Tensions between China and the United States have reached the most acute levels since the countries normalized diplomatic relations more than four decades ago, with the American government’s ordering that China close its Houston consulate being just the latest example.
In defense, trade, technology, human rights and other categories, actions and reprisals by one side or the other have escalated sharply under President Trump’s administration, despite his repeated expressions of admiration for President Xi Jinping of China.
The administration is even weighing a blanket ban on travel to the United States by the 92 million members of China’s ruling Communist Party and the possible expulsion of any members currently in the country, an action that would likely invite retaliation against American travel and residency in China.
“I think we’re in a dangerous and precipitous spiral downward, not without cause, but without the proper diplomatic skills to arrest it,” said Orville Schell, director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society. The severity of the confrontation, he said, “has jumped the wall from specific and solvable challenges to a clash of systems and values.”
Craig Allen, president of the U.S.-China Business Council, said he was alarmed by the increasing invective from two superpowers that together represent 40 percent of global economic output. “If we are yelling at each other and slamming doors, then the world is a very unstable place, and businesses are not able to plan,” he said.
Here is a look at what has happened in the past few years to exacerbate the tensions:
Mr. Trump and his subordinates have blamed China for spreading the coronavirus, which first emerged in the central Chinese city of Wuhan late last year. They have repeatedly described the virus in racist and stigmatizing terms, calling it the Wuhan virus, China virus and Kung Flu.
On July 4, Mr. Trump said China “must be held fully accountable.” The administration also has defunded and ordered a severing of ties with the World Health Organization, accusing it of having abetted shortcomings in China’s initial response to the outbreak. On Tuesday, the Justice Department accused Chinese hackers of attempting to steal information about American research on a virus vaccine.
For its part, China has rejected the administration’s attacks over the virus and has criticized the poor American government response to the outbreak. Chinese propagandists also have promoted the countertheory, with no evidence, that American soldiers may have been the original source of the virus during a visit to Wuhan last October.
Mr. Trump won office in 2016 partly on his accusations that China was exploiting the country’s trade relationship with the United States by selling the country far more than it purchased. In office, he decreed a series of punitive tariffs on Chinese goods, and China retaliated, in a trade war that has now lasted more than two years. While a truce was effectively declared in January with the signing of what the administration called a ‘Phase 1’ trade deal, most tariffs were not eased.
The Trump administration has increasingly challenged China’s assertions of sovereignty and control over much of the South China Sea, including vital maritime shipping lanes. Just last week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who has described China as a major security threat, decreed that most of China’s claims in the South China Sea are “completely unlawful,” setting up potential military confrontations between Chinese and U.S. naval forces in the Pacific.
China has long been accused by successive U.S. administrations of stealing American technology. The Trump White House has escalated the accusations further by seeking an international blacklisting of Huawei, China’s largest technology company, calling it a front for China’s efforts to infiltrate the telecommunications infrastructure of other nations for strategic advantage.
The company’s chief technology officer, Meng Wanzhou, has been detained in Canada since December 2018 on an extradition warrant to the United States on fraud charges. Last week Britain declared it was siding with the United States in barring Huawei products from its high-speed wireless network.
Accusing China’s state-run media outlets of fomenting propaganda, the Trump administration sharply limited the number of Chinese citizens who could work for Chinese news organizations in the United States. China retaliated by ordering the expulsions of journalists from The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal, and took other steps that suggested further impediments to American press access in China were looming. The New York Times, concerned about the possibility of further limitations on journalists working in China, announced last week that it was relocating much of its major news hub in Hong Kong to Seoul, South Korea.
Last November, Mr. Trump, with bipartisan support, signed legislation that could penalize Chinese and Hong Kong officials who suppress dissent by democracy advocates in Hong Kong, the former British colony and Asian financial center that was guaranteed some measure of autonomy by China.
In May Mr. Trump said he was taking steps to end Hong Kong’s preferential trading status with the United States after China passed a sweeping new security law that could be used to stifle any form of expression deemed seditious by China. The Chinese authorities have denounced the measures and vowed to retaliate.
This month the Trump administration imposed sanctions on a number of Chinese officials, including a senior member of the Communist Party, over human rights abuses by China in the Xinjiang region against the country’s largely Muslim Uighur minority.
Beijing promised retaliation against American institutions and individuals it deemed guilty of “egregious” conduct in issues concerning Xinjiang, a vast Western expanse in China where the authorities have placed a million people in labor camps and imposed intrusive surveillance on others.
For the Chinese government, American actions taken in the name of defending people living anywhere in China constitutes blatant interference in its internal politics — a grievance with deep-seated roots going back to its struggles with imperialist powers in the 19th century.
In May the Trump administration approved a $180 million arms sale to Taiwan, part of a far bigger arms deal that has angered the Chinese authorities, who regard the self-governing island as part of China. Another longstanding source of Chinese anger is the American deference to the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader-in-exile of Tibet, the former Himalayan kingdom in China’s far west.
In 2018 Mr. Trump signed a bill that penalizes Chinese officials who restrict American officials, journalists and other citizens from going freely to Tibetan areas. Last November the State Department’s ambassador at large for international religious freedom, Samuel D. Brownback, warned that only Tibetans could choose the successor to the Dalai Lama, who turned 85 this month, setting up a new clash with Beijing, which contends it will choose his successor.