The World

U.S.-China Tension Isn’t Going Away—and It’s Everywhere

The “new cold war” seems more real than ever.

A U.S. flag and a Chinese flag hang on a pole in front of the portrait of Mao Zedong outside the palace
The Forbidden City in Beijing on Nov. 9, 2017. Lintao Zhang/Getty Images

From TikTok to the NBA, U.S.-China tensions are getting harder to ignore. While the relationship hasn’t exactly been chummy for some time now, the past couple of weeks feel like something of a turning point, not so much because of any individual event but because of several simultaneous events over a wide range of issues and locations. The current bad blood between the two powers is feeling less like a periodic flare-up than the underlying dynamic behind a slew of geopolitical developments.


Here’s a look at just a few of them.

Sanctions and Xinjiang

On Monday, Beijing announced sanctions against four U.S. politicians—Sen. Marco Rubio, Sen. Ted Cruz, Rep. Chris Smith, and ambassador for religious freedom Sam Brownback—who’ve been particularly critical of the Chinese government and its human rights record. This was in retaliation for Magnitsky Act sanctions that the Trump administration announced last week against four officials for human rights abuses in Xinjiang, including the Communist Party secretary for the region.


The Chinese government is accused of detaining more than a million people from the Uighur and other ethnic groups in reeducation camps and prisons in Xinjiang. According to an AP report last week, China has been forcing IUDs, sterilization, and abortion on ethnic minorities in Xinjiang, even as it encourages many members of the majority Han ethnic group to have more children, a practice that has been described as “demographic genocide.”


Not everyone in the U.S. is so bothered by this. According to former national security adviser John Bolton’s recently published book, President Donald Trump told Chinese leader Xi Jinping that building concentration camps for the Uighurs was “exactly the right thing to do.”

South China Sea

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced on Monday that the U.S. sees most of China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea as “unlawful.” China claims nearly the entire sea as being within the “nine-dashed line” of its maritime territory, and has sought to bolster those claims through a campaign of island-building. Beijing has stepped up the political and military pressure behind its claims in recent months, while much of the world has been distracted by the COVID-19 pandemic. China’s claims conflict with those of five other Asian countries, and while the U.S. has opposed China’s overall position in the past, Pompeo’s statement marks a shift in that Washington is now rejecting specific Chinese territorial claims. What this means in practice is a little unclear, though the Wall Street Journal suggests it “could portend tougher U.S. efforts to challenge disputed Chinese claims through military, diplomatic or other means.” The day after Pompeo’s statement, a U.S. destroyer sailed near the Chinese-claimed Spratly Islands, challenging Chinese attempts to limit the passage of ships through the area.


The U.S. campaign against the Chinese technology firm Huawei notched a major victory on Tuesday, when the British government announced that U.K. mobile providers would be forbidden from buying Huawei 5G equipment and must remove existing Huawei equipment from their networks by 2027. The U.S. government accuses Huawei of maintaining a backdoor to allow the Chinese government to extract data from the networks it maintains—which Huawei denies. The Trump administration has also been campaigning with mixed success to get European countries to bar the company from their networks. The U.K. had previously rejected U.S. concerns and agreed to allow Huawei equipment into part of its telecommunications network in January, but Washington ramped up pressure in May with new rules barring Huawei from using U.S. technology and software.


The U.S. is also currently fighting to have Meng Wanzhou, Huawei’s CFO and the daughter of its billionaire founder, Ren Zhengfei, extradited from Canada to face charges related to violations of U.S. sanctions on Iran.

Hong Kong

The Trump administration is considering suspending the U.S. extradition treaty with Hong Kong, reports Foreign Policy, in the latest escalation in a showdown over Beijing’s challenge to the city’s political autonomy. In May, the Trump administration responded to the passage of a controversial new security law—which would criminalize much of Hong Kong’s political opposition—by announcing that the State Department no longer considered Hong Kong to have significant autonomy under Chinese rule, opening the door to tariffs and other measures. In early July, Congress passed new sanctions on Chinese officials involved in the crackdown on protests in Hong Kong. Pompeo also announced new visa restrictions on Chinese officials involved in “undermining Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy,” prompting Beijing to threaten retaliatory measures against U.S. officials.


In late May, the Trump administration issued an order canceling the visas of Chinese students and researchers with ties to universities affiliated with the People’s Liberation Army. While this order affected only a small percentage of Chinese students in the U.S., many saw the move as part of a campaign to ostracize and demonize the 370,000 Chinese citizens currently studying at American universities, the highest of any country. A much wider swath of these students could be affected by new rules revoking visas for students whose universities move classes online in the fall. While there are some legitimate concerns about espionage and Chinese government influence on U.S. campuses, much of the rhetoric around this subject has grown dangerously xenophobic. On the extreme end, U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton has suggested Chinese students be barred entirely from studying STEM subjects in the U.S.


U.S.-China tensions continue to overshadow the global response to the coronavirus pandemic. Last week, Trump began the formal process of withdrawing the U.S. from the World Health Organization, which he has accused of being overly beholden to and influenced by China. (The withdrawal won’t take effect until next year, so as with the Paris climate agreement, whether it actually happens depends on November’s election.) WHO experts are in China this week to investigate the origins of the virus. While the organization publicly praised Beijing for its virus response early on, an AP investigation from June showed that privately officials were frustrated by the lack of Chinese cooperation and information-sharing.


Meanwhile, Trump administration officials are doing everything in their power to discredit those raising legitimate questions about China’s conduct. Trade representative Peter Navarro suggested last week that the fact that the virus did not disappear in the summer heat is evidence that COVID-19 is in fact a Chinese-designed bioweapon. Trump has continued to use the racist term “kung flu” at campaign rallies.

Arms Control

Last week, a Chinese foreign ministry official rejected a U.S. suggestion that China join nuclear arms control talks, saying it would only do so if the U.S. was “ready to come down to the Chinese level [of nuclear weapons].” The Trump administration has suggested that it’s only interested in renegotiating the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or New START, with Russia, which expires next year, if it also includes China. (This is a weird demand. China has an estimated 290 nuclear warheads. America and Russia both have more than 6,000—hence the foreign ministry’s snarky response.)


China is also defying U.S. nuclear policy by negotiating a sweeping economic and security partnership with Iran, the New York Times recently reported.

It’s tempting to assume that this is all part of a temporary flare-up in tensions brought on by the coronavirus and the impending U.S. election. For one thing, Joe Biden’s campaign has been accusing the Trump administration of being too soft on China. And while a future Biden administration may feature less unfocused belligerence and fewer conspiracy theories than the Trump team, certain issues—the genocide in Xinjiang, China’s territorial conflicts with its neighbors—are going to remain, no matter who is president in the fall. (As for Xi Jinping, he could theoretically be president for life.)

Whether you attribute it to conflicting ideologies or strategic interests, the “new cold war” is looking more and more real, and it’s unlikely to fade away quickly.