Beijing tries to balance nationalism with pragmatism in US relations

Beijing tries to balance nationalism with pragmatism in US relations

  • Despite an apparent tit-for-tat dispute, China has consistently pulled punches when retaliating against actions from Washington
  • The recent Chengdu-Houston consulate dispute is emblematic of the current state of the relationship

Beijing is attempting to straddle a fine line with Washington as it seeks to mollify domestic appetite for hardline policies without causing irrevocable damage to the relationship.

Analysts say that despite the “Wolf Warrior” attitude from Chinese diplomats, official rhetoric and online nationalists, Beijing has stopped short of overly provocative steps and has not, or cannot, 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 high-profile offices like the one in Wuhan that was temporarily closed during the pandemic or more significant US consulates in Shanghai or Hong Kong.

Despite framing the closure in Chengdu as “necessary”, “appropriate” and “reciprocal” – and allowing for a live stream of the event to be viewed by millions – it highlighted Beijing’s balancing act in trying to please its domestic audience without pushing bilateral relations to the brink.

“Basically, 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. “China’s overall approach, as a rising power, is how not to move the US towards a full-fledged cold war.”