Crossroads in US-China Relations (Part I): From Trade Friction to Ideological Warfare

Two experts in international relations consider the rapidly deteriorating US-China relationship in the context of Washington politics and the coronavirus pandemic.

KAWASHIMA SHIN  The animosity between Washington and Beijing has been looming larger than ever in the midst of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. What’s your take on the state of US-China relations?

SAHASHI RYO  As I see it, the US-China relationship is at a major turning point. But let’s backtrack a bit.

Washington’s policy toward China shifted markedly in 2018. We see foreshadowings of this earlier, as in the repeated references to China as a competitor in the National Security Strategy released in December 2017.  In March 2018, the Office of the US Trade Representative released its Section 301 report on Chinese practices, which led to the first round of US tariffs on Chinese imports. But the single most important development was probably the John S. McCain National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2019, enacted in August 2018. The law created the framework for new controls on exports to China and tighter trade regulations, which we’re seeing now, and also cracked down on appropriations for programs linked with the Beijing-affiliated Confucius Institute. That October, Vice President Mike Pence delivered his hardline speech on China at the Hudson Institute.

I consider the enactment of the NDAA the most significant step in this process because it laid the legislative foundation for a whole range of measures directed against China. It officially expanded the focus of Washington’s China policy from predominantly economic issues, like trade, to the larger strategic goal of maintaining US hegemony.

All of this led to heightened tensions, which continued through 2019 and into 2020. But I think another turning point came around March 2020. That’s when we started seeing a sharp escalation in the hardline rhetoric coming out of Washington, leading to a further deterioration in US-China relations. In recent months, ideology has become an overarching theme in Washington’s China policy, providing the rationale for strategic countermeasures spanning the areas of trade, defense, and technology. This helps explain the barrage of criticism from Congress and US government officials regarding Beijing’s crackdown on the Uighur minority, the Hong Kong problem, and so forth.

A New Cold War?

KAWASHIMA  So, are you saying that Washington has stopped thinking of China primarily as a “strategic competitor”?

SAHASHI  No, not at all. I’m saying that ideological warfare has become a means of marshaling support for policies that take aim at China as a strategic competitor. It reflects the political climate in the United States today. The Communist Party of China has come under direct fire as the main culprit in China’s flawed response to the coronavirus outbreak. And suddenly the Uighurs and Hong Kong are being trumpeted as symptoms of this overarching ideological problem, not compartmentalized as separate issues.

As long as the disagreements were confined to trade, there was always hope for a deal between the United States and China. And in fact, the two sides did conclude a “phase one” trade deal. But now that Washington has launched a frontal ideological attack on the Communist Party, there’s no longer any room for compromise as far as Beijing is concerned. This is why people are talking about “a new cold war” between the United States and China.

KAWASHIMA  Some experts have resisted the term “cold war” on the grounds that the discord between the United States and China isn’t ideological in nature. But you seem to be saying that it has in fact escalated into ideological warfare.

SAHASHI  That’s one reason more and more analysts are using the term “new cold war” to describe the relationship—the fact that ideologically-driven criticism is clearly playing a much bigger role than before. But I think another reason is the growing sense that we’re on the threshold of a long, drawn-out period of locked-in conflict comparable to the last Cold War. That said, many American scholars have avoided the term on the grounds that it’s poorly defined.

Anatomy of an Impasse

KAWASHIMA  I’m not sure that Beijing is fully aware of this shift toward ideological warfare, but I do think they’ve sensed a change in the air. Even in the midst of the actions taken by the United States in 2018 and 2019, Beijing still believed there was room for compromise on trade issues. That was clear from the appointment of Liu He as vice-premier and top China-US trade negotiator. It was a stance consistent with President Xi Jinping’s earlier call for a “new model of great power relations,” in which China and the United States would respect one another’s turf and coordinate for the long-term benefit of both.

But then, in 2020, Washington began taking such a hard line that Beijing was backed into a corner, and the “new model of power relations” approach became untenable. That was around the middle of April. Even in early April, when American accusations about the origins of the coronavirus were flying, Beijing showed a surprising degree of restraint in its response. But by mid-April, spokespeople for the government—including officials in the Foreign Ministry—were publicly attacking the United States. After that, Beijing’s rhetoric toward the United States lost all semblance of balance.

In the Chinese government’s report on the May 2020 National People’s Congress, there was no mention of anything along the lines of a “new model of great power relations.” And it’s not just the rhetoric that has changed. Beijing’s entire mode of interaction with the United States is in transition, as suggested by its recent actions in the East China and South China Sea.

Viewed from a broader, historical perspective, of course, it was China that started the quarrel back in 2016, when Xi Jinping began openly criticizing American values and rejecting America’s leadership role in  regional security. In 2017, the Chinese government openly set its sights on catching up with the United States by 2049, and since then it has ramped up efforts to develop its own global infrastructure, independent of US leadership, including a GPS system and submarine communication cables. Of course, China could make the case that it is simply pursuing a long-term plan to achieve parity over a period of close to three decades.  Still, combined with the “militarization” of the South China Sea and the periodic cyber attacks on US targets, such moves naturally fueled a perception of China as a threat to US hegemony.

On the Chinese side, I do think there are those who see the COVID-19 crisis as yet another milestone in America’s long-term decline, along with the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the subprime mortgage crisis, and consider this an ideal moment for China to seize the offensive. On the other hand it’s also possible to view the new Hong Kong national security law, for example, as a defensive measure needed to plug an obvious vulnerability, given America’s increasingly belligerent posture. Most likely, both factors are at work: the impulse to go on the offensive and the desire to fortify China against hostile acts by foreign powers.

The COVID-19 pandemic has left the Chinese economy reeling. The government knows that it will need to skimp on the Belt and Road Initiative in 2020 in order to prioritize programs to stimulate the domestic economy and boost employment. There may be a feeling that the strategic focus this year should be on fortifying China’s defenses in the face of American belligerence. Beijing is also looking ahead to 2021, the CPC’s centenary—a very important milestone. The government earlier embraced the goal of making China a “moderately prosperous society in all respects” by 2021, and it also set a quantitative target of doubling the size of the economy between 2010 and 2020. The second goal seems out of reach now, given the impact of the coronavirus.

War of Words

SAHASHI  After Beijing changed course and began publicly denouncing the United States in April this year, Washington ratcheted up its anti-Chinese rhetoric as well. President went so far as to say [on social media] that there was no ruling out “a complete decoupling from China.” But to my mind, the most provocative challenge—though it received little publicity in Japan—was delivered by Deputy National Security Advisor Matthew Pottinger in two speeches he gave last May, in Chinese. In the first, he spoke of the nationalist May Fourth Movement of 1919 and of the ability of citizens to spur change through small and large “acts of bravery,” citing the recent actions of Dr. Li Wenliang. He was basically urging the Chinese people to stand up to the government and decide their own fate.

The second was a congratulatory video message sent to President Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan upon her reelection. Pottinger praised the Taiwanese people for demonstrating that the spirit of democracy was not just American but universal, and he went out of his way to cite the words of dissident astrophysicist Fang Lizhi—a highly provocative reminder of the 1980s pro-democracy movement and the Tiananmen incident. This is proof that Washington’s long-standing practice of treating the Chinese with kid gloves has officially been thrown out the window, and it shows how badly ties have frayed. That same month, the White House imposed further restrictions on Chinese tech giant Huawei, and it issued a new document titled the United States Strategic Approach to the People’s Republic of China.

KAWASHIMA  Unfortunately, Pottinger’s remarks seem to have been completely blocked by China’s censors. Still, I think they sent a strong message in support of democratic values to Chinese emigrés and ethnic Chinese around the world. Even if they didn’t get through to people in Beijing or Shanghai, they will have given courage to Hong Kong’s pro-democracy activists and the people of Taiwan.

Beyond the Trump Factor

SAHASHI  I agree that Beijing started the quarrel that’s escalated so sharply in the past few months. As the Americans will gladly tell you, China began to get cocky after it emerged largely unscathed from the 2008 financial crisis and the Great Recession. Then, when Xi Jinping came to power, the Chinese started backing up their nationalist rhetoric with provocative behavior in cyberspace, the South China Sea, and so forth. Distrust of Xi Jinping has been building up ever since his first term, and this is the basic reason for the change in US attitudes.

At the same time, if we look at official US policy toward China, the fact is that little changed under President Barack Obama, and that has to be one of our reference points as we look ahead to the possibility of a Democratic administration. The Trump White House shifted the policy emphasis to strategic competition, with a focus on maintaining American hegemony and technological preeminence. It began by laying the policy foundations for a strategic approach to trade issues. But it’s hard to drum up political support for policies driven by strategic considerations alone; this is true everywhere, not just in Washington. Right now we’re seeing a wave of anti-Chinese feeling with a strong ideological component, but that’s largely a by-product of the COVID-19 crisis, which has hit Americans hard. It’s difficult to say how long that will last.

The Trump administration has turned antagonism toward China into a kind of political movement. But there are still a lot of unanswered questions, such as how long that trend will continue, how far it will go, and how [former Vice President] , the presumptive Democratic nominee, intends to deal with China if he wins the presidency.

KAWASHIMA  To what degree is the feud now unfolding between the United States and China the result of factors specific to Trump and his circle? For me, that’s a key question. By the waning days of the Obama administration, Washington was already viewing Beijing with a pretty jaundiced eye. Have those attitudes developed and carried over into the current administration? Or does the discord we’re seeing now have its own distinct, independent origins? How we answer that question is bound to affect our predictions regarding the direction of Washington’s China policy under the next administration.

(Originally published in Japanese, based on a video interview conducted on June 10, 2020. Banner photo: US President and President Xi Jinping of China. © AFP/ Aflo.)

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