Donald Trump has escalated his feud with China into a full-press offensive that has drawn comparisons to the Cold War. Now the question on both sides of the Pacific is, how will it end?
In recent weeks, Trump has slapped US$250 billion worth of tariffs, boosted military support for rival Taiwan, accused China of interfering in US elections, stepped up denunciations of Beijing’s human rights record and curtailed its access to US nuclear technology.
The real estate mogul, who early in his tenure had described Chinese President Xi Jinping as a friend, was generally presumed to be most interested in trade as he has repeatedly vowed to ramp up US factory production by fighting back the flow of cheaper manufactured imports.
But his administration has expanded its pressure campaign to virtually all fronts, a strategy unprecedented since the time the United States and China established diplomatic relations four decades ago.
“It is a full-frontal assault by the US on China,” said Elizabeth Economy, director for Asia studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
“There is a general sense in Washington that China is simply too big now, it’s simply too large as a country and as an economy, to allow it to continue to violate all sorts of expected international trade and investment norms,” she said.
Economy said that the United States was also struck at how Xi has “presented a very different China to the world” with a “much more ambitious and expansive foreign policy.”
“The US and other countries say, ‘Okay, this is the China we have to deal with, not what we anticipated ten years ago.’”
China ready for ‘marathon’
Hua Po, a political commentator in Beijing, agreed that trade was only the “superficial” source of friction.
He believed that the underlying concern of the United States was the Made in China 2025 plan, under which Beijing has set a goal of rapidly ensuring that a majority of its industry is sourced domestically.
The United States accuses China of rampantly stealing technology and seeking an unfair trade advantage by forcing foreign businesses to work with local partners.
“Even if the trade issue is resolved, other problems between China and the United States will continue to exist,” Hua said.
Hua said that Trump seemed to want “to fight a new cold war.” But Hua doubted that the United States would enjoy the support of its allies, especially in Europe, which do not see China as the same type of threat as the former Soviet Union.
And amid turbulence on Wall Street, China is expecting the US economy to see growing strains as negative effects emerge from Trump’s signature domestic policy of tax cuts, Hua said.
“China does believe that this dispute will last for some time. The United States wants to run a 100-meter race with China, but China wants a marathon with the United States,” he said.
Diplomacy through confrontation
Tensions soared between the world’s two largest economies last month at the annual UN General Assembly session.
A closed-door meeting of foreign ministers from the five permanent members of the Security Council turned “icy” as US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo lashed out aggressively against China, whose foreign minister, Wang Yi, responded with similar intensity, according to a witness.
Vice President Mike Pence a week later delivered a speech in which he took China to task and made the headline-grabbing claim, a month ahead of congressional elections, that Beijing was intervening in US politics, citing the Asian power’s purchase of newspaper advertisements and its imposition of counter tariffs in politically crucial states.
The two countries have still kept in contact on resolving the nuclear crisis with North Korea, a top priority for both powers, with Pompeo visiting Beijing after a stop in Pyongyang.
Ryan Hass, the director for China policy on the White House’s National Security Council under Obama, said that Trump had taken a new course by emphasizing public pressure over diplomacy with China.
He said that Trump had gambled “on the assumption that Beijing needs a stable relationship with Washington” and that Beijing is ready to moderate its policies both at home and abroad.
“Beijing believes Washington is organizing itself to contest China’s rise. As such, Beijing sees little incentive to accommodate Trump’s demands on trade or other issues, because doing so would not resolve the underlying source of intensifying rivalry — Washington’s efforts to hold back China’s rise,” said Hass, now a fellow at the Brookings Institution.
“Given these dynamics, it is unlikely that either side will moderate its approach in the foreseeable future,” he said.