Bad as they are, U.S.-China relations are not at their lowest point ever. That honor goes to the 1960s, when the relationship was suffused with sheer and unmistakable hostility. Today’s ill will and nastiness are the worst since then. Bad as things are, however, expect deeper depths and worse vitriol. You ain’t seen nothing yet.
Tensions are inherent in a relationship between the world’s two largest economies, both of which believe in their own exceptionalism and the subsequent “right” to regional, if not global, leadership that it confers. That is the message of the “Thucydides Trap.” The U.S. security strategy that characterized this era as one of “great power competition” ratified that conclusion, it didn’t shape it.
Structural tensions are exacerbated by complaints of the moment; they are matches to tinder. The U.S. bill of particulars includes trade imbalances and resulting lost jobs, theft of technology and other forms of intellectual property, human rights abuses and heavy-handed diplomacy that relies on money for status and influence.
Beijing has its own grievances: U.S. Navy transits that challenge its territorial claims in the South China Sea, support for Taiwan and just about any time Washington challenges or says "no" to a Chinese assertion of its rights or prerogatives.
COVID-19 has turned things up to 11. The Trump administration has sought to brand the contagion the “Wuhan virus” or the “China virus,” which infuriates Beijing. Senior economic advisor Peter Navarro accused China of “spawning the virus,” which they “hid behind the shield of the World Health Organization,” of sending “fake” and “counterfeit” tests to the rest of the world, “vacuuming up” and then “profiteering” from sales of personal protective equipment, and withholding data so it could be first to develop a vaccine.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo followed up by arguing that China “covered up how dangerous the disease is. It didn’t report sustained human-to-human transmission for a month until it was in every province inside of China, it censored those who tried to warn the world in order to halt the testing of new samples, and it destroyed existing samples.” Such criticism is not unprecedented; coming from the top reaches of the U.S. government is.
China has held nothing back in its response. Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang called Navarro “a consistent liar with no credibility.” Xinhua, the official Chinese news agency, said Pompeo “dedicated himself to smearing China's anti-virus fight” and was more deserving of the title of “secretary of separation,” than secretary of state. A top evening news broadcast on China Central Television charged that Pompeo is “turning himself into the common enemy of mankind” and that he “has exceeded the bottom line of being human.” Chinese officials, spokespersons and media dismiss U.S. criticism as an attempt to avoid any reckoning for Washington’s own mistakes.
U.S. President Donald Trump has wavered. He has agreed that China is behind the outbreak — for a while, he too embraced the “China virus” label — but he has been more critical of the WHO for covering up for China than of holding Beijing responsible. He recently said there would be “consequences” if China was discovered to be behind the outbreak, but his chief priority appears to be ensuring that Beijing honors the trade deal struck at the beginning of the year. If that falls through, then Trump is likely to be unleashed.
The presidential campaign will add fuel to the fire. The Trump team planned to make China the center of its effort, going after presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden for being soft on China, tarring him with the failures of President Barack Obama’s policy toward China as well as charging that his son took money from Chinese companies. A recent memo from Republican strategists argues that when pressed on how the administration has dealt with the virus, all GOP candidates should not defend Trump but should “attack China” instead.
They will be walking a fine line, given Trump’s record dealing with the virus and with China. Democratic support groups are already running ads that hammer the president for vacillating on both issues. With opinion polls showing a sharp increase in negative views of China among Americans — about two-thirds of respondents in an April Pew poll, the most negative rating for the country since the question was first asked in 2005, and a nearly 20 percentage point increase since Trump took office — policy toward Beijing is going to be a cudgel in the November ballot.
That has profound implications for Japan, for which no issue is more important than China. A recent article in American Interest by Y.A., “an official of the Japanese government,” provides valuable insight into Japanese views of Trump’s China policy. Its bottom line is evident in the title, “The Virtues of a Confrontational China Strategy.” While acknowledging that there is a lot to criticize about Trump’s policies, Y.A. is more disdainful of Obama’s approach to China.
Policymakers in Tokyo “despaired” of the previous administration’s policy, one that ignored thousands of years of history. While conceding that U.S. views of China were not monolithic, Y.A. argues nonetheless that “until its last day, the Obama Administration believed China was ‘shapeable.’” The Japanese did not share that illusion.
Japan has worked closely with the Trump administration to correct that mistake. A February 2017 joint declaration issued by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Trump, “unprecedented in its scope and ambition,” served two purposes: It put China on notice regarding the new outlook in Washington — which, coming from the new president, “reassured not only Japan but also allies and partners across the region” — and because it was a genuinely bilateral statement, created by both governments working together, that signaled a new balance and partnership in the relationship. Y.A. applauds the partnership that Abe and Trump created and sustained throughout his first term in office.
Y.A. is careful to distinguish Trump’s policy toward China and implementation of that policy. He approvingly cites Biden for advocating “a united front of U.S. allies and partners to confront China’s abusive behaviors.” But, he concludes, “a poorly implemented but fundamentally correct strategy is better than having a well-implemented but ambiguous strategy. We just don’t want to see the United States go back again to engagement, which will undoubtedly come at our, and other Asian countries’ expense.” Y.A., like other Japanese decision makers, wants “an alliance that is explicitly focused on China,” rather than one that “is vague and unfocused, or worse yet, afraid to confront the greatest challenge.” Obama administration officials take issue with some of Y.A.’s claims, noting that the administration was never naive about Beijing’s intentions. They were hedging and ready for a harder line if Chinese behavior called for such a shift.
Those claims must not obscure the more important takeaways from his argument. There isn’t, among officials in Japan, an appetite for accommodating China. There is also no appetite for reckless confrontation either. Policy toward China should be consistent and principled — not mercurial and transactional — so that Beijing and U.S. allies can connect behavior with outcomes.
Ultimately, a lot comes down to process. A Japanese diplomat once confided that considerable anxiety at and irritation toward Obama reflected Tokyo’s frustration at the inability to build a personal relationship with him. Without that bond, there was little confidence, especially when the White House world view seemed so alien to Japan’s own thinking.
Japanese, like U.S. allies elsewhere, want more than formulaic recitations of treaty commitments. That need assumes still greater weight and significance as the U.S. asks more of its allies and the regional security environment evolves in troubling ways. Those connections will be more important than ever in a fiery U.S. political campaign that relentlessly hammers on an issue that is so central to Japan's own future.
Brad Glosserman is deputy director of and visiting professor at the Center for Rule Making Strategies at Tama University as well as senior adviser (nonresident) at Pacific Forum. He is the author of "Peak Japan: The End of Great Ambitions."
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