Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited China on 8 October, and heard sharp criticism of US policy during meetings with both Foreign Minister Wang Yi and senior statesman Yang Jiechi. The visit clarified how significantly US-China relations have deteriorated under President Donald Trump. China is not now the “leading” adversary of the US. China, Iran, and for most US officials – Russia, all pose challenges. But in recent months tensions with China have increased dramatically.
The deterioration in ties between Washington and Beijing is driven by a number of factors, most of them on the US side. There is no longer an effective constituency in the US for cooperation with China. The American business community is frustrated by lack of improvement in China’s investment climate, and is not strongly pressing Trump for cooperation. Moreover, the US president would probably not listen even if businesses were speaking up. Nationalism in both nations is driving competition and confrontation. On the US side, Trump’s populism and America first policy impact China, especially regarding perceived unfair Chinese trade policies. Regarding Beijing, President Xi Jinping has consolidated power in part on the back of nationalist rhetoric and policy.
Beyond these overarching causes, competition has deepened in four arenas. First, there is a new ideological component. China is increasingly viewed by the Trump Administration as the proponent of an alternative model to liberal democracy, and as working directly to undermine western democracy through influence campaigns. Second, economic competition and the trade war, where the US seeks to reduce its deficit and curb “unfair” Chinese subsidies to strategic sectors. Third, competition over next-generation technology – AI, 5G, and quantum computing. Finally, security competition, focused on the South China Sea and Taiwan. US policy has hardened in all these arenas during recent months, and competition in one now stokes tension in the others.
These drivers explain the very hardline speech delivered by Vice President Mike Pence on 4 October. Pence delivered a sweeping indictment of Chinese policies. His speech made clear that, for now, the US will emphasize confrontation and competition over diplomacy and cooperation. Pence focused on Chinese meddling in US domestic politics, a theme seconded by National Security Advisor John Bolton. These officials are putting down a genuine redline against Chinese influence campaigns. Their comments were not meant to divert public attention from Russia on the eve of midterm elections and the release of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report.
The Chinese will react by pushing back against US policy, as happened during Pompeo’s trip.
The new US-China rivalry will have relatively little effect on Russia. Most members of the US Congress and many of Trump’s senior advisors take a hardline on Russia policy, and that’s unlikely to change in the foreseeable future. Relations between China and Russia may well become closer, but only marginally as that bilateral relationship is already very strong.
US-China and US-Russia relations now face similar challenges. The sides must work to keep communication open enough to pursue common interests and avoid dangerous accidents. On conflict resolution, arms control, energy security and other matters, all parties still share goals. But reaching them will be ever harder to achieve.