Picking a fight: Is Trump’s hawkish behaviour towards China the start of a new cold war?


With Washington taking a new, profoundly aggressive tack in its dealings with Beijing, analysts speak of ‘active competition with occasional confrontation’ as the new normal

Despite a glimmer of optimism sparked by the possibility of a meeting next month between Trump and Xi to resolve increasing tensions between the planet’s two largest economies, Sino-US relations are more likely to head to a long-term competition, analysts say.

After the White House abruptly cancelled Trump’s trip to the Apec summit next month in Papua New Guinea, which Xi is scheduled to attend, that leaves the G20 summit in Buenos Aires, Argentina, at the end of November as the last big international event this year where the two presidents could meet on neutral turf.

At this point, whether they can reach any significant agreement remains an open question. The last few months have shown the US taking a profoundly different tack in its dealings with China across a wide range of economic, diplomatic and military fronts, moving aggressively to cast it as a rival and potential enemy, not the trading partner and possible ally five decades of US statecraft have striven to cultivate.

In a sharp departure from past administrations, Trump listed China last year as a strategic competitor of the US. And months after Washington began the trade war in July, Vice-President Mike Pence sent an even stronger signal to China at the Hudson Institute two weeks ago: “This president will not back down.”

Pence’s speech has echoed widely since he delivered it on October 4, further escalating tensions between Washington and Beijing, which has already spilled out of the area of trade, to broader security and diplomatic fields.

“This clearly shows a seismic shift in the American government’s approach to China. It’s not about containing China. America couldn’t contain China if it wanted to – given the interdependence in the relationship and the need for other countries to enforce a containment policy,” said David Shambaugh, a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.

“This is about active competition with occasional confrontation.”

In his speech, Pence lashed out with a long list of accusations and criticism against Beijing: interfering with the US’s midterm elections; militarisation of the South China Sea; the tightening of religious freedoms for the country’s Muslims, Christians and Buddhists; and business practices like forced technology transfers that prompted Trump to launch the trade war three months ago.