US-China relations chill over Snowden

The White House upbraided China on Monday for allowing Edward Snowden to board a plane out of Hong Kong, warning the move represented a “serious setback” in relations. [WATCH VIDEO]

Press secretary Jay Carney blasted China in unusually blunt terms as the administration hunted for Snowden, the leaker of National Security Agency documents who is now believed to be hiding out in Russia. 

Carney dismissed Hong Kong’s legal justification for allowing Snowden to leave  — “we do not buy the suggestion that China could not have taken action” — and said there would be consequences.

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“The Chinese have emphasized the importance of building mutual trust,” Carney said. “And we think that they have dealt that effort a serious setback. If we cannot count on them to honor their legal extradition obligations, then there is a problem. And that is a point we are making to them very directly.”

The escalating tensions threaten to derail President Obama’s careful outreach to newly elected Chinese President Xi Jinping, which began earlier this month with a summit in California.

A former senior NSA official said Carney’s statement “reflects the strong sentiment that the Chinese did mess up on this.”

“There’s no way around it. The Chinese messed up,” the official said. “This is a real screw-up on their part, and it’s not helpful and was not in the same vein as the recent summit in California [between Obama and Xi].

“This does put a chill on things after the warmth of California. There’s going to need to be some real heart to heart in the coming weeks and months.”

The administration also had choice words for Russia, where Snowden has reportedly been holed up at the Moscow airport since Sunday while he awaits word on his application for asylum in Ecuador. 

Secretary of State John Kerry lambasted Snowden for his choice to seek refuge in China and Russia, saying both were poor examples of the personal freedoms he claims to be fighting for.

“I wonder if Mr. Snowden chose China and Russia as assistants in his flight from justice because they’re such powerful bastions of Internet freedom,” Kerry said mockingly. 

Snowden fled Hong Kong over the weekend after the United States charged him with espionage, and many believe he is sharing classified files with officials in Beijing and Moscow. 

The Los Angeles Times quoted a retired KGB general saying it would be “unthinkable” for Russian spy services not to try to talk to him.

“No doubt that every single document or file he brought with him is now in the hands of Russian and Chinese intel services,” recently departed National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor tweeted on Monday.

China has borne the brunt of the criticism, however, because the country has publicly called for better relations with the United States. Russia’s Vladimir Putin, in contrast, rarely misses a chance to poke America in the eye, though the administration expressed hope on Monday that he would turn Snowden over.

Bonnie Glaser, a senior adviser for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said she was “surprised” by the “severity” of the “very harsh language” emanating from the White House. She said administration officials told her they were confident Hong Kong — and its political masters in China —would turn over the leaker, and now feel betrayed.

“If we had expectations that they were going to hand him over, I don’t know what we were smoking,” she said, adding there was no way Beijing would turn over Snowden after he said the NSA was spying on Chinese universities and students.

Fiona Hill, the director of the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution, said Russia and China see the Snowden affair as a way to get back at the United States for its criticism on human rights.

“Where we are now is the Russians making everything they can of this opportunity to show the United States up in the global field of public relations,” Hill said. 

“This is a wonderful opportunity that has fallen into their laps to turn back against the U.S. all the accusations the U.S. has been making against China and Russia about massive surveillance and cyber-espionage and hacking and violations of this, violations of that.”

Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs subpanel on Human Rights, said Carney’s statement shows the depth of the administration’s “naivete” in dealing with China. He predicted that relations with China would become “business as usual” as soon as the Snowden matter is resolved.

“Did they really think we were making strides in the area of trust?” Smith said, pointing out that a Chinese court sentenced the brother-in-law of imprisoned Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo to 11 years in prison right after Xi’s meeting with Obama.

Marc Ross, the spokesman for the U.S.-China Business Council, agreed the relationship between the United States and the world’s second largest economy is unlikely to suffer lasting damage despite the White House rhetoric. 

“Are there distractions in the relationship that flare up from time to time? Yes,” he said. “Do we have confidence that both governments will work constructively for the betterment of American companies operating in China? Yes.”

Amie Parnes contributed.

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