Photos: AFP / Dan Kitwood and Nicholas Kamm

Watching US-China relations deteriorate day after day, I keep asking the same question: How did it get this bad? Why does it feel like we’re in a second Cold War?

In January, after signing the phase-one trade deal, which promised those big Chinese purchases of American agricultural products, President Donald Trump said, “Our relationship with China now might be the best it’s been in a long, long time.”

Since then, the two countries have expelled each other’s journalists, sanctioned and blacklisted each other’s officials and closed each other’s consulates.

That’s not all. Phase-two trade negotiations haven’t even begun and the president now says he isn’t interested in talking to China. Administration officials led by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have given inflammatory speeches bashing the Chinese Communist Party. “Communists almost always lie,” Pompeo said.

How did it get this bad?

It’s tempting to blame the coronavirus, China’s Hong Kong crackdown and the presidential election campaign, but these are the eruptions of a volcano in which pressure has been building for years.

For insights into that buildup, there’s Superpower Showdown by Wall Street Journal reporters Bob Davis and Lingling Wei. In addition to deep reporting on the current trade war, this new book offers valuable historical context, recalling long-past events that sowed the seeds of distrust.

Cover image: Harper Collins

In the 1980s, many Americans looked kindly on a China that had broken with the Soviet Union and was reforming its economy along more capitalist lines.

They had a different view after the Tiananmen massacre of 1989, during which the Chinese military fired live rounds at students demonstrating for democracy and free speech, killing at least several hundred.

Campaigning for president in 1992, Bill Clinton vowed to take on “the butchers of Beijing.” American distrust of China had clearly been seeded.

Eventually President Clinton changed his mind and in 1999 his administration appeared ready to allow China to join the World Trade Organization. Premier Zhu Rongji flew to Washington to sign the deal. Clinton’s advisers convinced him he should first sell the deal to Congress. Zhu returned home empty-handed and humiliated.

US President Bill Clinton and Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji watch ceremonial troops on the south lawn of the White House on April 8, 1999, during a state arrival ceremony for Zhu in Washington, DC. Photo: AFP/Luke Frazza

If that wasn’t enough to seed Chinese distrust of America, the next month US B2s dropped five precision-guided bombs on the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, killing three Chinese and injuring 27 others.

Clinton insisted the bombing was a mistake but “at an emergency Politburo meeting in Beijing not a single leader accepted the U.S. explanation.”

(Foreign correspondents rarely know much about the Politburo’s deliberations but co-author Wei, a New York University-trained journalist, is the granddaughter of an aide to Mao Zedong during the Chinese Communist Party’s mid-1930s Long March.

Her family background can’t have hurt her efforts to develop sources among China’s ruling elite. A naturalized American citizen, Wei was one of the reporters expelled from China earlier this year.)

Clinton wouldn’t be the last president to talk a tough China line but then ease up. Superpower Showdown returns again and again to the reason for these readjustments – the lobbying of American business.

No company wants to be shut out of a market the size of China’s; many companies can’t compete in other markets unless they manufacture in China.

Being big employers, companies have big influence in Washington, and their government-relations offices spent millions over the years in support of good economic relations with China. Chinese negotiators came to count on American business as an ally.

In recent years that alliance has frayed. American business increasingly resents Beijing’s subsidization of competitors and its extortion and theft of technology. There’s real fear that under Xi Jinping, China is working to put American business out of business. That’s one reason relations have gotten this bad.

If Xi’s agenda has worsened relations, so has Trump’s. The book credits Trump with taking the Chinese challenge more seriously than his predecessors but argues his response – tariffs – hasn’t worked.

There are two Trumps, the book says – a “Blue Collar Trump” who wants to be tough on trade and a “Wall Street Trump” who worries toughness can make financial markets swoon. One day he sides with China hawks among his advisers; the next, with doves.

Confused by Trump and surprised by the desertion of American business, the Chinese had many opportunities to miscalculate. In May 2019 they rejected an expansive deal that the Trump team thought they’d basically agreed to. According to Davis and Wei, the Chinese saw this as just another negotiating ploy. The Trump team saw it as a betrayal.

Although the two eventually agreed on a less ambitious phase-one deal, strong mutual distrust lurked just below the surface of the US-China relationship. Then Covid-19 came to America. It originated in China and it hurts the president’s re-election chances. Rightly or wrongly, but inevitably, he blames the 150,000 deaths and the slumping economy on China.

Chinese President Xi Jinping and US President Donald Trump. Many issues divide their countries. Image: YouTube

This terrible virus was the match that started the fire but the two sides had been piling up firewood for years. With their crackdown on Hong Kong the Chinese fanned the flames. And now, with the president professing disinterest in further trade talks, reflexively anti-communist officials like Pompeo have free rein.

When I first saw the subtitle of Superpower Showdown: How the Battle Between Trump and Xi Threatens a New Cold War, I thought, yes, a much more adversarial relationship looms, but is it really a Cold War?

The Cold War pitted the US and the Soviet Union in an ideological contest; ideology hasn’t been at the center of friction with China. Now, suddenly, anti-communist ideologues have become America’s voice.

Dan Coats, Trump’s first director of national intelligence, dismisses the Cold War talk. China’s economy, unlike that of the old Soviet Union, is deeply interlinked with America’s and the rest of the world’s economies, making a Cold War impossible.

Yes, the US must respond to China’s increasingly aggressive behavior, Coats writes, but it must do it strategically. “Reverting to a Cold War mentality will drive us toward belligerent posturing that has little or no chance of changing Chinese behavior and could, on the contrary, provoke overreactions and dangerous miscalculations on both sides.”

In other words, if we really are in a new Cold War, “bad” relations could become worse. Or, as the Financial Times put it, “How strange to think that the tariff wars of recent years might come to seem like the good old days.”

Former longtime Wall Street Journal Asia correspondent and editor Urban Lehner is editor emeritus of DTN/The Progressive Farmer. This originally published August 2 by the latter news organization and now republished by Asia Times with permission, is © Copyright 2020 DTN/The Progressive Farmer. All rights reserved.

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