It’s been death by a thousand soundbites this week for bilateral relations between Washington and Beijing and the timing leaves something to be desired.
To be sure, some of Donald Trump’s balderdash might be aimed at giving his representatives leverage in negotiations with their Chinese counterparts in Shanghai, but that could just as easily backfire.
With talks just now getting back underway after a near three-month hiatus, one imagines Trump isn’t doing Bob Lighthizer and Steve Mnuchin any favors by incessantly berating the Chinese on Twitter. It makes for awkward dinners when your boss won’t stop denigrating your hosts from afar.
Making matters worse, China is now openly accusing the US of stoking discord in Hong Kong, where protests flared up again on Tuesday. Early in the day, metro service was disrupted in a show of civil disobedience and later, things escalated. “Hundreds of people surrounded a police station in Hong Kong on Tuesday chanting ‘free the martyrs’ after 44 activists were charged with rioting”, Reuters reported, summarizing.
Last week, China’s foreign ministry accused the US of having its “black hand” in the demonstrations. Somebody forgot to tell Beijing that the Trump administration doesn’t like “black” hands.
Foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying stepped up the rhetoric on Tuesday following Mike Pompeo’s suggestion that China “do the right thing” in Hong Kong. “It’s clear that Mr. Pompeo has put himself in the wrong position and still regards himself as the head of the CIA”, Hua snapped, before accusing the Trump administration of fomenting a mini-coup. “[Pompeo] might think that violent activities in Hong Kong are reasonable because after all, this is the creation of the US”, Hua charged. She cited the following “evidence”:
In the media footage of the violent protests, many US faces appeared, even US national flags at one point. What role does America play exactly in the recent Hong Kong protests? They owe the world an explanation on this matter.
It’s silly, but hardly implausible. After all, these protests have stubbornly refused to dissipate and they arguably weaken Xi’s hand in negotiations.
Trump seems convinced that the Chinese are prepared to wait him out. Or maybe not. Frankly, the president doesn’t sound like he knows what message he wants to convey. After a morning spent tweeting about China’s economy, here’s what the president shouted at reporters over the loud din of Marine One’s rotors:
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“The biggest problem with a trade deal is that China would love to wait and just hope – it’s not gonna happen, I hope – but they would just love if I got defeated, so that they could deal with somebody like Elizabeth Warren”, Trump growled.
(For what it’s worth, Warren unveiled a trade plan on Monday that sounds every bit as onerous as Trump’s strategy if not more so. For those who haven’t read it, you can do so here -just make sure you allocate 20 minutes.)
In the same breath, Trump said “China is dying to make a deal with me”.
You’d be forgiven for asking the president to clarify his position. Would China “love to wait and just hope” for a new president or is Beijing “dying to make a deal”?
Meanwhile, an appeals court upheld last month’s lower-court ruling to hold a trio of Chinese banks in contempt for failing to produce evidence tied to a criminal investigation around possible evasion of North Korea sanctions.
Taken together, all of this feels like a slow-motion train wreck. More to the point, it seems like just a matter of time before Trump takes to Twitter to announce the imminent imposition of duties on the remainder of Chinese imports.