Are We Headed for a Cold War With China?

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S1: Josh Keating covers international affairs for Slate. So when there’s something I don’t quite get in the world of foreign policy, he’s the guy. Get on the phone this week. I needed him. I’m hoping you can explain this tweet today from Mike Pompeo. You ready?

S2: Yeah. Oh, let me just get that exactly what he said in the tweet.

S1: This tweet is by far the most talked about thing that Mike Pompeo has done online in the last couple of days. But it’s written in a kind of code. It says, Today, I reported to Congress that Hong Kong is no longer autonomous from China, given facts on the ground. Then Pompeo says the United States stands with the people of Hong Kong.

S2: Yeah. So this overturns a policy dating back to 1992.

S1: Josh says, To understand what Pompeii’s driving out here, you need to know that since the early 90s, Hong Kong has had this special status with the U.S..

S2: The U.S. actually considers Hong Kong a separate political entity from the rest of China. So what does that mean? Yeah. So this is important. This means things like the tariffs that the US placed on Chinese exports during the recent trade war don’t apply to Hong Kong.

S1: It means that, you know, there are different visa rules for travelers from Hong Kong and China likes this helps them attract businesses that want to dip their toes into the region.

S2: And likewise, when Chinese companies want to expand internationally, they often start by listing themselves on the Hong Kong stock market.

S1: So Mike Pompeo pulling this special status. What does that mean?

S2: Yeah. So a bill that was passed last year during the Hong Kong protests by Congress basically requires the secretary of state to certify every year that Hong Kong is still sufficiently autonomous to be granted this special status. So both sides didn’t really think the other one would act on this because because it’s such a kind of 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, they were very opposed to doing this as well. So it’s it’s a controversial step. I guess I’m wondering, though, like, why now Trump is really spoiling for a fight with China, both because he’s been blaming China for starting the Corona virus, because he’s heading into an election year where, you know, 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 sort of crisis in U.S. China relations maybe since Janardan Square in 1989.

S3: Today on the show, a frosty relationship with Beijing gets frostier. Josh explains how the fight over who’s to blame for the corona virus has thrown already strained relations with China into a deep freeze. So is this with the beginning of a Cold War? Looks like. I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next? Stick with us.

S1: Figuring out how the U.S. and China reached this new low point means understanding all the different ways our two countries challenge each other and the way this coronavirus as magnified those friction points. Hong Kong is just one of many points of conflict. But what’s happening there shows how the coronavirus has given a sudden shock to us. China diplomacy last year when protesters flooded Hong Kong streets demanded a say in the way the city runs. It seemed like the United States might be able to use that situation to its advantage. But the Corona virus changed all that.

S2: Under the Corona virus, those protests have kind of dissipated largely because of, you know, social distancing requirements. So it’s been a good kind of moment for China to press its advantage when it’s harder to mount protests and when the attention of the international community is focused elsewhere. So that’s involved arresting a number of activists who are 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 Chinese behavior as being the usual processes it would go through in Hong Kong, right? Exactly. This is just being inserted by the Chinese government into what’s effectively that Hong Kong’s constitution and pro democratic activists in Hong Kong is going to be used to criminalize basically any kind of dissent or any kind of anti Chinese organizing was in Hong Kong. And, you know, a number of prominent pro-democracy politicians of Hong Kong said this is basically the end of one country, two systems. This is basically the end of Hong Kong having political independence.

S1: This is why Mike Pompeo has suddenly declared that Hong Kong is no longer autonomous from China. This new security law, it was set to go to a vote this week. Pumphouse tweet was a clear message.

S2: This announcement Bob Baer made on its own does not actually involve policy changes. This is a recommendation the State Department is making, and it’s kind of up to President Trump how he wants to interpret it if he wants to actually change the U.S. relationship with Hong Kong. Yes, they do it through executive order. Seems very unlikely. He wouldn’t do anything, especially given all the build up to this. But I you know, I think when right now we’re going to see a lot of kind of ferocious lobbying. The business community is going to want a kind of softer response. And they’re definitely more kind of business oriented, trade oriented voices within the administration. People like Robert Lighthizer, Steve Manoogian are going to want to water this down a little bit. Whereas, you know, people like Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, you know, sort of emerged as kind of a real kind of fire breathing, trying to hawk is going to want to have a more kind of maximalist response.

S3: Well, the U.S. and China have never been chummy like friends, right? How would how would you characterize their relationship now?

S2: They’ve always been kind of two sides. The U.S. engagement with China. There’s the kind of pragmatic side that says that looks at the economic benefits to U.S. business of trade, the looks of the security benefits. This is especially the case during the Cold War when we’re trying to balance China against the Soviet Union. And this sort of like a realist case for maintaining good relations with China. You know, on the other side, you’ve had both kind of conservative hawks who are don’t trust China’s international intentions. Then you’ve got the human rights community, which doesn’t think we should be, you know, engaged with a country with as atrocious human rights practices as China has. And so, you know that those are the kind of pro and anti sides and then they cut different ways. But this this was this idea that the US could kind of have it both ways that, you know, we could by engaging China, we would sort of encourage them to act the way that we want to. Clinton would say things like, you know, by bringing China to the world, we would bring, you know, the world’s values and things like democracy to China. The idea that by opening up their economy would also open up their political system. And, you know, so it’s kind of a dubious proposition. But I think it allowed, you know, several U.S. administrations to kind of defend the idea of engagement with China against sort of criticism.

S1: I wonder when you think the relationship between China and United States begin to shift after Xi Jinping took power in 2012.

S2: There was this idea that he would, you know, maybe be a more pragmatic, pro-Western leader. It hasn’t happened that way at all. He’s sort of both effectively made himself a president for life. China’s, you know, clamp down even harder on Hong Kong, which has resulted in the protests we saw last year. And it’s just overall become sort of more repressive and more assertive internationally. So I think that under Xi Jinping, the sort of the the engagement narrative that a more open China would become. You could say there are more democratic China or a more sort of co-operative China, more responsible stakeholder. I think that narrative kind of collapse.

S1: Now, China may not have evolved into a more democratic country, but that doesn’t mean it’s ceding the international stage during this crohn virus crisis with the U.S. leading the world in Cauvin, 19 deaths. China is looking to present itself as the superpower that’s been able to rein in the pandemic threat. But they’ve got this problem. There’s ample evidence China’s leaders struggled to quash the corona virus early enough.

S2: So, I mean, this looks really bad for China. I mean, you know, that this whole idea that they’re kind of the new responsible superpower and the bloc takes a hit if they’re the origins of this this deadly virus. And if their actions actually made it worse. So, you know, China engaged in what was called mask diplomacy, shipping medical equipment, especially to countries in Europe that were hurt really hard. And it sought to sort of spread its expertise and spread this message that it got the virus under control.

S1: It sounds like the kind of thing that the U.S. usually does, like sends a bunch of masks, charitably, sends a CDC team to help you figure out what’s going on.

S2: Right. And so that was happening. You know, a lot of the equipment they sent turned out to be faulty. But, you know, even though people sort of early on it, people appreciated the effort that China was making and they got a lot of praise in Europe. I think that started to backfire because they just press their advantage a little too hard. And what do you mean by that? So there’s these stories that came out that they’re sort of demanding that officials in places like Germany and Canada, even the US, praised them publicly for the help you saw, like Chinese sock puppets online disseminating this sort of message that the virus had originated in Europe. You know, there were sort of doctored clips of Italians playing the Chinese national anthem and, you know, in gratitude. You know, I think that there was a way that China, if they had been sort of maybe a little more subtle in their approach, could have really pressed this to their advantage and sort of come out of this looking like a good guy, looking like the responsible country, especially as the U.S. kind of totally bungled its response. But by being so aggressive and so unwilling to countenance any sort of criticism and. They’re actively spreading disinformation. They’ve come off looking of just as irresponsible and bellicose as the US has.

S1: Yeah, there was this reporting in the Times that, you know, you you can hear Chinese national television coming out of people’s windows and it’s just tons of anti-American coverage. You know, negative reports about Mike Pompeo, about coronavirus virus, senior states. And to me, I heard that it just it reminded me of the Cold War, just a ton of propaganda about, you know, how bad this other place is.

S2: Yeah. And I mean, this this there are a lot of of parallels. And I mean, you know, I mean, so there’s this professor at Harvard, Graham Allison, who has this theory called the IT trap, which is that, you know, whenever there’s a rising power, the challenge is a sort of declining, dominant power that they’re kind of destined for, usually destined for a military conflict. And, you know, if you can maybe poke holes in that theory. But I you know, I know last time I was into China, a lot of officials were talking about that book and where. And that idea that, you know, this kind of inevitable conflict, whether it’s, you know, in a active shooting war or even just the kind of prolonged Cold War is one that’s really taken hold. I think, in both Washington and Beijing. I think, you know, I would point out one kind of key difference, which is that I think that unlike in the Cold War, neither the US nor China is coming into this with a whole lot of credibility. There was a pretty fascinating article by Kevin Rudd, the former prime minister of Australia and foreign affairs, a few weeks ago that said, rather than, you know, a bipolar world divided between American and Chinese power, that we’re headed for a kind of anarchy where there’s sort of no superpower that really has sway and that these other kind of middle power countries are going to be kind of on their own. Since both, neither the Chinese nor American model looks very appealing right now.

S1: That’s interesting. It’s like a whole separate idea then the Cold War idea where you have these two powers that are fighting. But in some ways it doesn’t matter because they’ve both kind of lowered themselves enough that everyone else kind of looks at them and shrugged their shoulders.

S2: It’s gonna be tough going for I mean, because of the economic and military importance of both the US and China. Countries can’t just ignore them. I mean, you know, to go back to climate change, you can’t have a climate deal that is effective at all that excludes like the two largest CO2 emitters in the world. You can’t really have a meaningful security alliance that excludes the two largest militaries. So it’s it’s going to be tough. But I think that, you know, you this sort of weird, unexpected consequence of this may be that there may be sort of more multilateralism and more economic and political cooperation among. The middle the sort of middle countries in Europe and Asia that are kind of fed up with these two unreliable behemoths.

S1: It sounds like middle school, like everyone’s taking their lunch train, going to go sit at another table.

S2: It it’s hard it’s hard to have a Cold War when that nobody wants to sign up for either team.

S4: Hearing Josh say this had to wonder what happens when you throw a Cold War and nobody shows up. How does an escalation like this?

S2: And I think that, you know, for one, it seems like both sides right now see it in their interest to escalate the crisis. I mean, even after Tiananmen Square, they were kind of like back channels for Maned. They were maintained between the first Bush administration and Beijing. Right now, it doesn’t seem like there’s the same level of communication and partly just because of the Trump administration’s distrust of diplomacy entirely. I think that, you know, right now you’re hearing more support in Washington and in the business community for this idea of decoupling, you know, separating the U.S. and Chinese economies because of how intertwined supply lines are between the US and China. That’s probably not possible to do entirely. But I you know, I do think that, you know, it seems like we’re drifting into a period of hostility and they don’t seem to be strong voices on either side who want to sort of keep their relationship on track.

S1: I mean, the U.S. and China have been trying to open up to each other since the 70s. Is the dream of what that relationship could be dead?

S2: I’d say hopefully we could maybe do away with some of the kind of fictions of engagement, the idea that just through, you know, if China becomes prosperous enough and opens up its economy enough, it’ll stop doing the things we don’t like, whether that’s human rights violations or, you know, its policy on Taiwan and South China Sea or Hong Kong. I think we have to be realistic about the fact that there are sort of intractable conflicts between the US and China and they’re not going to go away no matter how rich China gets, no matter how many Apple products it buys.

S1: So the Pollyanna phase is over.

S2: Yeah, but on the other hand, you know, I don’t think that means or necessarily destined for military conflict. I think, you know, if you look at the history of the Cold War, even during the worst periods of the Cold War, is possible to, you know, make progress on things like arms control. I think there are definitely multilateral issues that the U.S. and China have common interests on, whether it’s or, you know, governance in cyberspace or climate change being a big one. I think that there are still ways that the U.S. and China can keep lines of communication open and, you know, sort of both act responsibly in areas for their common interests while being clear eyed that they’re just a lot of areas where for the foreseeable future, at least, we’re not going to see eye to eye.

S5: Josh Keating, thank you so much for joining me. Thank you for having me. Josh Keating writes about international affairs for Slate. And that’s the show. What Next is produced by Mary Wilson, Jason de Leon and Daniel Hewitt. I’m Mary Harris. Lizzie O’Leary will be here tomorrow with what next TBD. And I’ll catch you on Monday.