Honolulu – The deterioration of U.S.-China relations was further solidified by an important speech by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on July 23. Pompeo’s speech will accelerate the sense that a “new cold war” is underway between China and the United States because it seems to demand the overthrow of the Chinese Communist Party as a prerequisite for peace. The speech also asks fellow democracies to join with Washington in demanding changes in China’s behavior, despite strains in those partnerships that have grown under the Trump administration.
Pompeo’s remarks came after a recent cascade of U.S. signals of hostility toward the Chinese government. Since the beginning of the administration of President Donald Trump in 2017, Beijing has been imploring Washington to put aside bilateral differences and re-commit to the economic cooperation and transfer of U.S. technological expertise that have been vital to China’s rapid accumulation of wealth.
In 2020, however, hopes for an end to the U.S.-China “trade war” gave way to deepening acrimony. The COVID-19 pandemic led to both countries blaming each other for mismanaging the disease. Washington increased its support for Taiwan, strongly condemned Beijing’s move to roll back Hong Kong’s political autonomy, and unambiguously affirmed the 2016 international legal judgment that disavowed China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea. Then on July 21, the U.S. government ordered Beijing to evacuate its consulate in Houston within 72 hours.
Pompeo framed the conflict in existential terms. The problem, he said, is “the Chinese Communist Party’s behavior,” which he said “will ultimately erode our freedoms and subvert the rules-based order” if not vigorously opposed. He added that “The world cannot be safe until China changes.” In case that was not a clear enough re-statement of the old U.S. “peaceful evolution” doctrine, which calls for U.S. support to anti-CCP activists within China, Pompeo mentioned that advocacy of civil and political rights has made America “a beacon for freedom for people all around the world including people inside of China.”
Chinese elites will read this as an open confirmation of their worst fear, which is that the U.S. believes its own well-being requires the overthrow of the CCP. This view offers no clear path to a return to stable, constructive U.S.-China relations. It contrasts dramatically with the position currently pushed by Chinese diplomats, which is that both countries should learn to co-exist despite having different political systems.
Pompeo’s speech suggests that for now, at least, China is more useful to the Trump administration as an adversary than as a friend. This tracks well with the Republican Party’s reported decision to employ China-bashing as a campaign tactic in the run-up to the U.S. elections in November. This tactic is most clearly visible in public statements by senior administration officials that blame China for virus deaths in the U.S.
Pompeo also called on other democratic countries to “insist on reciprocity, transparency and accountability from the CCP.” He dismissed as “timid” and short-sighted the argument that some countries rely on trade with China and therefore cannot afford to antagonize Beijing. This increases the discomfort for countries such as Japan, which already struggle to maintain complex relationships with both China and the U.S.
What is most remarkable here is the difference between Pompeo’s approach and the well-known inclinations of his boss. Pompeo is calling for an ideological crusade to “defend freedom” from the CCP. Furthermore, he asserts that success will require the efforts of not only the U.S., but all states that share liberal values. Philosophically, this is liberal internationalism. Yet Trump is famously Jacksonian: dismissive of American exceptionalism, averse to discretionary wars and skeptical of the value of alliances beyond tangible financial benefits.
Trump may be indulging those of his advisers who hold a more conventional postwar U.S. foreign policy outlook because he thinks this offers a short-term domestic political advantage. Nevertheless, U.S. foreign policy continues to suffer from a fundamental contradiction. On one hand, U.S. officials ask friends and allies to rally in defense of the U.S.-sponsored international order consisting of liberal rules, norms and institutions. But on the other hand, Washington undermines that support through gestures that alienate its liberal allies, such as asking Japan and South Korea to dramatically increase what they pay to host U.S. military bases.
Trump’s government could expect to enjoy an electoral boost by claiming it wrested an important economic concession from China that ended the trade war. A sudden breakthrough in the bilateral relationship is therefore still possible. But by committing itself to this view of an existential, ideologically-centered struggle between China and the U.S., the Trump administration is less likely to declare before November that the two countries are friends again.
As for the longer term, Pompeo’s speech deepens the view among some Americans that peaceful coexistence with an authoritarian and increasingly powerful China is not possible without sacrificing vital American interests. That sentiment will shape U.S. thinking beyond the current administration.
Denny Roy is a senior fellow at East-West Center in Honolulu.