Trump administration’s sudden volte-face on China policy is confusing

By Zhang Tengjun Source:Global Times Published: 2018/10/8 19:58:39

On Thursday, US Vice President Mike Pence delivered a stinging speech against China at the Hudson Institute. His accusations against China were vitriolic, ruthless and delivered in terms considered far from decorous. From the speech, those unfamiliar with China-US relations may think the two countries are in the Cold War era rather than in the 21st century.

There are four aspects of Pence's speech. In the history of China-US relations, the US has contributed a lot to China's peace and prosperity, but Beijing was not considerate in return.

Currently, China and the US are not on an equal footing, and this is not sustainable. The US cannot tolerate China's "interference" in US politics and the midterm elections. Washington has established its China strategy and will firmly safeguard its sovereignty and stop "intrusion" by Beijing.

It is shocking that such aggressive and groundless remarks were uttered by a US vice president.

In this year, China-US relations have experienced a precipitous decline because of the trade war, and fierce debates can be heard in both countries. Differences between countries are normal. As long as there is room for negotiations, tensions can be eased.

However, it is rare that a high-level US official blames China in such a brazen and rude way. Three years ago when then president Barack Obama talked about Sino-US relations, he said his country "welcomes the rise of a China that is peaceful, stable, and prosperous." About 11 months ago during Donald Trump's "state visit-plus" to China, he was treated to the most spectacular display of diplomacy. He also spoke highly of bilateral ties at that time.

Such a U-turn by the Trump administration in its China policy is not only confusing, but can also hardly convince Beijing that Washington has no intention to contain China.

Perhaps the US government does not want to avoid the Thucydides Trap, but is ready to engage in a confrontation with China.

In recent years, there has been a trend within the US to reflect on the country's China policy. Some people believe that previous US governments' engagement policy toward China has failed and needs to be kick started all over again. Such hard-line voices are best represented by the National Security Strategy released by the Trump administration.

The current recalibration in US' China policy may be the most profound and negative since the end of the Cold War. If the Trump administration is determined to guard against and contain China, bilateral ties may slip into an abyss that is symptomatic of a new Cold War.

Pence's accusations against China were full of flaws and provocative rhetoric. For instance, the four-page China Daily advertising supplement that ran in the Des Moines Register in late September expressed its views on the trade war, which is fair and does not violate US laws.

However, it was seen as China's attempt to interfere in the US elections, which is entirely irrelevant. Where is the US' long-hailed freedom of the press?

Pence also accused China of imposing tariffs on "specifically targeted industries and states that would play an important role in the 2018 election" because "China wants a different American President."

In fact, China's tariffs are a response to the US-initiated trade war. As most of the states that export to China supported Trump in the 2016 elections, it is unavoidable that these states are included in China's tariff list. Moreover, China has exercised restraint in imposition of tariffs and been calling for Washington to return to the negotiation table. The Trump administration is falling into a pit of its own making by exerting pressure on China on the one hand while blaming it on the other.

The reason that the Trump administration deliberately chose this timing - when China-US trade tensions are ratcheting up - to deliver the inflammatory speech is the upcoming US midterm elections.

Trump knows that playing the China card is always the safest option. It cannot only divert domestic attention from the Russiagate scandal and shift the political pressure from the president, but also incite ordinary voters.

These unfounded accusations show that the understanding and judgment of the Trump administration on Sino-US relations are unprofessional, shallow and indiscreet, which is most worrying. The worsening atmosphere toward China in the US not only affects American public' opinion on the country, but also endangers the safety and interests of Chinese in the US.

When the leader of a state accuses other countries at will, how can he justify his reputation to improve bilateral ties? Perhaps the Trump government needs to think about how to show respect to China before requesting China to respect the US.

The author is an assistant research fellow at the China Institute of International Studies.

Posted in: VIEWPOINT

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