BEIJING – China raised alarms Wednesday over what it called President Donald Trump’s “outdated Cold War mentality” after an address that described Beijing as a global rival and set an increasing tough line against China’s economic and military reach.
The president’s language in his State of the Union address represented a fundamental reappraisal of the U.S. relationship with China – one that has been building for years but has crystallized since Trump took office last year, experts say.
Engagement – long accepted as the path to a safer world and a freer China – has been replaced with a chillier sense of strategic competition with the United States.
On Wednesday, China’s foreign ministry called on the United States to abandon its “outdated Cold War mentality,” manage its differences with Beijing and realize that “win-win” cooperation was the only viable option.
A Chinese foreign policy scholar called Trump’s language “alarming and provocative,” while state media warned that “malicious rivalry” and further enhancement of American military might would only end in disaster.
But Trump’s language didn’t come as a surprise in China.
Despite a state visit last November where Trump gushed about his lavish welcome and his bond with his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, his administration has repeatedly signaled in recent weeks a new cynicism about China’s role in the world and the threat it represents.
“The idea of engagement has underpinned the U.S.-China relationship for decades,” Bill Bishop wrote in his Axios China newsletter. “Now the U.S. government appears to have declared engagement has failed.”
The change was spelled out most clearly by the White House in its National Security Strategy last month.
“For decades, U.S. policy was rooted in the belief that support for China’s rise and for its integration into the postwar international order would liberalize China,” it wrote. “Contrary to our hopes, China expanded its power at the expense of the sovereignty of others.”
Among the complaints: China gathers and exploits data on an unrivaled scale, and that it spreads features of its authoritarian system around the globe, including corruption and the use of surveillance. At the same time, Chine is building the most capable and well-funded military in the world, after that of the United States.
In its National Defense Strategy released earlier this month, the Pentagon argued that “the central challenge to U.S. prosperity and security is the reemergence of long-term, strategic competition” by “revisionist” powers.
“It is increasingly clear that China and Russia want to shape a world consistent with their authoritarian model – gaining veto authority over other nations’ economic, diplomatic, and security decisions,” it wrote.
Specifically, it called China a “strategic competitor” using predatory economics to intimidate its neighbors while militarizing the South China Sea, a region where China claims full soverneinty despite strong opposition from the United States and its Southeast Asian allies.
And in a significant reevaluation of the economic relationship, the U.S. Trade Representative even argued that it was a mistake to support China’s entry into the World Trade Organization in 2001, “on terms that have proven to be ineffective in securing China’s embrace of an open, market oriented trade regime.”
Daniel Rosen of the Rhodium Group, long a leading advocate of engagement with China, calls it a “fundamental sea change in perceptions of U.S. interests.”
Frustration with China for not opening its markets further to foreign firms has been building for a while, and the idea that its WTO entry might not have been well handled has been the subject of dinner party debate even among executives from multinational companies here for the past year.
It has been further fueled by the feeling that China is walling itself off from the global Internet and trying to control cross-border data flows on which businesses depend.
Domestically, Chinese President Xi has buried the idea that a more prosperous China would ultimately become a more liberal, freer China: he has ruthlessly used the power of the state to step up surveillance, and crack down on civil society, the legal profession and any hint of dissent.
Abroad, Xi makes no secret of his desire for China’s voice to be heard more clearly on the world stage: his assertion of maritime territorial claims in the South China Sea, his ambition to spread Chinese influence through his global Belt and Road investment are just two examples of a more confident, assertive nation.
But the shift in Chinese attitudes also predates Xi, and can be traced back to the Western financial crisis a decade ago, experts say.
Ever since then, the Communist Party has grown in the belief that its economic system offered a better model than that of the West, with markets allocating some resources but the party ultimately in control of the economy.
For years, engagement had made sense, Rosen argued in a recent essay: China had been gradually converging with Western norms, in its embrace of private enterprise, market forces and foreign businesses, and in its withdrawal of the state from the economy.
But those trends have now stalled, or gone into reverse.
Enter Trump, a president singularly obsessed with the U.S. trade deficit with China, and numbering among his advisers men such as economist Peter Navarro and Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, who have long warned of the threat from Beijing.
Andrew Polk, a partner at Trivium China, a research firm, says the rethinking of engagement has been a structural trend, “but the conversation has been put on steroids under Trump.”
Nor is it a conversation only being heard in Washington: in Germany, there are growing concerns about China’s attempts to divide and conquer the European Union by wooing its poorer nations. In Australia, there are widely expressed fears of Chinese interference.
So far, Trump hasn’t really translated his words into action, partly he says because he is seeking Chinese help in isolating North Korea.
But he has imposed tariffs on solar panels and washing machines this month, while expected action over intellectual property theft and over steel and aluminum imports have left many here worried about the prospect of a trade war.
The possibility of U.S. military action against North Korea, China’s neighbor and traditional ally, could lead to a more troubling confrontation between the world’s most powerful nations.
Rosen wrote that the shift will lead to stepped-up confrontation over trade and investment, but warned that it will also make it harder for the two powers to cooperate in areas where they need to find common ground, whether over North Korea or over the environment and climate change.
“This shift in US-China relations is a serious concern,” he wrote. “In a relationship predicated not on the expectation of convergence but of rivalry and competition, opportunities for cooperation will be missed.”