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A Chilly Summit in Hawaii Spotlights Escalating U.S.-China Tensions

China's President Xi Jinping, left, and U.S. President Donald Trump, right. - Photo by Dan Kitwood and Nicholas Kamm—AFP/Getty Images
China's President Xi Jinping, left, and U.S. President Donald Trump, right. Photo by Dan Kitwood and Nicholas Kamm—AFP/Getty Images

The chilliest place in Hawaii this week — other than the summits of Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea, which barely rose above freezing — was Hickam Air Force Base in Honolulu, where Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met China’s top diplomat Yang Jiechi, amid escalating tensions between the world’s two most powerful nations.

The frosty atmosphere was evident in both sides’ bland readouts of the meeting, which called it “constructive” but mostly highlighted the issues that divide the nations, including COVID-19, China’s move to strengthen its grip on Hong Kong, the status of self-ruling Taiwan, and Beijing’s trade practices and its treatment of the country’s Uighur Muslim minority in western Xinjiang province.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijuan said Yang told Pompeo that while China seeks “coordination, cooperation, and stability,” it will defend its territory, its security, and its interests. Zhao said Beijing “resolutely opposes U.S. interference in Hong Kong affairs,” that Taiwan is part of China, and marking Beijing’s opposition to a law President Trump signed on day the Pompeo and Yang met authorizing sanctions against Chinese officials who participate in the internment of Uighurs in northwestern China.

State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said Pompeo “stressed important American interests and the need for fully reciprocal dealings between the two nations across commercial, security, and diplomatic interactions.” Pompeo said in a June 18 tweet that Yang told him China would honor its commitments to buy $200 billion of soybeans and other American agricultural products under the first phase of the nations’ Jan. 15 trade deal. In his new book, national security advisor John Bolton alleges that Trump begged Chinese President Xi Jinping to make the purchases, which come from states vital to his re-election, to help him win a second term.

Pompeo launched one of his harshest attacks yet on China to an online conference on democracy in Copenhagen two days after he met with Yang. He called China “a rogue actor,” labeled Beijing’s treatment of the Uighurs “a human rights violation on a scale we have not seen since World War II” and accused the Chinese government of using “disinformation and malicious cyber campaigns” to divide the U.S. and its European allies.

The tailspin that U.S.-China relations are in will accelerate over the coming months for political and economic reasons on both sides of the Pacific, experts say. The tensions extend from the blame game between Xi and Trump over the coronavirus pandemic to both nations’ me-first economic policies, and their escalating jousts from the South China Sea to semiconductors and satellites. “The U.S.-China relationship is heading rapidly downward, and I don’t see many off-ramps in the next six months,” says Zack Cooper, a China expert at the American Enterprise Institute.

Coronavirus’ origins in China and Beijing’s moves against Hong Kong have given China hawks in Washington the upper hand over more moderate officials who have been trying to negotiate trade deals, current and former US officials say. Led by Michael Pillsbury and Lewis “Scooter” Libby at the Hudson Institute, Dan Blumenthal at the American Enterprise Institute, and others, they favor confrontation over compromise, arguing that relations are a zero-sum game.

“As (Xi) built up islets in the South China Sea he promised never to militarize them, then dishonored his promise, disregarded international rulings, and dispatched ships in packs to intimidate neighboring Beijing’s writ,” Libby wrote on April 29 in The National Interest. “Pledging to protect intellectual property, he enabled ongoing theft and coercion, ineluctably undermining industries of the advanced democracies, and then pressed forward on China’s newly gained advantages.”

The upcoming U.S. presidential election has further strengthened the hardliners’ hand. Faeing mounting troubles at home, Trump has flipped from seeking Beijing’s help, as Bolton argues in his new book, to being tough on China as the key foreign policy plank in his re-election campaign platform. Meanwhile, presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden’s advisers are urging him to take a tough stand on relations with China to ward off Trump’s accusations that he’s soft on Communism.

The unsettling question is where the battle lines in an emerging showdown would be drawn. In the Cold War, defining the front lines was risky and costly, but they usually were visible on a map, or at least in a surveillance photo. Today’s flashpoints are nothing like the Fulda Gap, where U.S. and Soviet tanks faced off for decades, a blockade of Cuba, or Zbigniew Brzezinski’s “Crescent of Crisis”, where the U.S. and the Soviet Union fought surrogate battles from Afghanistan to Angola and Nicaragua.

Talk of a new Cold War, with its suggestion of a conventional or nuclear military confrontation, is overblown, current and former U.S. and other officials say, and the talk of Chinese military supremacy in the Western Pacific is “hyperbolic”, says a current U.S. military official.

That doesn’t mean there will be no casualties. The battlefields now are supply chains, trade and investment, 5G and artificial intelligence, semiconductors and strategic metals, cyber security and satellites. That means the U.S. is competing with China on a more level playing field than America has ever faced. “The Soviet Union had nuclear warheads and ICBMs, but that was about it,” says one US intelligence official. “But in every other respect, it was a Third World country. China isn’t anymore.”

The greatest danger of this moment stems from weakness as well as miscalculation, as it often does at turning points in history, as both nations blame one another for their troubles. Trump’s are visible in America’s streets, staggering unemployment numbers, lagging polls, coronavirus casualties, Supreme Court decisions, and angry memoirs.

Xi has his own problems, including unrest in Hong Kong, the reemergence of COVID in Beijing, pushback from China’s trading partners over its treatment of the Uighurs, and record 6.2% unemployment in February. The two main pillars of Xi’s political grip, economic growth and political stability, have been shaken by the pandemic and the unrest in Hong Kong, and the country’s financial vulnerability was visible to some officials as early as 2007, when then-Premier Wen Jiabao warned the National People’s Congress that its economic growth was “unstable, unbalanced, uncoordinated, and unsustainable.”

China’s push to regain what Xi considers to be its rightful place in the world also is hampered by the quality of some of the goods it exports. U.S. prosecutors charged June 18 that 140,000 Chinese N-95 facemasks were defective, and a March 2019 British government report found serious flaws in Huawei telecom equipment caused by a lack of “basic engineering competence and cyber security hygiene.”

Beijing’s use of its economic muscle to make developing nations more dependent on its goodwill; its use of Russian-style social media propaganda to exploit social, political, and economic divisions; and its initial tardiness and obfuscation in reporting the COVID-19 epidemic in Wuhan have alienated nations in Asia, Africa, and Europe it had been trying to cultivate.

Trump, however, has undermined America’s reputation as a competent, robust, and reliable ally, say some current State Department, military and intelligence officials, all of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to criticize the president. His feuds with the European Union over taxing the digital economy and other issues and his attempts to bully U.S. allies in Europe, East Asia, and Australia into increasing their defense spending mimic China’s coercive diplomacy more than they do America’s traditional reliance on shared values and international cooperation, said one current official, leveling the playfield with Beijing despite its missteps.

Despite the Hawaii meeting, the tensions are likely to escalate from here. China has promised to retaliate for any effort to sanction its officials over the treatment of Uighurs, and U.S. officials are reviewing retaliatory options that attack what they think are China’s vulnerabilities. More than 270 China-related bills are under consideration in Congress, and officials say that facing growing troubles at home, Trump is likely to impose more stringent options from the list of measures his administration has been considering without first consulting the legislature.

In a tweet on June 18, Trump raised the prospect of the economic equivalent of Mutual Assured Destruction, tweeting that “. . . “the U.S. certainly does maintain a policy option, under certain circumstances, of a complete decoupling from China” The day before, the U.S. Trade Representative had ruled out the nuclear option in testimony to the House Ways and Means Committee, saying that he did not think severing economic relations with China is “a reasonable policy option at this point”.

Complete decoupling is easier said than done. In addition to their mutual dependence on one another’s products, services, and markets, China is holding more than $1 trillion in U.S. debt and some of the world’s largest reserves of the rare earths needed to make a wide range of high-tech equipment. The U.S. dollar remains the world’s reserve currency, and the U.S. is still China’s most important export market.

But it’s now clear that the status quo between the world’s greatest powers is unsustainable, and that a key American assumption about it – that the economic reforms begun by President Deng Xiaoping 40 years ago would draw China into the fraternity of capitalist democracies – may be as fallible as the belief in 1914 that Britain, Germany, and Russia would never go to war because their leaders were all related.

Contact us at editors@time.com.