Adding to the still palpable sense of of angst around Sino-US relations on another “tariff day”, as it were, is a somewhat rambling new piece from Axios, which suggests we’ve crossed the Rubicon – that economic and even military tension between Washington and Beijing are set to be the “new normal”.
“Senior officials tell me they are concerned about Beijing’s treatment of activists in Hong Kong and, increasingly, fear overreach that could also target Taiwan”, Jonathan Swan writes, on the way to positing that while Trump is still obsessed with preventing (or at least forestalling) China’s meteoric economic rise, recent affronts including Beijing’s failure to stop the flow of illegal fentanyl into the US and foot-dragging on what the White House still insists was a promise to buy large quantities of US farm goods, have made the president “more receptive… to his advisers’ hawkish stances that go well beyond trade”.
Earlier this year, Mike Pence was scheduled to decry China’s human rights record in an aggressive foreign policy speech which was delayed twice and then ultimately canceled in the interest of not torpedoing the ceasefire which was eventually struck in Osaka. That speech would have laid the groundwork for more punitive measures against Hikvision and other companies associated with Beijing’s surveillance state.
The administration has demonstrated a propensity to purposefully conflate national security, human rights and trade policy this year in the service of advancing a hodgepodge of agenda items including a trade deal with China and a border crackdown facilitated by the Mexican government. Some have warned that’s a Pandora’s box.
“Many of the president’s top advisers view China first and foremost as a national security threat rather than as an economic partner”, Swan goes on to say, citing multiple conversations with officials. Axios calls this “the new normal” and warns it’s set to “affect huge parts of American life, from the cost of many consumer goods, to the nature of this country’s relationship with the government of Taiwan”.
Beijing has variously warned Washington about involving itself in the Hong Kong protests, and Trump seems genuinely confused about how to reconcile an opportunity to take the moral high ground while simultaneously securing leverage in the trade war with his affinity for authoritarian government and disdain for dissent. That cognitive dissonance has manifested itself in conflicting messages when it comes to the Hong Kong protests, which escalated to fire bombs and water cannons over the weekend.
There are two key points in Swan’s reporting which, again, is more “lay of the land” than it is “breaking news”.
The first is this bit:
The big open question remains whether Trump’s anger with China… will ever grow to such a point that he wants to move in a tougher direction on national security and human rights. If he gets to that point, his advisers will have plenty of hawkish policy ideas waiting for his green light.
The administration was moving in that direction back in May, but a desire to get the trade talks back on track after an abysmal month for US stocks ultimately meant that cooler heads prevailed.
The second potentially noteworthy bit comes when Swan says that “sources” briefed on prospective September trade negotiations told him the two sides aren’t even discussing what Swan calls “the thorniest trade issues that caused the impasse in the first place”. In other words, talks on IP theft, forced tech transfer and subsidies are still stalled.
Swan’s sources indicated that as things currently stand, “the most optimistic scenario for those favoring a deal is that the two sides can generate enough goodwill in the next couple of weeks that a Chinese delegation, led by Liu He, could visit Washington at the end of September”.
Recall that both Trump and Chinese officials were keen to convey a cautiously optimistic tone on the prospects for those talks last week. The latest escalations cast considerable doubt on whether the talks would ultimately go forward, so the fact that they aren’t set in stone isn’t exactly “news”, but Swan explicitly says that while “senior administration officials have discussed such a trip, nothing is locked in”.
This is one of those times when what was implicit was probably better left as such, rather than being made explicit. That is, we knew there was no set date for the September talks, but Axios’s Sunday reporting makes it sound as though face-to-face talks this month are a kind of “best case scenario” as opposed to something that both sides are intent on making happen barring significant further escalations.
In any event, this isn’t exactly the kind of “sources” story that inspires much confidence coming off a weekend that brought more violent protests in Hong Kong, a somewhat disappointing manufacturing PMI out of Beijing and, of course, the imposition of new tariffs.