HONG KONG – Outwardly, it seems as if the Edward Snowden affair has plunged US-China relations into a ditch.
After Hong Kong authorities allowed Snowden to board a plane bound for Russia on Monday, the White House condemned the decision in unusually harsh tones. Spokesman Jay Carney said that US officials “do not buy” the excuse that the territory could not have legally stopped Snowden from fleeing.
This “was a deliberate choice by the government to release a fugitive” said Carney, and it “unquestionably has a negative impact on the US-China relationship.”
On the mainland, Chinese state-run media have meanwhile been crowing over Snowden’s escape, with a front-page People’s Daily commentary congratulating him for exposing US hypocrisy and “[tearing] off Washington's sanctimonious mask.”
But despite the invective, experts contend that neither country wants to put the relationship in jeopardy.
“I think the impact is limited, though we do see quite a bit of posturing,” says Joseph Cheng, professor of politics at the City University of Hong Kong. The recent Sunnylands summit between President Obama and General Secretary Xi Jinping shows that both countries are committed to enhancing mutual trust, Cheng said.
“I think the Chinese authorities do not want to alienate American public opinion. … And despite these open criticisms of China letting Snowden go, I think the American government also understands the Chinese position. It is not expected that this will damage the bilateral relationship in any serious manner.”
What has changed, however, is that Obama’s campaign to stop China from stealing US commercial secrets is effectively dead.
All year, a drumbeat of news about Chinese hackers breaking into the computers of American companies, contractors, lawyers, and journalists had given Obama the high ground to demand concessions from Beijing.
The administration made these alleged thefts a priority out of righteousness, but also because they could cost the US economy billions and erode America’s competitive edge.
Now, thanks to Snowden’s revelations, that leverage is gone.
David Zweig, an expert on Chinese politics at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, says this is unfortunate, given that the spying revealed by Snowden is fundamentally different from cyber theft.
“Everybody knows that governments spy on each other," he said. "Spying is not such a horrific issue, but what China’s been doing is stealing."
“In negotiations on cyber security America is now in a much weaker position, and in terms of theft, I’d rather see China pulled toward global standards rather than America have to back off from those standards."