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Relations between China and the US grew increasingly adversarial in 2019. Photo: Reuters

Are US-China relations heading for a new cold war in 2020?

  • A disengaged Washington and an increasingly combative Beijing are ending 2019 with a lack of trust on both sides
  • Trade war has morphed into a structural rivalry which may reshape the global balance of power
In a year which began with the 40th anniversary of official US-China ties, the two countries remained caught throughout 2019 in an economic and geostrategic tussle which appears to be spiralling towards a superpower showdown under the watch of two nationalistic, headstrong leaders.

Even the announcement of a long-anticipated trade truce towards the end of an otherwise chaotic, depressing year appeared to offer little hope for the increasingly adversarial relationship.

What started as largely a trade dispute in 2018 has morphed into a retaliatory cycle of structural rivalry – covering technology, national security and geopolitics – that many pundits say is reshaping the global balance of power.

While the so-called phase one trade deal was largely viewed as face-saving optics in a time of crisis, experts agreed it was far from enough to end the protracted trade war, dissolve deep-running tensions or undo the damage caused to both countries and the global economy.
There have been growing signs that the world’s two largest economies are decoupling and some analysts are predicting a new cold war, between a Washington which is mired in domestic political division and disengaging from the world, and an increasingly combative Beijing with its tit-for-tat approach to diplomacy.

Veteran China specialist Orville Schell said the death of Washington’s long-standing policy of engagement was casting a shadow on every aspect of the bilateral relationship and creating a “new and more dangerous” climate of interaction.

“Our stand-off grows out of a fundamental change in attitude on both sides, where each government increasingly sees the other not only as an economic threat but also as a threat to their notion of global order and their respective values and political systems,” he said.

We are definitely at a crossroads where the very fabric of the US-China relationship is tearing apart in an alarming way
Orville Schell

“We are definitely at a crossroads where the very fabric of the US-China relationship is tearing apart in an alarming way. Without bold and creative leadership, we may again end up in two hostile, cold war-style camps.

“What is so alarming about this crisis is that neither the US nor Chinese leaders seem up to the kind of leadership that is needed to arrest this slide.”

Is China-US cold war inevitable? Chinese analysts say it can’t be ruled out

In an end-of-year interview with Chinese state media, Foreign Minister Wang Yi expressed disappointment that the anniversary, in January 2019, of 40 years of diplomatic ties between China and the US had been marred by US restrictions on China in trade, science and technology, as well as its interference in China’s sovereignty.

In another speech earlier in December, Wang described the Trump administration as “a troublemaker in today’s world” and accused Washington of undercutting the foundation of bilateral ties and trying to hold China down.

George Magnus, a research associate at Oxford University’s China Centre, said Wang’s comments were not unexpected, given how antagonistic and hostile the relationship had become.

“They are aggressive, but perhaps no more so than what can be heard in the US. Where I think Wang Yi and colleagues are being disingenuous is in making the charge one-sided,” he said.

While US President Donald Trump’s confrontational approach was partly to blame, a series of major policy changes in Beijing, especially the erosion of the lines between party and state – and those between private and public sectors – had made China appear more assertive and truculent, as well as adversarial, Magnus said.

Tech industry shudders as US weighs new limits on Huawei sales

Even as old wounds between the two – over geoeconomics, Taiwan, Tibet and the South China Sea – refused to heal, Washington in 2019 created fresh battlegrounds – over telecoms giant Huawei, Hong Kong and Xinjiang – in its across-the-board competition with Beijing.
China’s telecoms giant Huawei – and particularly its world-leading 5G technology – became central to the US-China trade war in 2019, with Washington’s “with us or against us” dichotomy exposing an emerging geopolitical fault line which threatens to split the world between the two powers.
In an intensified battle over technology supremacy with Beijing, the Trump administration put Huawei and more than 100 of its affiliates on an export blacklist over national security allegations, despite repeated denials by Huawei of any links with the Chinese government, military or intelligence services.
US attempts to enlist its allies in squeezing out Huawei as a 5G supplier met some resistance in Europe and the Asia-Pacific region, with major countries like Germany and India remaining undecided amid China’s threats of retaliation.

Human rights

The Trump administration, as well as US lawmakers, repeatedly prodded Beijing over the ruthless suppression of Uygur Muslims in China’s far western region of Xinjiang and the persistent, and increasingly violent, anti-government protests in Hong Kong.
US pressure, in the name of human rights, helped to internationalise both issues, turning them into the biggest diplomatic challenge for Chinese President Xi Jinping since he came to power in 2013.

EU ramps up human rights pressure over Xinjiang with legislative threat

The European Union and Canada were among the Western countries also expressing concern over human rights in Xinjiang and Hong Kong. But it was the US which particularly angered Beijing towards the end of the year, with several pieces of legislation aimed at its human rights record that received almost unanimous bipartisan support.
Beijing is adamant that both Xinjiang and Hong Kong are internal matters for China and has accused “foreign powers” of meddling for political purposes. China ended 2019 by increasingly calling on its partners in the “ global south” – including those involved in its flagship Belt and Road Initiative – to back its position, while admitting it is confronting profound changes, unseen in 100 years.


Chinese students and researchers in the US felt the heat of rapidly deteriorating US-China ties, with frequent visa restrictions and greater scrutiny of their possible links to the Communist Party and the Chinese military.

According to the New York-based National Association of Scholars, eight Confucius Institutes – Beijing-linked bodies which promote China’s language and culture – were closed in the US in 2019, and three others are due to shut in the next two months. The total number of the institutes in the US fell from a high of 103 in April 2017 to 88 at the end of 2019.

US academics condemn ‘racial profiling’ of Chinese students over spying fears

Public opinion in the US also turned against China. The latest survey by the Pew Research Centre in December showed favourable perceptions of China among Americans at a record low, while those holding unfavourable views of China were up from 47 per cent the previous year, reaching a new high of 60 per cent.

Diplomatic sources on both sides said official and unofficial exchanges had been significantly reduced in terms of volume, scope and intensity.

“The relations have passed the point of no return. There is no trust; the people-to-people relations are dying; and the US is already in full containment mode,” said Gal Luft, co-director of the Washington-based Institute for the Analysis of Global Security.

Finger pointing

Luft also said the US Congress had become an “alarmingly destabilising force” in US-China relations, with Republicans and Democrats trying to outdo each other on who was more hawkish on China.

“Trump himself is not interested in escalation. But the hawks in Washington are egging him on to escalate and he seems to be unable to control them. The US Congress is suffering from what could be described as China derangement syndrome,” he said.

‘Full of absurdity’: Beijing hits back at US hawks’ open letter to Trump

Yun Sun, a senior fellow at the Stimson Centre in Washington, noted that most Americans saw China as the revisionist power that had started the downward spiral by challenging the US and the current system.

“Both China and the US feel strongly about the other side being the troublemaker and such finger-pointing is unlikely to render any resolution or positive feedback,” she said.

While Chinese diplomats put the blame squarely on the US for the worst downward spiral in 40 years of bilateral ties, David Stilwell, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, recently made a vigorous defence of Washington’s China policy since the establishment of official ties in 1979.

“The fact is that, for decades, American policymakers have extended the hand of friendship to the PRC – yet Beijing has not reciprocated. The historical record shows this clearly,” he said in a speech at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington on December 12.

Joint future

Both Chinese and American pundits saw a link between China’s rapid rise and the largely conflict-free development of bilateral ties over the past four decades. Despite the talk of economic disengagement, they believed the future of China’s reform and opening up was still largely dependent on its ties with the US.

According to Yuan Peng, president of the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations in Beijing, late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping’s open-door policy would have been almost impossible without the formal normalisation of relations with the US.

Yuan pointed out that the historic Third Plenum of the 11th Communist Party’s Central Committee – widely seen as the start of China’s reform and opening up of its economy to the US and other Western countries – occurred just two days after the joint communique establishing diplomatic ties between Washington and Beijing on December 16, 1978.

Huawei’s 5G ambitions under pressure in Britain over Xinjiang

While most experts were pessimistic about the prospect of US-China relations in 2020, ahead of two presidential elections in the US and Taiwan, few believed the two powers would enter a new cold war any time soon.

Zhiqun Zhu, chair of the department of international relations at Bucknell University, said the state of the US-China relationship was disappointing but had managed to avoid the worst-case scenario. “One needs to be worried, but not despairing,” he said.

“The new normal is that the relationship has become more competitive and conflictual, but neither side has ditched cooperation as a preferred mode of interaction.”



This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: China-U.S. relations appear destined for new cold war