision last week to ban equipment supplied by Chinese technology giant Huawei from the country’s high-speed wireless network.

Other decisions that the British Government has taken in recent months have also provoked anger from Beijing. China’s ambassador to London Liu Xiaoming, had lashed out at Britain on Monday night, accusing its government of meddling in Chinese internal affairs and violating international law in its opposition to China’s new security law that clamps down on Hong Kong’s freedoms. China’s behavior in Hong Kong triggered the British Government into offering the island’s 3 million inhabitants passports.

Pompeo faces many challenges elsewhere

Whilst the US can always depend on the UK as a close ally, Australia is also shifting its strategic approach toward China. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison launched the Defense Strategic Update and the Force Structure Plan in response to the deteriorating security environment along the Indo-Pacific region.

However, Pompeo’s greatest challenge lies in convincing the US’s European allies to support Washington’s stance toward China. The EU faces a dilemma over China as it intends to prioritize trade whilst defending the rights of Hong Kong’s citizens.

The European Council and China’s diplomatic mission to the EU announced that a bilateral trade agreement had been signed between the two mega markets. Considering relations between US President Donald Trump and the EU have soured over the last three years due to differences over trade tariffs, Brexit and quite recently over Trump’s decision to pull US troops out of Germany, his administration has had a difficult time persuading the EU to support his stance toward China.

This is NATO’s Opportunity to Play a More Proactive Role

Despite this, the EU is carving out its own defense policy because of the growing threat of China. In response to the Hong Kong security law, Brussels is preparing to restrict the sales of products that could be used for “internal repression.” This coordinated package is expected to be enacted before the end of July.

Although he has been critical toward NATO in the past, Trump needs this alliance more than ever to tackle Beijing and there are many ways he can deploy its effectiveness against China. For example, he could establish a NATO-China Council that would respond to China’s growing influence. The alliance should also deepen its engagement with its Pacific partners with more regular military exercises. NATO should also establish military headquarters in the Indo-Pacific region. But given that his relationship with so many of his NATO allies has deteriorated in recent years, Trump has a lot of rebuilding to do here.

The West is gradually waking up to the threat of China and Pompeo’s words have not completely fallen on deaf ears. But Washington still has a lot of work to do in building up a coherent strategy against China.

It's a tough moment
LET'S STAY TOGETHER