U.S. President Donald Trump’s rapid-fire escalation of attacks on China — from bans of WeChat and TikTok to sanctions on Hong Kong’s top official — underscores that he’s dropped past restraint and decided to make confronting Beijing his priority less than 90 days before the U.S. election.
The president’s increasingly aggressive stance has opened the door for hard-liners in the administration to push policies delivering on their long-held conviction that Communist Party leaders are bent on world domination, and that successive U.S. administrations underestimated the China threat.
“A dam has broken in the Trump administration, releasing all the pent-up ideas about how to escalate conflict with China,” said Graham Webster, China Digital Economy Fellow at the New America think tank. “It’s both a race to change facts on the ground and cement a durable enmity and a tool to distract from things that could damage Trump re-election prospects.”
The U.S. ordered the closing of China’s consulate in Houston in July, alleging that it had become a hub of espionage and intellectual property theft.
Then, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, among the administration’s most vocal China hardliners, signaled a new push on Wednesday as he urged a “Clean Network” initiative calling for app stores like those run by Apple Inc. and Google to bar any “untrusted” Chinese apps and said U.S. data shouldn’t be stored by Chinese cloud-computing companies.
Late Thursday, Trump issued executive orders aimed at barring the Chinese-owned TikTok and WeChat in the U.S. On Friday, the U.S. sanctioned Carrie Lam, the top official in Hong Kong, and 10 other Hong Kong and Chinese officials Pompeo said contributed to “brutal oppression” of the city’s people.
Still pending: action on a recommendation Thursday from a high-powered group of U.S. regulators that stock exchanges set new rules that could trigger the delisting of Chinese companies. The administration argues that American investors could be exposed to fraud because Beijing refuses to allow Washington regulators to inspect the audit papers of companies based in mainland China and Hong Kong.
And China is sure to be infuriated by what’s next: Alex Azar, the secretary of Health and Human Services, is expected to arrive in Taiwan within days in the highest-level visit by a U.S. Cabinet official since Washington cut ties with Taipei more than 40 years ago.
The successive moves have brought U.S. policy a long way from earlier in Trump’s term, when he bashed China as exploiting the U.S. on trade policy while often praising the leadership of President Xi Jinping as he sought the ultimate prize of a new trade deal with Beijing.
That all changed as Trump — faltering in his response to the coronavirus, no longer able to boast of a surging U.S. economy and falling in polls of his re-election campaign against Joe Biden — began to blame Beijing for allowing the global spread of what he calls “the China virus.”
The president’s new tone dovetailed with a deeper determination among hawkish advisers like Pompeo and economic adviser Peter Navarro that now is the time to lock in a laundry list of new restrictions against China. Unspoken is that the rift would endure even if Trump loses in November.
“The Chinese have to be held accountable on their bad behavior during the pandemic, their bad human rights records, what they’re doing militarily in the South China Sea,” Trump economic adviser Larry Kudlow said on Bloomberg Television on Friday.
Pompeo made clear the depth of the U.S. hostility toward China last month in a speech that critics said had echoes of the “red peril” imagery that defined the narrative around the Cold War with the Soviet Union. Pompeo warned that Xi was bent on global hegemony and the U.S. risked losing out.
“Securing our freedoms from the Chinese Communist Party is the mission of our time,” Pompeo proclaimed at the Richard Nixon presidential library in California. It was effectively a disavowal of Nixon’s historic opening to China.
The administration’s conviction about China’s abuses — and its intention to equal or surpass the U.S. as a global power — is widely shared among American analysts. After all, China has banned U.S. apps such as Facebook, Twitter and Google for years, and it has built out islands in the South China Sea. Millions of Uighurs in China’s Xinjiang region have been confined to what amount to internment camps. And it has slowly strangled what was left of Hong Kong’s political autonomy.
At the same time, U.S. allies in Europe haven’t been nearly as willing to follow the U.S. in its more antagonistic approach, arguing that the best approach is to confront China where necessary while cooperating where possible — on issues such as counterterrorism, climate change and nonproliferation.
“This endless parade of outrage only serves to highlight the fact that the administration has been unable to induce or coerce China into changing its behavior,” said Daniel Russel, former assistant secretary of state for East Asia and the Pacific, who’s now vice president at the Asia Society Policy Institute. “Chinese don’t see an incentive in restraint.”
China, which has mostly kept to vague warnings of retaliation for U.S. restrictions, has plenty of cards to play. Apple sells many of its devices in China and depends on the country for much of its supply chain. And China holds more than $1 trillion in U.S. treasuries, which it could offload.
Trump still hasn’t taken some actions that would be likeliest to rebound, damaging the U.S. economy and unraveling the phase one trade accord with China.
“This is a very complicated calculus for Beijing,” said Michael Hirson, an analyst with New York-based Eurasia Group and formerly the U.S. Treasury Department’s chief representative to Beijing. “China would prefer to wait for the election to pass and to start fresh, ideally with a Biden administration but even with Trump in his second term.”
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