SEP 28, 2018: Trump’s accusation that China is interfering in US mid-term elections has added yet more fuel to the fire of US-China relations.
A report by Ryan Hass on the Brookings Institute website says there’s a growing possibility that leaders in Beijing and Washington may come to view each other no longer as acute competitors, but increasingly as implacable foes.
In the United States, the sharpness of President Trump’s complaints that China is plundering American wealth have intensified while members of Congress have been ringing the alarm about China’s attempts to manipulate public discourse, says Hass in his report.
Mr Trump is not up for re-election until 2020 but the stakes are high as his Republican party is seeking to retain its majorities in both the House of Representatives and the Senate during November’s midterm vote.
A recent poll research by Lord Ashcroft found that majority of those polled (51 percent of the general population) believes the US is “on the wrong track”.
And just over a third (36 percent) of all of those surveyed said the country is heading in the right direction, while 13 percent said they did not know.
Hass, who is Fellow – Foreign Policy, Center for East Asia Policy Studies, John L. Thornton China Center, says that as election nears, amusement over President Trump’s unconventional style has given way to anger in Beijing –that Trump is attempting to damage China’s economy, derail China’s rise, and legitimize China’s leadership.
According to the report, many in Beijing also have complained that Trump is scapegoating China for America’s own domestic challenges. According to this logic, Beijing has no incentive to accommodate President Trump’s demands on trade or any other issue, because Beijing judges that doing so would not address the underlying motive of Trump’s actions—to knock down America’s nearest peer competitor.
The tenor of the relationship changed further in late September, Hass points out. First, the United States launched a fusillade of actions against many of China’s most vulnerable points. These actions included implementation of a $200-billion unilateral tariff package, an arms sales announcement to Taiwan, a Congressional resolution on Tibet, public censure of China’s repression of ethnic Uighur citizens in Xinjiang, publicized B-52 bomber operations in the South and East China Seas, the first sanctions on the People’s Liberation Army since the Tiananmen incident in 1989, and the announcement of a new policy requiring America-based members of China’s state media to register as foreign agents. While it is unclear whether the simultaneity of actions was by design or coincidence, officials in Beijing invariably will see them as elements of a coordinated campaign, according to the report.
Such views will be reinforced by President Trump’s broadside against China while chairing a meeting of the United Nations Security Council on September 26, Hass maintains. At that event, and in subsequent public comments, President Trump accused China of interfering in America’s electoral process. When pressed for evidence, President Trump thus far has only offered that Chinese media bought inserts in an Iowa newspaper and that China targeted its tariffs to hurt voters in electoral districts that previously supported Trump.
While such actions by China are unwelcome and most likely counterproductive to China’s goal of compelling Trump to lower the temperature on trade tensions, they are not unique, the report adds. “Many countries routinely purchase inserts in newspapers and magazines, and many of America’s closest friends similarly have imposed geographically targeted tariffs in retaliation to Trump’s trade actions.”
So, from Beijing’s perspective, by singling out China and accusing it of “interfering” in America’s election on the basis of actions that multiple other countries have taken, “Trump may be setting the predicate for blaming China for expected electoral setbacks this November.”
Members of the Trump administration may take their cue from the president in the coming weeks and build a public case that China is an enemy of the American people. There also may be further punitive measures against China. China almost certainly would counter-punch. If such a sequence comes to fruition, there is real risk in the coming months of accelerating descent into enmity between the world’s two most powerful countries and largest trading nations, says Hass in his report.