The World

Are We on the Verge of a Cold War With China?

Donald Trump shakes hands with Xi Jinping in front of American and Chinese flags.
Chinese President Xi Jinping shakes hands with U.S. President Donald Trump during the G-20 Summit in Osaka, Japan, on June 28. Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

Tensions between the U.S. and China have been frosty for a long time. But things have strained even further this year, as a result of the pandemic and China’s announcement of a new security law that threatens Hong Kong’s autonomous status. The frustrations between the countries are now reaching new heights. Could the world’s two foremost superpowers be on the cusp of a new cold war? If so, how will that play out with so much at stake?

On Thursday’s episode of What Next, I spoke with Joshua Keating, a senior editor at Slate who covers international affairs, about how the coronavirus has thrown already-strained relations with China into a deep freeze, and whether any sort of conflict could be next. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mary Harris: I’m hoping you can explain this tweet from Pompeo: “Today, I reported to Congress that Hong Kong is no longer autonomous from China, given facts on the ground. The United States stands with the people of Hong Kong.”

Joshua Keating: The U.S. considers Hong Kong a separate political entity from the rest of China. This means things like the tariffs that the U.S. placed on Chinese exports during the recent trade war don’t apply to Hong Kong. It means there are different visa rules for travelers from Hong Kong. And when Chinese companies want to expand internationally, they often start by listing themselves on the Hong Kong stock market.

So what does it mean that Pompeo pulled this special status?

A bill that was passed by Congress last year during the Hong Kong protests basically requires the secretary of state to certify every year that Hong Kong is still sufficiently autonomous to be granted this special status. Both China and the U.S. didn’t really think the other would act on Hong Kong because it’s such a major escalation. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce was strongly opposed to this. Generally, the U.S. business community and the businesses that have their offices in Hong Kong were very opposed to pulling its autonomy. So it’s a controversial step.

Why now?

Trump is really spoiling for a fight with China, both because he’s been blaming China for the coronavirus and because he’s heading into an election year where he’s going to try to portray the Democrats as being soft on China and himself as being the guy who stood up to Beijing. I think right now we’re witnessing maybe the worst crisis in U.S.-China relations since Tiananmen Square in 1989.

Figuring out how the U.S. and China reached this new low point means understanding all the different ways the two countries challenge each other—and the way this coronavirus has magnified those friction points. Hong Kong is just one of many points of conflict, but what’s happened there shows how the coronavirus has given a sudden shock to U.S.-China diplomacy. Last year, when protesters flooded Hong Kong’s streets, demanding a say in the way the city runs, it seemed like the United States might be able to use the situation to its advantage. But the coronavirus changed all that.

Those protests have kind of dissipated, largely because of social distancing requirements. So it’s been a good moment for China to press its advantage when it’s harder to protest and when the attention of the international community is focused elsewhere. That’s involved arresting a number of activists who were involved in the protests last year. And the biggest escalation last week was when Beijing announced that it was going to pass a new security law that would ban what it calls “seditious activities” or “foreign interference” but can basically be used to criminalize any kind of dissent or what it sees as anti-China behavior.

And this law that affects Hong Kong skips the usual process of going through Hong Kong’s government.

Exactly. This is being inserted by the Chinese government into what’s effectively Hong Kong’s constitution. Pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong fear it’s going to be used to criminalize basically any kind of dissent or any kind of anti-China organizing in Hong Kong. A number of prominent pro-democracy politicians in Hong Kong said this is basically the end of “one country, two systems”—the end of Hong Kong’s political independence.

This is why Pompeo has suddenly declared that Hong Kong is “no longer autonomous from China.” This new security law was set to go to a vote this week. Pompeo’s tweet was a clear message.

This announcement Pompeo made does not actually involve policy changes. This is a recommendation the State Department is making. It’s up to Trump how he wants to interpret it. If he wants to actually change the U.S. relationship with Hong Kong, he’d do it through an executive order. It seems unlikely he wouldn’t do anything, especially given all the buildup to this.

I think we’re going to see a lot of ferocious lobbying. The business community will want a softer response. The more business- and trade-oriented voices within the administration, like Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, are going to want to water this down a bit.

How would you characterize the U.S.-China relationship now?

There have always been two sides to the U.S. engagement with China. There’s the “pragmatic” side that looks at the economic, business, trade, and security benefits. On the other side, you’ve had conservative hawks, who don’t trust China’s international intentions, and activists, who don’t think we should be engaged with a country with such atrocious human rights practices.

There was this idea that the U.S. could have it both ways: that by engaging China, we would encourage it to act the way that we want it to. President Bill Clinton would say things like, By bringing China to the world, we bring the world’s values and democracy to China. The idea that by opening up its economy, we would also open up its political system. That was always a dubious proposition. But I think it allowed several U.S. administrations to defend the idea of engagement with China against criticism.

I wonder when you think the relationship between China and United States began to shift.

I think it was Xi Jinping. After he took power in 2012, there was some hope that he would be a more pragmatic leader. It hasn’t happened that way at all. He’s effectively made himself a president for life. China’s clamped down even harder on Hong Kong, which resulted in the protests we saw last year. It’s overall become more repressive internally and more assertive internationally. So I think that, under Xi, the engagement narrative that a more open China would become a more democratic or cooperative China has kind of collapsed.

With the United States leading the world in COVID-19 deaths, China is looking to present itself as the superpower that’s been able to rein in the pandemic. But there’s ample evidence China’s leaders struggled to quash the coronavirus early enough.

This looks really bad for China. This whole idea that it’s the new responsible superpower takes a hit if its actions made the virus worse. So China engaged in what was called “mask diplomacy,” shipping medical equipment to countries that were hurt really hard, especially in Europe. And it spread its expertise as well as this message that it got the virus under control.

A lot of the equipment turned out to be faulty. But early on, people appreciated the effort that China was making, and it got a lot of praise in Europe. I think that started to backfire because China pressed its advantage a little too hard.

What do you mean by that?

There are these stories that came out that China was demanding that officials in places like Germany, Canada, and the U.S. praise them publicly for the help. You saw Chinese sock puppets online disseminating the message that the virus had originated in Europe. There were doctored clips of Italians playing the Chinese national anthem in gratitude. China could have looked like the responsible country, especially as the U.S. totally bungled its response. But by being so aggressive and unwilling to countenance any sort of criticism, and instead actually actively spreading disinformation, China’s come off looking just as irresponsible and bellicose as the U.S.

There was reporting in the Times that said Chinese national television was spouting a lot of anti-American coverage and negative reports about Pompeo. It reminded me of the Cold War: a ton of propaganda about how bad this other place is.

There are a lot of parallels. Harvard professor Graham Allison has this theory called the Thucydides Trap: Whenever there’s a rising power that challenges a declining power, they’re usually destined for military conflict. You can poke holes in that theory. But last time I was in China, a lot of officials were talking about that idea of inevitable conflict, whether it’s in an active shooting war or even a kind of long cold war. That’s really taken hold, I think, in both Washington and Beijing. I would point out one key difference, which is that, I think, unlike in the Cold War, neither the U.S. nor China is coming into this with a whole lot of credibility.

But it’s going to be tough for the rest of the world because of the economic and military importance of both the U.S. and China. Countries can’t just ignore them. You can’t have an effective climate deal that excludes the two largest CO2 emitters in the world. You can’t have a meaningful security alliance that excludes the two largest militaries. But I think an unexpected consequence of this may be more multilateralism and economic and political cooperation among countries in Europe and Asia.

What happens when you fight a cold war and nobody shows up? How does an escalation like this end?

It seems like both sides right now see it as in their interest to escalate the crisis. Even after Tiananmen Square, there were back channels maintained between the first Bush administration and Beijing. Right now, it doesn’t seem like there’s the same level of communication, partly because of the Trump administration’s distrust of diplomacy. I think that right now you’re hearing more support in Washington and in the business community for this idea of decoupling: separating the U.S. and Chinese economies because of how intertwined supply lines are between them. That’s probably not possible to do entirely.

I do think it seems like we’re drifting into a period of hostility, and there don’t seem to be strong voices on either side who want to keep the relationship on track. On the other hand, I don’t think this means we are necessarily destined for military conflict. If you look at the history of the Cold War, even during the worst periods, it was possible to make progress on arms control. There are definitely multilateral issues that the U.S. and China have common interests in, like climate change. There are still ways the U.S. and China can keep lines of communication open and act responsibly in areas where they have common interests while being clear-eyed that there are a lot of areas where, for the foreseeable future at least, they’re not going to see eye to eye.

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