New Delhi: China has suddenly got tough on the trade war with the United States. Its commerce ministry says existing US tariffs would have to go for a trade deal with China. China knows the US president, Donald Trump, would be fired up by such adamancy and arrogance to load tariffs on some $300 billion worth of additional Chinese imports. Plus the easing of US restrictions on Huawei which Trump hinted at the Osaka G-20 summit won’t happen. So why is China suddenly so tough after appearing conciliatory at Osaka?

Perhaps it has nothing to do with the trade war at all or at least not as much. After popular protests in Hong Kong and the storming and vandalizing of the local assembly, the Chinese leadership might have suffered a panic attack that trade war concessions would make Beijing appear weak to the West and invite further assaults on China’s sovereignty.

The Hong Kong protests have drawn a reaction from the UK foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt, who is also competing against Boris Johnson to replace Theresa May as prime minister after she failed to crack a Brexit deal with Europe. Hunt said to the effect that Britain was bound for fifty years to ensure the integrity of the “one country, two systems” formula that formed the basis of the UK-China settlement on Hong Kong’s separation from British rule.

China hit back at what it insinuated was Hunt’s presumptuousness, and there are several voices raised in the UK against the UK foreign secretary wading into troubles on the other side of the globe on which the UK can have possibly no influence or control. Hunt is accused of chest-thumping to prove himself against Johnson who has taken the hard line on Brexit fearing blight from parties further to the Right on the matter than the Conservative Party.

But while all this is not without elements of truth, Jeremy Hunt is not entirely speaking for himself on Hong Kong. May backed his position and China has been rapped on the knuckles for exceeding diplomatic propriety in attacking Hunt. Still, it goes beyond Hunt, and it may have something to do with the notion that Britain may move closer to the United States after leaving Europe.

Providing fodder for this thought is current trends in the ruling British leadership. Though earlier critical of Donald Trump, Boris Johnson would likely follow Margaret Thatcher’s path of a close alliance with Washington, and in the event of Hunt occupying 10 Downing Street, the scenario cannot be very different. Britain no longer rules the waves, but still the US and the UK operating in tandem would dent the balance of power a bit. China may have reached an early awareness of that and so may have Russia.

While not an alliance operation by any means, British marines in helicopters and fast boats seized a supertanker carrying oil from Iran for sanctioned Syria off the coast of Gibraltar some hours ago. Angering Iran and frustrating Syria, the raid had to be in US knowledge, and regardless of whether it was a solo British operation or one authorized by the EU, it sends the same message abroad: Of the West acting in unison to protect its interests and to enforce international law as it interprets it. The supertanker raid, coming ten hours after China’s demand for US tariff removals, should have only intensified Beijing’s sense of encirclement after the Hong Kong protests, even though it was not the target of the sea operation.

China’s increasing sense of its own vulnerability is evident from the view expressed in the editorial column of the China Daily controlled by the state. It said yesterday, “The ideologues in Western governments never cease in their efforts to engineer unrest against governments that are not to their liking, even though their actions have caused misery and chaos in country after country in Latin America, Africa, the Middle East and Asia. Now, they are trying the same trick in China.”

China probably fears that pragmatically conceding to US demands on trade would open floodgates for exactions on Hong Kong, Taiwan, Xinjiang and Tibet and build pressure for permitting multiparty democracy in mainland China. China may be betting a little in the way of the US presidential election rejecting Trump for a Democratic Party candidate more kindly disposed towards Beijing. And should this not happen as it most likely won’t, China would by then be even more determined to pursue a course in opposition to the United States and the West. And it would try to make it a West versus the Rest contest.

These projections are not three or five years away but only months ahead in the future. China has been clearly rattled by the Hong Kong protests and it is also alarmed perhaps by renewed British interests in its former colony. Coming as it does in the middle of the trade war with the United States which has caused uncommon damage to its economy, Beijing sees offence as the best form of defence. Doing so, it might be playing right into the hands of its adversaries.