U.S. President Donald Trump spent the first three years of his presidency balancing the demands of hard-liners who wanted a crackdown on China against his own desire to pursue a trade deal and cultivate a stronger relationship with Xi Jinping.
The unexpected order Wednesday to close the Chinese Consulate in Houston made one thing clear: The hawks are now in charge.
Eager to blame China for the COVID-19 pandemic and fed up with what U.S. officials call a history of espionage and intellectual-property theft, Trump has allowed a small group of advisers led by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to push U.S. policy toward its most antagonistic in decades. The result is a series of sanctions, restrictions and condemnations that culminated in the Houston decision.
“Despite the overall message that the administration was tough on China we saw very much the opposite until we had a pandemic to contend with,” said Mira Rapp-Hooper, a senior fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations. “They actually pursued a very narrow China policy up until spring.”
The battle has now been opened on a range of fronts: China’s tightening grip over Hong Kong, its treatment of Muslims in Xinjiang, its infiltration of technology and the theft of intellectual property. In nearly every policy realm, the U.S. is pushing back harder. It’s banning Chinese academics and expelling Chinese journalists and warning that the U.S. needs to cut its dependence on Chinese goods.
Pompeo’s team, along with Deputy National Security Adviser Matt Pottinger, are the key architects of the change. They’re finding a more willing audience in the White House for their argument that the U.S. needs to strike back after what they see as decades spent ignoring China’s behavior, criticizing both Republican and Democratic administrations for being naive.
According to one person familiar with internal discussions, Pompeo and his advisers have come to conclude that a capitalist, democratic U.S. and a Communist, unelected leadership in China are fundamentally at odds and cannot coexist.
“America is engaging in a response to Chinese Communist Party and aggression in a way that America has not done for the past 20 years,” Pompeo said on June 19. “We responded to their military, use of military force, by moving back. We responded to their use of diplomatic coercion via retreating. Donald Trump is not going to permit that, and we made that clear.”
With the Oval Office offering little restraint, Pompeo’s team has orchestrated an unprecedented roll-out of attacks on Beijing, calling on every senior official in the executive branch to join the fray. That has included speeches by National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien, FBI Director Christopher Wray and Attorney General Bill Barr, who lambasted Hollywood and companies such as Apple Inc. for succumbing to China’s will. Pompeo has even given more latitude to his spokeswoman, Morgan Ortagus, to call out China in unusually harsh terms, as she did last year in referring to the country’s “thuggish regime.”
The Chinese Embassy in Washington urged the U.S. to show restraint Wednesday, comparing the administration to a car going the wrong way down the road. “It’s time to step on the brakes and return to the right direction!” the embassy said in a tweet.
Pompeo has taken the campaign on the road, with trips to the U.K. and Denmark this week aimed at coalescing a global coalition to oppose China. On Thursday, he’ll visit the presidential library of Richard Nixon — who was responsible for the re-opening with China in 1972 — for a speech that’s expected to cast the U.S.-China fight as the ultimate clash of civilizations.
Fueling the new hawkishness is a group of advisers around Pompeo who have laid out a China approach in far more aggressive and confrontational terms. They include Assistant Secretary David Stilwell and two China-born American scholars pulled from the world of academia: Miles Yu and Mung Chiang.
Yu is a history professor who has focused on China’s military at the U.S. Naval Academy and has long flagged concerns about Beijing’s efforts to expand its capabilities and influence. Chiang is on leave from his post as the dean of the college of engineering at Purdue University.
Both men bring skepticism about previous efforts to engage China in order to get it to embrace Western values. They’re joined by a key outside adviser, Michael Pillsbury, who wrote a 2015 book titled “The Hundred-Year Marathon: China’s Secret Strategy to Replace America as the Global Superpower.”
The group isn’t winning all its arguments: A proposal that emerged at the State Department to undermine Hong Kong’s dollar peg got little traction. A recommendation that the U.S. pursue a free trade agreement with Taiwan — a move that would infuriate Beijing — has gone nowhere. Trump also hasn’t given his sign-off to another idea to bar entry to the U.S. to members of China’s Communist Party.
Yet the days of Trump heaping praise on Xi, even as COVID-19 began to spread, are gone, replaced by an atmosphere of unrelenting negativity. According to numerous people familiar with the conversations, even moderate voices are ignored in administration meetings. Vice President Mike Pence rejected the idea of serving as a back channel to China, wary of getting in the middle of an unstable and bifurcated policy, according to a person familiar with the proposal.
The newly hawkish tone, while shared in Congress, has sparked concern from Democrats and Republicans outside the government who argue that it’s largely a fiction, given the revelations of John Bolton’s book, “The Room Where it Happened.” Bolton, who left the White House last year, argues that Trump only saw China through the lens of his own electoral chances, never cared about human rights in China and didn’t mind if Xi locked up Uighurs.
“This is partly electioneering,” Max Baucus, a former U.S. ambassador to China and Democratic senator from Montana, told Bloomberg Television. “Clearly China creates a lot of problems for the United States, but this is the wrong way to handle it. If Pompeo thinks he is going to quote ‘change Chinese behavior,’ he is gravely mistaken. Statements like his and others very much weaken the hands of reformers in China and very much strengthen the hands of hardline hawks in China.”
Several former diplomats as well as more centrist Republicans and Democrats argue that the U.S. needs to cooperate with China to get things done on all sorts of matters, including counterterrorism, climate change and nuclear nonproliferation. They also worry the new tougher strategy will just cause Chinese officials to dig in their heels even further.
“The worry that I have is that only Xi Jinping could bring the Republicans and Democrats together in the American congress,” former Defense Secretary Robert Gates told the Council on Foreign Relations this week. “My worry is we’re going to move too far toward hostility.”
Many in Beijing see the tougher U.S. moves as a last-ditch, and hopeless, attempt to halt the progress of a country that has been catching up to the U.S., in terms of overall economic might.
“If anyone in Washington believes that applying more pressure to China will force China to succumb, they are indulging in fantasy,” said Gao Zhikai, a former Chinese diplomat and translator for Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping. “Washington needs to come to terms with a China which will eventually outgrow the size of the United States in about 10 to 15 years.”
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