President TrumpDonald TrumpFormer Sen. Heller to run for Nevada governor Overnight Defense & National Security — Milley becomes lightning rod Joint Chiefs Chairman Milley becomes lightning rod on right MORE's inconsistent efforts to get tough on China are raising fears of a geopolitical crisis with the world's second largest economy just ahead of November's election.
The fears among international relations observers have been magnified after Trump this week said he was open to a complete "decoupling" from China, signaling increasing tensions between the two countries at a particularly delicate moment.
The tough talk comes as China and the U.S. have been mired in a trade war under the Trump administration, military tensions are rising in the South China Sea, and the two countries are engaging in a war of words over the coronavirus pandemic.
“Relations are obviously at a historically low point, I would say, on almost any dimension you could think of,” said Nicholas Lardy, a senior fellow and China expert at the Peterson Institute for International Economics.
An already fraught relationship has grown worse in recent weeks, with the U.S. announcing restrictions on semiconductor and other technology exports to China, while sailing warships to challenge China’s provocative claims in the South China Sea. Legislation imposed by China seen as curbing Hong Kong's political freedoms and military shows of force around Taiwan have added to the tensions.
The prospect of a worsening trade relationship, however, poses a particularly big economic threat at a time when the global economy is being hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Under the phase one trade deal, China promised to buy some $200 billion of additional U.S. products over two years, including $36.5 billion in agriculture this year alone. Yet China’s agricultural imports from the U.S. in the first quarter were only $5 billion, well short of the target.
On Thursday, Trump said he was considering policies aimed at “complete decoupling,” a term that broadly refers to breaking the deeply intertwined economic links between the world’s two largest economies.
His comment came in a tweet in which he contradicted U.S. Trade Representative Robert LighthizerBob LighthizerBiden moves to undo Trump trade legacy with EU deal Whiskey, workers and friends caught in the trade dispute crossfire GOP senator warns quick vote on new NAFTA would be 'huge mistake' MORE, who had sounded more assuring on China a day earlier during testimony to Congress.
Lighthizer had said that a decoupling from China was impossible, and that China was well on its way to meeting its commitments under the phase one deal despite the limited purchases of U.S. agricultural products so far.
Experts sided with Lighthizer, saying a complete decoupling would be difficult, harmful to the U.S. economy, and counter to the policy goals Trump himself has laid out for China.
“Trump obviously has no idea what decoupling means,” said Lardy. “He’s beating the drum for having them buy more goods from us and then saying decouple. Well that’s the opposite of decoupling. It doesn’t compute.”
Meanwhile, Timothy Heath, a senior researcher at the Rand Corporation, said Trump's threat is an empty one.
“It’s a threat the president cannot really deliver. Who’s going to buy all of America’s soybeans or hogs?” he said.
Heath added that the challenge with China is to keep it contained while also finding areas of cooperation and competing economically.
“Even amid all the trade tension and decoupling efforts, there’s still a recognition that the two countries on some level need to get along. That’s different from the Cold War, where the U.S. and Soviet Union were poised to destroy each other at any moment,” he said.
Worsening the relationship has been the administration's inconsistent policy and rhetoric on China, which is creating fears of a wider geopolitical conflict.
Despite the recent tough talk, former U.S. national security adviser John BoltonJohn BoltonOvernight Defense & National Security — Milley becomes lightning rod Joint Chiefs Chairman Milley becomes lightning rod on right Ex-Trump adviser Bolton defends Milley: 'His patriotism is unquestioned' MORE claims in an upcoming book that Trump explicitly sought electoral help from Chinese President Xi Jinping by pushing China to boost agricultural purchases from states critical to his reelection.
Bolton also claimed that Trump demurred from getting too involved on the Hong Kong protests, saying "we have human-rights problems too," and gave Xi carte blanche to build concentration camps for Uighur Muslims.
The revelations could fuel fear that the unpredictability will spark a miscalculation on either side, especially at a time of growing military tensions.
“It’s quite possible. The proximity of U.S. and Chinese forces in the South China Seas is tailor made for incidental conflict,” said Robert Manning, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and former State Department staff under Secretary Colin PowellColin Luther PowellCivil rights museum to honor Michelle Obama, Poor People's Campaign In Afghanistan, lines between aid and government agendas are blurred The Powell Doctrine could have helped us avoid the Afghanistan debacle MORE.
“My fear is that it’s going to take a catastrophe like the Cuban missile crisis before both sides sober up,” he added.
Manning said Trump’s focus on China was important, but his policies have largely been counterproductive. He compared the U.S. approach to China to the stages of grief.
“We were in the denial phase for too long. Now we’re in the anger phase,” Manning said.
One major problem, he said, is that the United States has lost its advantage in one of the most powerful foreign policy tools in the toolbox: taking a leadership role to unite allies. Such leadership would be ideal in the current moment, when China is also at odds with India, Canada, Australia and the European Union over everything from COVID-19 to human rights to technology.
“If we had smart diplomacy I think we would increase our leverage. It’s sad we can’t play the leadership role we’ve traditionally played,” Manning said.
Adding to the unpredictability, the worsening tensions with China are coming with less than five months to go before the November election, with Trump slipping in the polls to presumptive Democratic nominee Joe BidenJoe BidenOvernight Defense & National Security — Milley becomes lightning rod Democrats hope Biden can flip Manchin and Sinema On The Money — Presented by Wells Fargo — Democrats advance tax plan through hurdles MORE.
The Trump campaign has sought to paint the former vice president as weak on China, raising the prospect that the Asian country could become mired in the U.S. campaign.
“We could be headed to a really tumultuous few months,” said Heath at the Rand Corporation.