IN DECEMBER 2018 China hawks in the Trump administration pushed a series of punitive measures in what some referred to internally, according to a new book by Bob Davis and Lingling Wei, as “Fuck China Week”. That was as nothing compared with what happened in the month of July 2020.
In recent weeks America has imposed sanctions on senior Chinese officials, including a member of the Politburo, for their part in atrocities against Uighurs in Xinjiang; added 11 Chinese companies to the Commerce Department’s blacklist, for complicity in those atrocities; declared China’s sweeping claims in the South China Sea illegal; revoked Hong Kong’s special status for diplomacy and trade; announced criminal charges against four Chinese nationals who officials say were spies for the People’s Liberation Army; and ordered the closure of China’s consulate in Houston, supposedly a hub for espionage and influence operations, the first such move since the normalisation of relations in 1979 (China retaliated by closing America’s consulate in Chengdu). The first hint of trouble in Houston came when videos surfaced online of Chinese diplomats hurriedly burning documents in their courtyard—an apt metaphor for more than 40 years of diplomatic engagement going up in smoke.
All this has happened under a president, Donald Trump, who displays a personal affinity for his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, and (according to his former national security adviser, John Bolton) told Mr Xi that building camps for Uighurs was “the right thing to do”. He has shown little appetite for fights with China except over trade and, to deflect blame for his response to covid-19, the pandemic. But with time running out in his first term—and perhaps his presidency—hawkish officials around him are trying to fix in concrete a more confrontational posture than America has adopted since before Richard Nixon went to China almost half a century ago.
On July 23rd, at the Nixon Presidential Library in California, Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state, concluded a series of four speeches in as many weeks by top officials portraying China’s regime as the greatest threat to liberty and democracy globally. The national security adviser, Robert O’Brien, the FBI director, Christopher Wray, the attorney-general, William Barr, and Mr Pompeo argued that China sought to export its ideology and “control thought” beyond its borders. They castigated corporate chiefs and Hollywood studios for bowing to Beijing, warned of extensive Chinese espionage operations in America and contended that Mr Xi is on a decades-long quest for “global hegemony”. Mr Pompeo said that America and its allies must push China to change, or risk ceding the 21st century to Mr Xi’s authoritarian vision. “The old paradigm of blind engagement with China simply won’t get it done,” he said. “If we bend the knee now, our children’s children may be at the mercy of the Chinese Communist Party.”
Unnamed in these speeches—but an unavoidable backdrop to them—are Joe Biden and the presidential campaign. Mr Trump’s campaign wants to portray the presumptive Democratic nominee as soft on China, suggesting Mr Biden while vice-president underestimated the threat. A senior administration official says that part of the calculus driving recent actions is to set China-US relations on a trajectory that would be difficult to reverse no matter who wins in November. Some officials believe they have come close to achieving this, with the help of a broadly hawkish bipartisan consensus in Congress, which has passed tough legislation in response to the treatment of Uighurs and Hong Kong. The Communist Party’s own actions—turning Xinjiang into a gulag and stripping Hong Kong of the rule of law—have almost certainly ensured that America cannot return fully to its former relationship with China.
Still, some hawks outside the administration, including a few who say they will vote for Mr Biden, worry that he would be less confrontational with Mr Xi as he searches for co-operation on issues like climate change and nuclear-arms control. Many of his foreign-policy advisers are, inevitably, veterans of the Obama administration. Hawks deride it as having accommodated China’s rise too readily for the sake of, say, the Paris Agreement. Would a Biden administration be softer, too?
No more Mr Soft Guy
Mr Biden’s advisers push back in a few ways. First, they argue that he would restore moral authority by calling out China for human-rights abuses. Second, they say he intends to work with allies to press China to change its behaviour. Third, he would invest at home to make America a stronger competitor in areas like 5G. Mr Trump, they contend, has weakened America’s standing relative to China on all three fronts: giving a green light to human-rights abuses; undermining allies while cosying up to dictators; and letting America’s institutions and infrastructure rot. “We’re weaker and China’s stronger because of President Trump,” says Tony Blinken, an adviser to Mr Biden.
Mr Trump’s officials lay stress on their actions, not the president’s words. Before July’s salvos officials had moved to cut off the supply of American technology to Huawei, part of a campaign against the telecoms giant that has won some support among allies: Britain has now said it will bar Huawei from its networks (Australia did so before America). The FBI has taken a more aggressive approach to investigating Chinese espionage—in his speech on China, Mr Wray said he was opening a new case every ten hours. The State Department recently decided to cancel the visas of as many as 3,000 graduate students connected to military institutions in China, the latest uptick in scrutiny of Chinese nationals coming to America for study or research. And the Department of Defence has become more assertive in conducting freedom-of-navigation operations in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait.
Most provocative, perhaps, have been shows of support for Tsai Ing-wen, the president of Taiwan, which China claims as its own. This has raised the question of how far they might go in testing one of the most delicate aspects of Sino-American relations. A senior official says that after decades of risk-averse diplomacy, the administration is determined to impose costs for China’s behaviour.
Mr Biden’s advisers are on weak ground when they claim the Obama administration was tough on China. A more persuasive argument is that, though he has surrounded himself with China hawks, Mr Trump is no hawk himself, and could undercut his administration’s policies at a stroke. He admitted, in an interview in June, that he delayed imposing sanctions on Chinese officials over Xinjiang because he did not want to jeopardise a trade deal. And the policy he is keenest on, tariffs, has been a failure, netting a flimsy agreement from China to buy more farm goods (which Mr Bolton says the president asked Mr Xi to do to help him win re-election).
Voters seem unimpressed. In a poll conducted by Suffolk University and USA Today in late June, 51% of respondents said Mr Biden would do a better job of handling China, compared with 41% for Mr Trump.
Might the president be willing to take more radical measures against China, egged on by the hawks around him? Ideas which staffers have considered recently include a ban on all 92m Communist Party members and their families visiting America, or sanctions on Chinese banks in Hong Kong. These may be too provocative for Mr Trump now—but could perhaps seem less so as the election approaches.
In China, officials have so far responded with relative restraint. They can read polls too, and may want to see if the current trajectory of relations continues after January. Some propagandists have suggested they would like Mr Trump to win, on the argument, like Mr Blinken’s, that he has weakened America’s strategic position and strengthened theirs. That may be bluster. Or they may also view Mr Biden as someone who would back up tough talk on issues like human rights, rather than turn matters of principle into bargaining chips. On that score even hawks who are wary of Mr Biden do not doubt his sincerity. China has changed since he was vice-president, as has the elite consensus in Washington. It will take more than an election to end the dark new era in US-China relations. ■
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This article appeared in the United States section of the print edition under the headline “Peering through the smoke”