Mike Pompeo has told China that there needs to be full transparency and information sharing to combat the Covid-19 crisis. Photo: Mark Wilson / Getty Images / AFP

Judging by the hostile diplomatic environment, it was rather apt that Mike Pompeo and Yang Jiechi should hold talks at a Honolulu military base in Hawaii.

All that was missing were the flak jackets as the US Secretary of State and the veteran Chinese diplomat discussed explosive issues, such as the new Hong Kong security law, the Uighur Muslim “indoctrination camps” in Xinjiang and Taiwan’s status.

After a meeting that lasted nearly nine hours, there appeared to be little room for maneuver. 

Relations between China and the United States have been decidedly icy in the past six months amid concerns of a New Cold War. A further drop in the temperature looks inevitable.

“Over the past three years, the United States has provoked trade wars, technological wars, and public opinion wars, deepened its military deployment against China, and openly attacked the Chinese Communist Party and questioned China’s political system,” Fu Ying, the former Chinese deputy foreign affairs minister, said earlier this week before the Honolulu talkfest.

“The continued provocation of the US side has forced China to respond and react, and Sino-US relations have experienced a rapid decline,” Fu, now a professor at Tsinghua University, wrote in a 13,000-character commentary in the latest edition of China’s version of Newsweek before it was translated.

Still, there were reports of a thaw in one key policy area involving the Covid-19 pandemic. The coronavirus crisis has proved an open sore with Washington accusing China of a cover-up after the outbreak in Wuhan last year.

In response, Beijing has claimed that the US made China the scapegoat to deflect the way it handled the epidemic, which has so far killed nearly 120,000 Americans.

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“[Pompeo] stressed the need for full transparency and information sharing to combat the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic and prevent future outbreaks,” Morgan Ortagus, a spokeswoman for the US State Department, said in a statement.

Speaking for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Deputy Director of Media Zhao Lijian was incredibly vague and failed to go into detail on what had been agreed.

“Yang pointed out that he hoped China and the US would be accommodative to each other … and push their bilateral relations to the track of coordination, cooperation and stability,” he said.

But those comments are unlikely to ease tensions on highly inflammatory issues such as Hong Kong, the Xinjiang camps and Taiwan.

On Wednesday, US President Donald Trump ramped up the pressure when he signed into a law an act authorizing sanctions against Chinese officials for the mass detention and surveillance of Uighur Muslims.

Up to one million have been interned, according to human rights groups.

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“The Act holds accountable perpetrators of human rights violations and abuses such as the systematic use of indoctrination camps, forced labor, and intrusive surveillance to eradicate the ethnic identity and religious beliefs of Uyghurs and other minorities in China,” he said in a statement.

Trump’s decision was branded as a “malicious attack” on China’s policy in the Xinjiang region. “[We will] resolutely hit back and the US will bear the burden of all subsequent consequences,” the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing said in a statement on Thursday in reference to what Beijing calls “reeducation centers.”

Reaction from China was just as swift when it came to talks focusing on Hong Kong and Taiwan with diplomat Yang making it clear to Pompeo that they were “internal” matters.

“Yang expounded China’s basic attitude … on important and sensitive issues concerning Taiwan, Hong Kong and Xinjiang,” the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement.

Beijing-imposed legislation is seen as a way to clamp down on Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement, which triggered a summer of discontent in 2019 and brought the city to a standstill.

“China’s determination to push for a national security law in Hong Kong is unshakeable,” Zhao, of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said. 

“China resolutely opposes the US interference in Hong Kong affairs and the G7 [Group of Seven] foreign ministers releasing a statement [highlighting ‘grave concerns’ on Hong Kong’s new law],” he added.

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But then, the atmosphere in the past six months has become more poisonous as the world’s two largest economies slug it out on the world stage.

Rivalry in the high-tech sector, trade tensions, and friction in the South and East China seas have illustrated the diplomatic divide between Beijing and Washington.

A battle is also being waged over political “ideology,” which is reminiscent of the Cold War between the US and the now-defunct Soviet Union in the second half of the 20th century.

“China’s rise is not only a challenge to the real interests and international status of the United States but also a threat to the stability and value output of the United States. This is a challenge of greater significance,” Fu, the former Chinese deputy foreign affairs minister, said.

“From the Chinese perspective, the United States has never given up its attempts to subvert the socialist system under the leadership of the Communist Party of China. Recently, the Chinese-language discourses of the US government authorities have attempted to separate and oppose the Communist Party of China and the Chinese people, and provoke the Communist Party of China and the political system,” she added.

Maybe it is time to dust down the flak jackets?