Pro-Beijing supporters hold China national flags and placards as they take part in a rally outside of Consulate General of the United States in Hong Kong on June 26, 2020.
Anthony Kwan—Getty Images
July 20, 2020 2:55 PM EDT

Back in March, as the novel coronavirus started to spread across the U.S., many Americans went shopping for home freezers to help cut down on trips to the grocery store. They quickly discovered there were none to be had. Some might be available by September, major nationwide retailers and smaller appliance dealers told customers, but no one could be sure until a truck full of freezers backed into to the loading dock.

The sudden surge in demand was one problem. But another, appliance retailers say, was that most household freezers, like hundreds of other appliances and household goods like air conditioners, are made in China, where factories were hampered by COVID-19. Even those home appliances still made in America use Chinese-manufactured control panels, circuit boards, and wiring harnesses.

Four months later, while think tanks and government officials debate the possibility of the Trump Administration instigating “a complete decoupling from China,” as the president suggested in June, many American consumers have already deduced that their homes could be casualties of the escalating tensions between the U.S. and China.

Decoupling from the Chinese economy is one in an increasingly long list of threats, sanctions and admonitions that the Trump Administration has directed at Beijing in recent weeks. The worsening confrontation between the two outsized economic powers has come to resemble a wrestling match, the opponents locked together and trying to throw one another off their feet or out of the global ring. For Trump, reining in China is a talking point that has rare bipartisan support during the final stretch of a beleaguered re-election campaign. But as the hard talk from both Democrats and Republicans gets harder, it is increasingly difficult to see where the U.S. will find an off-ramp after both parties have constantly accused one another of being soft on China.

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So far, China has largely confined its responses to rhetoric and symbolic actions, such as barring Republican lawmakers from visiting. Foreign Minister Wang Yi told his Russian counterpart in a July 17 phone call that the U.S. government has “lost its mind, morals, and credibility,” according to the South China Morning Post. Earlier this month, FBI Director Christopher Wray called China “the greatest long-term threat to our nation’s information and intellectual property and to our economic vitality,” and on July 14 Assistant Secretary of State David R. Stilwell said “only the gullible or the co-opted can still credit Beijing’s pretense of good global citizenship.”

Following the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic in China, the imposition of a harsh new security law in Hong Kong, and escalating military jousting in the South China Sea, the Trump Administration has pivoted from its early stance of seeking an extensive trade agreement with China to exploring ways to punish Beijing’s actions.

On June 18, Trump signed legislation imposing sanctions on Chinese officials the U.S. charges have oppressed the country’s Muslim Uighur minority. On July 14, he reversed his position on pursuing a larger trade deal with China, something that had been a major element of his re-election pitch. “I’m not interested right now in talking to China,” Trump said in an interview with CBS News. “We made a great trade deal. But as soon as the deal was done, the ink wasn’t even dry, and they hit us with the plague.”

Observers say that stance has broad support among American voters ahead of the elections. “President Trump’s rhetoric on China continues to become tougher, and I expect that trend will continue until at least November,” says Zack Cooper of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think-tank. “The only foreign policy issue on which Republicans and Democrats largely agree is China. There is little political space between now and the election for going easier on the Communist Party.”

If the rhetoric on both sides is tough, the reality is tougher. The two nations’ economies have become so closely wired that the complete decoupling Trump threatened is impossible, experts agree, in part because its effects would be felt far beyond the search for freezers and air conditioners. “No sane policy official would push for a full decoupling,” says Yukon Huang, a senior fellow in the Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. But, he adds, “there are degrees” of decoupling that could take place if things continue to head in the current direction and could still have a negative impact in both nations.

Most experts agree that the likeliest target for some degree of decoupling may be the most important to both nations’ economies: technology. The U.S. already is having some success convincing allies such as the U.K. and Australia to bar using Huawei 5G infrastructure, which U.S. officials allege poses security threats, and contemplating similar actions against TikTok and other Chinese internet applications. U.S. law enforcement agencies have not publicly presented evidence that Huawei’s systems have been used for spying.

Despite its rapid progress on many fronts, China still suffers from some major technological handicaps, including manufacturing the increasingly compact, complex, and powerful semiconductors that are essential to advanced electronic architecture, says Michael Brown, the Director of the Defense Department’s Defense Innovations Unit. China also lags the U.S. and many of its allies in making the machinery to fashion advanced microchips and must import them, Aaron Klein, a Brookings Institution Fellow in Economic Studies, told a recent Brookings seminar.

More worrisome, the escalating tensions have now extended to military maneuvers in the South China Sea and near Taiwan, the self-governing island over which Beijing claims sovereignty, that could become dangerous if there is an accident or miscalculation.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s declaration on July 13 that China’s activities in the South China Sea, most of which China claims as sovereign territory, are “unlawful” opened the door to further U.S. moves to penalize Chinese behavior, particularly its interference with fishing and oil and gas exploration by the other regional claimants, including the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and Indonesia, says one U.S. China expert, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

While the Chinese announce plans to deploy their first new amphibious assault ship, the U.S. has sent two aircraft carrier battle groups to the area “to support a free and open Indo-Pacific,” the Navy said in a statement on July 17. The Navy denied that the exercise had any political overtones. “The presence of the carriers was not in response to any specific political or world events,” the statement read.

Such jousting is unlikely to trigger an outright military conflict, several U.S. officials and outside experts say. Beijing, they argue, does not want to challenge the U.S. directly, so it tends to back down when confronted by the U.S. military at sea or in the air.

But others disagree. Rep. Ted Yoho, a Republican from Florida and member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, predicted “a clash within the next three to six months” with China in a recent interview with the Washington Examiner. “Knowing China, I think what they would do is ram one of our ships and say it was a mistake,” he told the paper. (While the Chinese navy has no record of targeting U.S. ships in this way, it has been accused by Vietnam of such attacks against its fishing vessels in disputed waters.)

The greatest danger is that an accident or such a miscalculation could rapidly escalate out of control, said three current and former officials. Shortly after George W. Bush took office in 2001, a Chinese J-8 jet fighter collided with a U.S. Navy EP-3E reconnaissance plane. The Chinese plane crashed and its pilot was later declared dead. The U.S. plane made an emergency landing on China’s Hainan Island, where its 24 crew members were detained and questioned. They were released 10 days later, after the Bush Administration issued a letter saying it was “very sorry” for the incident.

“The question as things get nastier is whether a more muscular China and the current American administration would be ready, willing, or able to defuse a similar situation today,” says one former official who served in several Republican administrations. “If they aren’t, or if hardliners like Pompeo take the opposite tack to what (former Secretary of State Colin) Powell did then, we could get a war nobody wants.”

 

Contact us at editors@time.com.

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