China is “the central threat of our times,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in January 2020. Since then, the Trump administration has done everything it can to pump up the China threat, zeroing in on its initial coverup of the coronavirus as it unfolded in Wuhan and blaming China for its having crossed the Pacific. Now we have reached the point where Trump is proclaiming that he might “cut off” the entire relationship with China (www.ft.com/content/cfbba6bf-3de5-458d-92d1-a62fb958a354). While we are all familiar with Trump’s bluster and backtracking, his latest comment does speak to how badly relations with China are going and how central China bashing has become to his reelection strategy.
Jeopardizing relations with China is an extraordinary development on several levels. A foreign policy issue rarely occupies center stage in a presidential election unless the country is at war. But Trump had long since decided that China is enemy number one, and now he has weaponized that idea. Second, considering how effusively Trump has praised Xi Jinping’s leadership and their friendship, the resumption of threats, after conclusion of a major trade deal, is frankly astounding. Third, is the idea that starting a Cold War with China will enhance Trump’s reelection prospects. Granted, public opinion polls show a sharp decline in China’s standing with Americans. But not “liking” China is one thing, approving a prolonged confrontation is another.
Consider the recent steps Trump has taken or may be contemplating with regard to China:
• “There are many things we can do [about China]. We can cut off the whole relationship. Now if you did, what would happen? You’d save $500bn.” (I can’t imagine who is the “you.”)
• End Chinese visa applications for science students and visiting scholars. (This step was contemplated in 2018. Those applicants are being more carefully screened, and denied, today.)
• Further restrict Huawei’s access to US software, chip sets, and other technology. (This step was announced May 14.)
• Demand compensation from China for coronavirus losses. (Trump has voiced this idea a few times, as have some other countries. It will go nowhere, but it’s another needle in the eye.)
• Terminate the Phase One trade agreement (he says he’s lost “the flavor” of it) and cancel US debt obligations to China.
We all know the reason behind demonizing and pressuring China: It’s part and parcel of Trump’s two-pronged deflection strategy. One part is to cast China as the main enemy and COVID-19 as a peculiarly Chinese responsibility, thus hoping to take Americans’ attention away from Trump’s dereliction of duty in handling the virus. (He throws in Obama, WHO, the CDC, and the Democrats for good measure.) The other part is to portray Joe Biden as being “soft” on China, and when Biden denies it, forcing him to identify more closely with Trump’s China bashing.
One Chinese response to Trump’s latest outburst is interesting, since it comes from Zhao Lijian, a foreign ministry spokesman best known for accusing the US military’s bioweapons lab of being the source of the coronavirus. Now Zhao appears to have been leashed, reportedly by higher ups who believe these “wolf warrior” diplomats’ aggressiveness is causing problems for China (www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy/article/3084274/too-soon-too-loud-chinese-foreign-policy-advisers-tell-wolf). Zhao is urging the US to “abandon its cold war and zero-sum mentality” and remember that “stable development of China-US relations serves the fundamental interests of both countries.” “The two sides should strengthen anti-epidemic co-operation, win the war against the epidemic, treat patents and resume economic production. But this requires the US to meet China halfway.”
That kind of conciliatory message warrants the Trump administration’s attention. Even in the worst days of the Cold War with the Soviet Union, no president talked about “cutting off” relations with Moscow. In fact, the lesson US leaders before Trump seem to have learned from that Cold War is the need to reaffirm the importance of relations between major adversaries, strive for mutually advantageous agreements, and build layers of interaction between them to avert a complete breakdown in communication. The 1972 Nixon-Brezhnev strategic arms agreement (SALT) and Declaration of Principles, which vowed to improve “mutual understanding and businesslike cooperation” on the basis of “peaceful coexistence,” come to mind (www.nytimes.com/1972/05/30/archives/texts-of-nixonbrezhnev-declaration-and-of-joint-communique-at-end.html). But Trump and his top foreign policy officials clearly have no interest in summitry with China, nor in utilizing semi- and nonofficial channels (so-called “Track 2” and “Track 3”), to sustain dialogue. They’re all about showing toughness and distracting voters.
Is Trump really prepared to resume the trade war, put sanctions at the center of US-China relations, and increase the likelihood of a violent clash, say in the South China Sea? If he and his campaign advisers think a Cold War with China will keep him in the White House, the answer seems to be “yes.” Biden’s camp needs to come up with a better position on China than simply criticizing Trump’s blame game or maintaining that he’ll be tougher than Trump on China. I’ve suggested the idea of competitive coexistence—engaging but contending with China (see my article at http://www.chinausfocus.com/foreign-policy/testing-time-for-us-china-relations). But as a campaign issue, Biden would be mistaken if he allowed China policy to rise to the level of importance of health care, climate change, and a national plan for the pandemic.