Are US/China relations at a turning point?

US, China

In the era of Trump and Covid-19, relations between America and China seem to on rocky ground, with disagreements escalating in recent weeks. Trump’s order to close the Chinese Consulate in Houston (amid speculation about economic espionage), was met with retaliation, with China then closing down the US Consulate in Chengdu. Clearly, things between the two countries are deteriorating pretty quickly. We asked Professor Steve Tsang from the SOAS China Institute whether relations between US and China are now at a point of no return.

So, have relations between US and China always been bad? Actually no — historically they were mostly very good. Tsang comments that ‘they improved steadily since President Richard Nixon went to China in 1972, with occasional spots of trouble, such as during and immediately after the Tiananmen Massacre of 1989 or the accidental US bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade.  The turn of relations in the Trump Administration is a new development.’

Nixon, China, US/China relations
Jimmy Carter and Richard Nixon confer with Chinese Vice Premier Deng Xiaoping, 1979. Photograph: Manhhai/Flickr

Trump, it seems, is a major factor in these worsening relations. ‘Yes, significantly.  The changes are structural’, states Tsang.  ‘The US political establishment as a whole had significantly toughened its views on China during the Trump Administration.  Even though Obama was the President who started to ‘pivot to the East’, and the US establishment started to ponder about its relations with China then, a basic shift in attitude and policy has happened under the Trump Administration.’

What about Covid-19? Has this contributed to the deterioration? Tsang believes that yes, the pandemic has certainly made things worse, ‘partly because of the Chinese disinformation campaign and the fact that more Americans have died by Covid-19 than during the whole of the Vietnam War, and partly because the USA has confronted Covid-19 so poorly in comparison to the case in China.’

On a daily basis, these poor relations could impact the life of people across America, given the effect on supply chains in China. Tsang comments that ‘deepening economic decoupling will probably have the greatest impact on everyday life’, which is likely to be the case ‘until (at least) the USA can secure alternative cheap and reliable suppliers for everyday consumables which have been coming from China in the last three decades or so.’

Photograph: Thomas Hawk/Flickr

Gong forward, things may only get worse. Relations between the two countries could look pretty bleak in the future. ‘Increased tension, incremental economic decoupling and mistrust will become the ’new normal’.’ Tsang is quite certain that this is likely to be the case whether Trump wins a second term or not. ‘What may change is the prospect that a Biden Administration will calibrate US policy towards China carefully, be more consistent and be more able to get US allies to work with and support the US policy.  But tension, de-coupling and mistrust are here to stay in the foreseeable future.  Xi Jinping cannot and will not back off from the assertive foreign policy which is now becoming the hallmark of his administration.’

Right now, in summer 2020, are relations at a critical point? Is there a way out? Are we at a turning point? ‘Yes, I think US-China relations is at a turning point, one in which the emergence of a new style Cold War can happen.  It is not a foregone conclusion, but we are at a point when major decisions can set the two in such a direction, if they are taken.’

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