Relations between the United States and China were trending downward even before the COVID-19 pandemic appeared on the horizon. The Trump administration’s China policies have been a far cry from those of preceding administrations, and these policies have played a prime role in creating the toxic atmosphere between the US and China. Now, I am not a China apologist or anti-Trump pundit by any stretch of the imagination. Quite the opposite in fact. So when I say that the current administration’s policies have helped bring about the rift in relations, I am not assessing blame. Again, quite the opposite. 😊
From the start of President Trump’s first term he has played hardball with China on practically everything from trade disparities, to geopolitical matters. The Trump administration’s approach to China is a striking contrast from previous administrations. Whereas the Obama and Bush administrations chose to handle China with kid’s gloves, the Trump administration has come out armed with brass knuckles and swinging. Washington’s primary objective has been reestablishing strategic and economic parity between the US and China.
The hardline US stance shook Beijing, and the Chinese government has been on the defensive practically since January, 2017. In many regards it has been trying to play catch up to the Trump administration in the geopolitical, and economic arenas but without much success. To complicate matters even more, China has been contending with alarming domestic issues even before COVID-19 came into existence. Economic growth was coming to a halt for the first time in decades. This has been exacerbated by the global pandemic, and now it appears the Chinese economy will almost certainly shrink for the first time in decades. Hong Kong erupted in protests last June over an extradition bill allowing the transfer of fugitives to mainland China. Months of protests and violence followed, transitioning to pure political upheaval for a period of time. The pandemic has brought an end to the protesting, but it is temporary. When the world returns to normal the protests will resume again. China has yet to figure out an effective solution to the Hong Kong matter.
The global pandemic has also contributed to the emerging new dynamic in US-China relations. Washington has challenged China’s handling of the initial outbreak, accused it of undermining the World Health Organization, and questioned the numbers of COVID-19 cases and deaths released by China. Beijing’s response has been a mishmash of propaganda, thinly veiled threats, and attempts to distract world attention from the case Washington is trying to make. When the world emerges from the global pandemic, US-China relations are going to be centerstage. For better or worse, the new form of the relationship is presently being shaped by current events. If the US-Chinese dialogue in recent weeks is a sign of what’s to come, relations could be looking at a deep freeze in the not-to-distant future.