Long before Donald Trump, with his “America First” foreign policy agenda, took office as president, relations between Washington and Beijing were in a state of gradual decline. These developments have their roots in the dramatic rearrangement of the post-1989 world order, where the fall of the Soviet Union made Beijing’s position as a counterweight to Moscow redundant for Washington. Add in mounting trade tensions and increasing Chinese aggression in the South China Seas, among other factors, and ties were fraying before the COVID-19 pandemic. Now both Trump and Chinese leader Xi Jinping face dueling crises that could bring both powers to a head-on, domestically driven clash.
The COVID-19 pandemic, which originated in the People’s Republic of China, has killed over 110,000 Americans and sickened nearly 2 million. It has also rapidly sped up the deterioration in relations between the world’s top two economies. Now the United States faces interlinked public health, social, and economic crises that have devastated vast swaths of the American economic landscape. Domestic developments are made only worse through urban unrest caused by the murder of an unarmed black man by a white police officer in Minnesota over a counterfeit $20 bill. As a result, Trump faces three crises providing headwinds to his re-election effort, which is just five months away. Amid domestic turmoil, he is now attempting to make opposition to China a centerpiece of his bid.
While the Biden campaign favors pre-2016 status quo attitudes toward Beijing, this is not held by all Democrats, including within the party’s leadership. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has long been a center-left China hawk, dating back to her criticism of Beijing for the Chinese Communist Party’s actions during the Tiananmen Square protests. Senate Minority leader Chuck Schumer blames Chinese negligence for the severity of the opioid epidemic and encourages Trump to be even tougher on China. Likewise, the previously ascendant progressive wing of the party supports a tougher stance because of China’s trade practices, environmental policies, and human rights record. In other words, even if Trump loses this November, there might be no change in political attitudes toward the People’s Republic, since a more confrontational stance toward Beijing seems to be shared by both Republicans and Democrats. And now, according to a poll by Morning Consult, a majority of American voters blame China for the spread of COVID-19.
On the other side of the Pacific, Xi is dealing with his own COVID-induced fallout, which is messing with his plans to consolidate power within the CCP further. Behind the scenes, he is facing criticism from influential stakeholders within the Party structure, which he is trying to silence along with widespread skepticism within Chinese society. At the same time, Beijing is trying to suppress potential Islamism in Muslim-majority Xinjiang by throwing by some estimates up to 1 million people into “re-education camps.” Meanwhile protests in Hong Kong against encroachment from the mainland are ongoing despite the efforts of the local government to enact Bejiang’s national security law, a move that Washington has warned justifies revoking Hong Kong’s autonomous status. The United Kingdom is opening the door to full British citizenship for BNO passport holders, posing a brain drain risk to one of China’s major cities. These events threaten the Chinese Communist Party’s legitimacy, since foreign investors are considering long-term exit strategies from the Chinese market with encouragement from Washington.
These problematic developments are playing on another emerging debate inside China, where the post-COVID geopolitical landscape becomes scrambled for Beijing. Xi is opening a discussion on whether the country should take a semi-Stalinist cult of personality approach under his leadership, or retain the traditional post-Mao “Dengist” approach. These arguments within the CCP leadership have implications for Washington’s relations since they will dictate the tone of engagement between the two countries in the coming years.
The regional situation in Asia currently provides a match for the evolving tinderbox of relations between the United States and China, especially considering the domestic problems facing the two countries. The ongoing coronavirus pandemic with the social and economic havoc it is creating in the United States, is providing an opening for Beijing to press its agenda throughout the region and the world. However, China’s assertiveness during this global crisis is coming at the cost of further tensions with regional rivals like Vietnam, Japan, Taiwan, and India.
COVID-19’s origins in China are prompting the Japanese government to incentivize businesses to move supply chains back home. Vietnamese distrust of China’s intentions drove Hanoi’s successful COVID-19 strategy. At the same time, Beijing is increasingly aggressive toward Taiwan, while Washington is distracted by the crisis at home. There is now an ongoing standoff between Beijing and New Delhi (both armed with nuclear weapons) over territorial disputes along their border. An escalation of any of these standoffs — or if Xi overplays his hand with claims in the South China Sea — could easily drag Washington into a regional conflict.
Still, there is a reason for cautious hope considering the United States previously faced similarly difficult circumstances with the Soviet Union. From 1967 through 1970, Washington faced an intractable war in Vietnam, racial unrest at home, and massive upheaval that changed social attitudes in American society. Internationally, the Vietnam War served as a potential flashpoint. Open conflict between Israel and the Arab World, war between India and Pakistan, left-wing terrorism, and the Prague Spring all posed heightened risks. On the other side of the Berlin Wall, Moscow dealt with inter-socialist rivalry with Mao’s China, a massive military build-up, and aging leadership, among other issues. Still, despite these flashpoints and simmering tensions, Washington and Moscow refrained from coming to open blows.
The twin domestic crises impacting the United States and China carry repercussions that go beyond both powers. The unrest and discord currently happening in the United States are upping the stakes for American political leaders going into an election year where intertangled crises could easily spill over into the international sphere. With his re-election on the ropes, Trump could decide a show of force in Asia is an excellent option to bolster his campaign message. Mounting problems at home are also driving Xi’s decision-making calculus, and could similarly cause him to assert power in the near abroad, inducing a crisis with Washington. Rising instability among the elites and societies of both powers create numerous further risks for potential conflict between the United States and China.
All these domestically driven challenges play into Graham Allison’s famed “Thucydides Trap,” which predicts that a rising power will almost always come to blows with an established one. So far, the evolving nature of the U.S.-China relationship seems to be proving Allison’s theory well, considering the differences between the two are becoming more highlighted and tensions are rapidly ramping up due to domestic political rhetoric. Time will tell if the unrest currently plaguing both rival powers sees the Thucydides Trap become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Adding to the stakes is the fact that a global pandemic, the source of the recent social and economic upheaval, originated in the United States’ rising rival.
Xi must prove himself to be a decisive leader considering the pressure he is under within the ruling Communist Party to provide clarity in the aftermath of COVID-19 and the ongoing unrest in Hong Kong. Trump, meanwhile, is eyeing a tough-on-China stance as a crucial pillar of his re-election bid. If neither man can provide stability in the relationship between the two powers, the similar challenges facing both could snowball into an even larger crisis.
Kevin Brown holds an MSc. in International History from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) and will enroll for global energy in the fall at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. He has been previously published by Real Clear Defense, the American Conservative, and the National Interest.