U.S. Pullout of China Staff Cripples Ties at a Key Moment

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U.S. Pullout of China Staff Cripples Ties at a Key Moment

Post by jserraglio » Mon Mar 23, 2020 9:11 am

The Wall Street Journal
March 23, 2020
U.S. Pullout of China Staff Cripples Ties at a Key Moment

BEIJING—A sweeping evacuation of American diplomats has hobbled the U.S. government’s presence in China, further rupturing interactions between the two superpowers at a time of rising tensions and hampering efforts to fight the coronavirus pandemic.

U.S. diplomats and their family members started to return home en masse in early February as coronavirus infections exploded, kicking off what has become one of the largest peacetime evacuations of U.S. diplomatic personnel in history.

The consulate general in the city of Wuhan, where the pandemic began, closed in late January. Missions and consulates in Shenyang, Shanghai, Chengdu and Guangzhou are at 20% to 30% of their staffing levels, according to people familiar with the matter. Most of those employees are local Chinese.

Only those employees necessary to carry out vital functions and provide emergency services remain, these people said.

The emptying out of American diplomatic outposts came as relations between the U.S. and China descended to levels of rancor not seen in decades, fed byatwo-year trade war and, more recently, fingerpointing over responsibility for the severity and origin of the coronavirus threat.

On Tuesday, China’s government responded to new U.S. restrictions on Chinese staterun media by revoking the press credentials of more than a dozen American foreign correspondents at The Wall Street Journal, New York Times and Washington Post, in the latest severing of ties between the world’s two largest economies.

China’s assault on foreign media and the drawdown of the U.S. diplomatic corps have driven the U.S. and China toward a pivotal moment, according to Orville Schell, director of the Asia Society’s Center on U.S.-China Relations.

“At a time when we should be building greater collaborative mechanisms to deal with the pandemic—never mind the other big issues like climate change and trade—we’re rupturing them across the board,” said Mr. Schell, who questioned Washington’s need to call back so many diplomats.

U.S. missions to other countries experiencing outbreaks have also seen evacuations, but the evacuation in China is particularly disruptive because of how sour ties are between the two superpowers.

The U.S. government’s foreign mission to China is among its largest in the world, according to the State Department, which doesn’t release specific information about staffing levels overseas, citing security concerns.

Current and former diplomats say at least 1,000 U.S. citizens typically work for the U.S. government in China, with roughly twice that number of local Chinese staff. The majority are based in Beijing. The State Department on Jan. 31 ordered the departure of employees’ family members under 21 years old and authorized the departure of nonemergency personnel from China.

“We have provided clear guidance to U.S. citizens to depart China and take appropriate precautions in other locations affected by this outbreak,” the State Department said. The U.S. Embassy and consulates across China are “operational and continue to provide consular and emergency services for American citizens as resources allow,” it said.

The U.S.’s ability to respond to infectious-disease outbreaks in China was already compromised by State Department budget cuts, current and former U.S. diplomats said. In 2018, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was forced to scale back or discontinue its work to prevent infectious-disease epidemics and other health threats in 39 foreign countries, including China.

At its height, the CDC had more than a dozen programs in China, including an emerging-viruses program. Today, that presence is down to a handful of employees, most of them dedicated to influenza. Plans for annual meetings between the CDC and China’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention haven’t been realized for three years, the current and former diplomats said. The State Department said it had no comment on the budget cuts.

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