Last week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited the Nixon Presidential Library, a nine-acre compound in Yorba Linda, California, which was partially reopened, amid the pandemic, just for the occasion. Pompeo placed a wreath of red, white, and blue flowers at Richard Nixon’s grave. He toured the museum, where he was photographed at an exhibit featuring life-size statues of Nixon reaching out to shake the hand of Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai, during that historic first visit by an American President to China, in 1972. After his tour, Pompeo walked to a dais overlooking the parking lot—where folding chairs for a small audience were set up six feet apart, in spaces normally reserved for tourist buses—and angrily declared that Nixon’s outreach to China a half-century ago had utterly failed. He called on allies to create a new nato-like coalition to confront the People’s Republic and stopped just short of calling for regime change. Basically, he declared a new Cold War.
“We, the free nations of the world, must induce change in the Chinese Communist Party’s behavior in more creative and assertive ways, because Beijing’s actions threaten our people and our prosperity,” Pompeo said. He railed against the long-standing U.S. policy of “blind engagement” that had allowed Beijing to “rip off our intellectual property and trade secrets,” endanger the world’s waterways, exploit international trade, and expand espionage in a quest for “global dominance.” Nixon’s policy of engagement benefitted Beijing more than it benefited the United States, Pompeo said, in a remarkable insult to the Nixon family assembled for the speech. “The truth is that our policies—and those of other free nations—resurrected China’s failing economy, only to see Beijing bite the international hands that fed it.” If the free world doesn’t change Communist China, Pompeo warned, “Communist China will surely change us.”
Pompeo’s provocative speech—the last of four on China in recent weeks by top U.S. officials, including Attorney General William Barr; the F.B.I. director, Christopher Wray; and the national-security adviser, Robert O’Brien—represented a total policy reversal by the Trump Administration. For three years, Trump has heralded his personal connection with the Chinese President, Xi Jinping. “We have made tremendous progress in our relationship,” Trump boasted during their first summit, at his Mar-a-Lago resort, in April of 2017. He declared the relationship “outstanding.” Trump even confided to Xi, over “the most beautiful piece of chocolate cake that you’ve ever seen,” that he had just ordered U.S. ships to attack Syria for its use of chemical weapons. Xi was so surprised—over the disclosure of classified intelligence and a military operation—that he paused for ten seconds, then asked the interpreter to repeat it. Even after the coronavirus from China began infecting the world, in January, Trump fawned over the Chinese leader. He tweeted that the “giant Trade Deal” with the People’s Republic would bring the two nations even closer. “Terrific working with President Xi, a man who truly loves his country. Much more to come!” In February, he praised Xi’s handling of the pandemic. “Great discipline is taking place in China, as President Xi strongly leads what will be a very successful operation,” he tweeted.
Relations have tanked since then, rather breathlessly. The views reflected in Pompeo’s speech represent “one of the fastest and most dramatic shifts in attitudes towards a major power in our history,” a former U.S. Ambassador to China, who served under another Republican President and asked not to be named, told me. He called the new U.S. policy “pretty appalling.” Stapleton Roy, who participated in the secret talks that led to U.S.-China relations in the nineteen-seventies and served as Ambassador in the nineteen-nineties, called Trump’s gambit reckless. “There was no strategic thinking,” he said, dismissing Pompeo’s address as a political speech to appease voters who view China as a threat. “To mindlessly hurl yourself against China is a misunderstanding of the situation in China—and in East Asia, where countries don’t want a confrontation,” Roy, who was Ambassador to Beijing during the George H. W. Bush and Clinton Administrations, told me.
Even more stunning was the notion that Washington could win a Cold War with Beijing, former U.S. envoys told me. “We could win a Cold War with the Soviet Union thirty years ago, but we can’t win a Cold War with China today,” the anonymous Ambassador said. Unlike the Soviet Union, China is too integrated into the world economy, a point that Pompeo conceded. “Beijing is more dependent on us than we are on them,” he claimed. Yet America is also dependent on China for many basic commodities, including roughly half of its medical supplies. China is the U.S.’s second-largest source of car parts—surpassing Canada, and tripling in value since 2007. Many are made in Wuhan, nicknamed the Motor City of China, and the initial center of the pandemic. If China stopped exporting parts, it could close down multiple U.S. plants. In 2017, China provided sixty per cent of all imported electronics, including cell phones, to the American market. China even provides a significant share of bicycles sold in the United States. China is also a valuable market for American goods. China has provided “the greatest contribution to global growth and fastest-growing destination for U.S. exports for fifteen years, until the Trump Administration,” Robert Zoellick, the former World Bank president, said at the Aspen Security Forum this month. The former Ambassador who asked not to be named added, “They have a lot of leverage over us.”
Throughout the last Cold War, which spanned more than four decades, the U.S. had powerful allies on the European front lines to stand united, pool resources, and squeeze Moscow. Today, all major U.S. allies in and around Asia, including Australia, want to foster coöperation, not confrontation, with China—and don’t want to choose between Washington and Beijing. All of America’s old friends in the Asia-Pacific region—Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Australia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Taiwan—have more trade with China than with the United States, Roy said, which means that “Polarization doesn’t align with their interests.” Western allies don’t want confrontation, either. A U.S. Cold War with China could be quite lonely.
Unlike the last Cold War, which pitted Washington and Moscow against each other in proxy military conflicts on four continents, Beijing has expanded its influence largely by investing in development projects, from as far afield as Ecuador and Kenya. The projects are self-serving—pushing some countries, like Ecuador, into chronic debt, or making them virtual tributary states. China’s railway projects in Africa are partly to provide transportation to export badly needed raw materials to China. Its Belt and Road Initiative, launched by Xi in 2013, is one of the most ambitious development schemes ever conceived. It seeks to create a new transcontinental Silk Road—by land and sea—from China to Europe. It’s way too late to do to the People’s Republic what the U.S. and its Western allies did to the Soviet Union.
Trump is also starting his new Cold War with a weak hand. He has reduced U.S. engagement globally as China has deepened involvement. Within two days of taking office, Trump withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership of twelve nations that accounted for forty per cent of the world’s economic output. Amid the pandemic this year, Trump withdrew from the World Health Organization, the U.N. agency founded, in 1948, to deal with pandemics and public health. Beijing pledged to increase its financial commitment to the organization. Trump also has limited leverage with the world right now. America is deeply unpopular globally, according to a Gallup poll released on Monday. A survey of public opinion in a hundred and thirty-five countries found that, on average, only a third of the world approves of the current U.S. leadership—only one point higher than approval of the leadership in China (and only three points higher than Russian leadership). That, too, does not bode well for rallying global support to confront or contain Asia’s powerhouse.
Pompeo’s speech was striking for the personal vitriol he used against President Xi, whom he dismissed as “a true believer in a bankrupt totalitarian ideology.” In one of several sweeping statements, Pompeo pronounced, “Communists almost always lie”—an ironic statement, given that Trump has made more than twenty thousand false or misleading statements since taking office, according to an analysis by the Washington Post. Pompeo called on the world to “engage and empower good actors”— a thinly veiled appeal to the Chinese people to rise up against their own government and, perhaps, a nod to democracy activists in Hong Kong. Xi is the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao Zedong, who led the Chinese revolution in 1949 and then ruled until his death, in 1976. The new U.S.-China policy mirrors the Trump Administration’s tactics on Iran. If the word “China” had been replaced with “Iran,” the policy prescriptions would have been almost identical.
The danger is that Trump’s policy could backfire. “By emitting hostility toward China, we are driving the Chinese people into the arms of the Communist Party,” Roy, who founded the Kissinger Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center, in Washington, told me. The challenge from the U.S. may only strengthen China’s already historic sense of nationalism. Beijing is, indeed, deeply repressive. Its new national-security law on Hong Kong is draconian. Xi has abandoned many of the reforms that led to China’s opening in the nineteen-nineties as well as the principle of collective leadership; since assuming power, in 2012, he has pushed to abolish term limits, so he can now rule for life. At the same time, Roy said, China has raised the standard of living for hundreds of millions of people with unprecedented speed. “Those who see China only as a disruptor are misleading themselves,” Zoellick said. “And, frankly, self-deception is very dangerous in diplomacy.”
The idea of a new Cold War with China will, however, resonate at home. Two-thirds of Americans have an unfavorable view of the People’s Republic, according to a recent poll by the Pew Research Center. It was the most negative rating on China since Pew began asking the question in 2005—and up nearly twenty percentage points since the start of the Trump Administration. More than seventy per cent of Americans also said they do not trust Xi to “do the right thing” in world affairs. On Capitol Hill, both Republicans and Democrats support a far tougher stance on China. More than three hundred and fifty bills criticizing or featuring the country —an unprecedented number—have been introduced during the current Congress, according to the U.S.-China Business Council.
Yet Trump’s new China policy was sprung on the American people without the kind of consideration or debate that marked the beginning of the Cold War with the Soviet Union. The term “Cold War” became prominent, in 1946, in a public speech by Bernard Baruch, a wealthy financier and intellectual who advised Presidents for three decades. George Kennan, a senior State Department official writing under the pseudonym “X,” ignited wider public debate when he outlined the first policy of containment against the Soviet Union in Foreign Affairs, in 1947. The term was further popularized in a column by Walter Lippmann, a friend of Baruch’s, in the New York Herald Tribune.
China will be “the most consequential issue” in U.S. foreign policy for generations to come, Kurt Campbell, an Asia specialist who has worked at the State Department, the Pentagon, and the National Security Council, predicted at the Aspen Security Forum. Yet the United States is “really plummeting down a staircase towards an extraordinarily competitive, confrontational set of relations, which will have consequences that are very difficult to predict, with extraordinarily little discussion about it.” He questioned where the Trump Administration was going with the idea of regime change—or whether it was rhetoric during election season.
The more effective policy, the former U.S. diplomats told me, would be to look for areas of coöperation—on climate and the environment, counterterrorism and nonproliferation, and peacekeeping in conflict zones—while still holding the People’s Republic to account for theft of intellectual property, horrendous human-rights abuses, and regional ambitions in the South China Seas. The mere fact that China has integrated so extensively provides the outside world with leverage, too. Once isolated behind the so-called Bamboo Curtain, millions of Chinese have now travelled the world, been exposed to freedoms, experienced democracy, and debated ideas. “Is it possible,” Roy asked, “that decades of engagement have generated attitudes in China that believe full modernization requires political as well as economic and social modernization?” Pompeo’s abrasive speech may have played to Trump’s base, but it undermined long-term American interests and appears likely to fail, like so many of the President’s foreign-policy gambits.
By Robin Wright
The New Yorker