The Trump administration is targeting Chinese social media app TikTok with a ban. However, the long-term view may be even more troubling. Photo: AFP
by Josef Gregory Mahoney
by Josef Gregory Mahoney

Forget a cold war and the TikTok, WeChat bans. Is the US preparing for a hot war with China?

  • The White House has sent mixed signals on China, agreeing to hold talks while announcing a ban on Chinese apps
  • But the hope that these are just Washington’s negotiation tactics is fading, amid worries of a potential armed conflict

In the past few days, several developments have rippled across the communities that closely watch US-China ties. In some ways, these narratives appear to be at odds with each other but, as is so often the case, the contradictions are where the real meaning can be found. 

The first is a recent report by The Wall Street Journal, indicating the United States and China have agreed to hold high-level talks on August 15 to discuss progress on the bilateral trade agreement signed earlier this year. The article notes that each country’s point man in the ongoing trade war, US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and Chinese Vice-Premier Liu He, will meet, probably through a videoconference.
The second is the Trump administration’s decision to take another step against China – indeed, another step against Chinese technology firms – by targeting two apps, TikTok and WeChat, with bans effective in 45 days.
The third is the publication of Superpower Showdown: How the Battle Between Trump and Xi Threatens a New Cold War, by Wall Street Journal reporters Bob Davis and Lingling Wei, the former a veteran covering the US presidency and the latter a Chinese-born US citizen who was among the American journalists expelled from China in the wake of the newspaper’s insensitive “Sick Man of Asia” opinion headline earlier this year.

Whether the anticipated meeting between Lighthizer and Liu takes place, how should we understand this story, presumably a deliberate White House leak, given Washington’s increasing political and economic aggression against Beijing?


Trump gives Microsoft 45 days to buy TikTok from China’s Bytedance

Trump gives Microsoft 45 days to buy TikTok from China’s Bytedance

In the context of Trump’s well-established approach to negotiations, and Lighthizer’s famous dictum about focusing on points of leverage, should the new attack on Chinese tech firms be seen as an attempt to merely create new leverage in the trade talks, or a Cold War tactic aimed at re-establishing American strategic dominance, or both?

Perhaps the leak is just a short-term sweetener for Wall Street, given talk of an impending market correction, concerns that a new economic relief package has stalled in Congress with benefits expiring for millions, worries that Chinese firms are fleeing US markets for British and Chinese exchanges, and indications that US investors are abandoning President Donald Trump as he seeks re-election.

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In fact, some analysts believe that the phase one trade deal struck earlier this year – before the pandemic, before America’s ineffectual response to the same, and before the US economy contracted by a third in its worst quarter since the second world war – was also just a little sugar for the markets to keep Wall Street in Trump’s camp, especially given his prioritisation of market performance as an indicator of good governance.
And now, with polls indicating a difficult race with Joe Biden and with little to show economically for Trump’s trade wars, is this planned meeting just a photo op, a sincere effort to move forward, or another opportunity to negatively assess and condemn China?

Meanwhile, Davis’ and Wei’s book is being widely read on both sides of the Pacific, with Chinese versions already being passed around by key influencers. The general consensus indicates that it is a smart book, one that aims to explain rather than to point fingers. Amid its numerous conclusions, three are most compelling.

The first and overarching conclusion is that a new cold war is already under way, belying the book’s title.

The second, which the book opens with, is that there is a growing consensus among American policymakers and business leaders dating back to 2018 at least that a hot war is likely within the next 20 years, and that this thinking underpins many of the ongoing developments.

The third is that US efforts to contain Chinese technology by cutting China off from American firms is likely to have the opposite effect. It is already increasing China’s self-sufficiency by eliminating American choke points.

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It would not be foolish to think that Washington strategists anticipated this development and welcome the competition. Indeed, the past weeks have seen other developments that have further darkened the already solemn mood in Beijing.

These include yet another anti-China speech from US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, accusations from the director of the US National Counterintelligence and Security Centre that China is trying to meddle in the upcoming US elections, and an updated Congressional Research Service Report on US-China strategic competition that worries whether the US is rushing towards a potential war unprepared and without proper oversight.


Washington’s hardened position on Beijing’s claims in South China Sea heightens US-China tensions

Washington’s hardened position on Beijing’s claims in South China Sea heightens US-China tensions
China’s response to all of this has been a rare signed article from a senior diplomat, Yang Jiechi, a member of the Politburo and director of the Office of the Foreign Affairs Commission.

While emphasising the need to safeguard positive relations, Yang acknowledges the current dangers and describes the US side as embracing a Cold War mentality and a zero-sum approach that risks irreversible damage.

While many today are focused on WeChat and TikTok, and others are fretting over the US elections and the unrelenting tit-for-tat provocations, the longer view is even more disturbing.

The hope that these are all just negotiation tactics – or that a more compromising leader may take power in Washington, a more cautious approach will emerge in Beijing, or that other powers can help calm both sides – has been replaced with increasingly grimmer possibilities.

In other words, we’re long past debating whether a cold war is coming. It’s here, and by some accounts Washington is preparing for a hot war. Are you?

Josef Gregory Mahoney is professor of politics at East China Normal University in Shanghai