How Did China-US Relations Get This Bad and What Happens Next? An Expert Explains.

A Chinese worker removes a plaque as officials prepared to close the U.S. consulate in Chengdu, China, Monday morning.
A Chinese worker removes a plaque as officials prepared to close the U.S. consulate in Chengdu, China, Monday morning.(Getty)

A series of conflicts have appeared to indicate worsening U.S.-China relations – including the Trump Administration’s plan to deport international students and Trump’s vocal blame on China for how the coronavirus pandemic has impacted the United States.

Chinese and Americans alike watched in nervous anticipation as the American flag was lowered at the U.S. consulate in the southwest city of Chengdu after dawn Monday morning, just a few hours before U.S. diplomatic staff were vacated from the premises and the consulate was declared officially closed – an event broadcast on Chinese state-run media organization CCTV.

Many saw this as General Secretary Xi Jinping’s direct response to President Trump’s closure of the Chinese consulate in Houston, Texas last week – a move U.S. officials said was in national security interest, alleging that that particular location was a hub of Chinese economic and intellectual property espionage as well as visa fraud.

“You can count on whatever this administration does, the Chinese are going to at least match it to an approximate degree,” David M. Lampton of the Johns Hopkins Foreign Policy Institute told Inside Edition Digital. “They picked a fitting tit-for-tat but they are trying not to escalate it.”

Lampton, an expert in Chinese politics and U.S.-China relations, explained the Chinese appeared to have matched their response to the U.S.'s to a tee. “When we've given them the 72 hours to clear out of the Houston Consulate, they have given a like amount of time for us to clear out of Chengdu,” he explained. “The Chinese could have picked consulates to demand that we vacate that would have been more harmful to the relationship. Certainly, if they had said, ‘Get out of Hong Kong,’ that would have been a big escalation.”

This comes as Chinese scientist Juan Tang was charged with visa fraud for allegedly concealing her military ties. She made headlines earlier this month for taking shelter at a Chinese consulate in San Francisco, and is now one of four scientists living in the U.S. accused of lying about their status as members of China’s People’s Liberation Army. 

But Juan’s arrest and the latest tit-for-tat consulate closures are just some tension points in a series of conflicts that appeared to indicate worsening U.S.-China relations – including the Trump Administration’s plan to deport international students, Trump’s vocal blame on China for how the coronavirus pandemic has impacted the United States and ongoing tensions over territorial claims in the South China Sea.

Lampton, however, said the superpowers’ relations may have been on the downfall for a long time. “It would be easy to just heap everything on the Trump Administration, and I think they’ve mismanaged this colossally, but in all honesty, I think it really started in the Obama Administration,” he said.

He has been monitoring China’s ascendance as a world superpower since Deng Xiaoping inherited power following Mao Zedong’s death in 1976.

“The U.S., frankly, was caught off guard,” he explained. “We all thought China would grow for a long time. We all knew at some point the numbers would work in China's favor because it's 20% of the world's people. But that day arrived more rapidly than most Americans appreciated.”

Deng was seen as a leader who cooperated with foreign powers – a strategic move, Lampton said, in order to change China’s status as a poor country. “Deng Xiaoping's basic philosophy was, ‘minimize problems externally in foreign affairs so we get maximum cooperation of the Western world in rebuilding our country,’” he explained. “The United States was willing to provide it, partly for our own security interests and partly for our economic gain in the future.”

Xi, however, came to power after decades of rapid economic, military and intellectual growth – that, coupled with his leadership style as a strongman leader, is one of the reasons the world is seeing this escalation, Lampton explained.

“That is the brand name of Xi Jinping: being tough, China being assertive, China standing up to the West, proud of its strength, and seeing itself as a global model, in a way, for both governance and the industrial development for what you might call developing countries,” he explained.

Another major reason for the recent escalation, Lampton said, may have been Trump’s own strongman persona and confused foreign policy agenda. “The policy process is chaotic,” Lampton said. “Even if the Chinese wished to make concessions, they’ll never know whether the demands of today are going to be the demands of tomorrow, and whether making any concession today will give them any relief tomorrow.”

Unavoidably, the coronavirus – including its original spike in China and later devastation of American lives – is a major point of tension between the two superpowers. Conspiracy theories, including that China released COVID-19 as a bioweapon, continue to run rampant in the U.S., and Trump continues to fuel that misinformation – whether by constantly calling the disease “China Virus” despite it being known worldwide by its medical name, supporting false data on social media or by focusing the blame on China. That, coupled with still-mounting infection and death rates in the United States by coronavirus seen in no other developed nation in the world, has certainly led to Americans shifting their perceptions on China, and the leadership continues to intensify that tension, Lampton said.  

More interestingly, Lampton said, the coronavirus also allows Trump to continue a narrative that has played out in other fields as well: that the United States has a problem with security, and would have been able to protect itself better had they closed borders, not allowed Chinese nationals to enter, and therefore would have stopped this “Chinese Virus” from taking American lives and ruining the American economy. “[Trump] has made it a strategic issue as well as an economic one,” Lampton said.

With the added factors of the upcoming election and Trump possibly seeing himself as the underdog, Lampton explained that the Trump Administration’s strong stance may be one intended to garner more support for his reelection.

“They're therefore motivated to find something else to have people focus on beyond our own domestic difficulties,” he explained.

Therefore, China’s strategy, at least in the short term, may be one of just surviving this presidency. “​They're just hoping to get to the next administration, not so much because they think Biden would be easier to deal with. … But there would be, I believe, a more rational policy process,” Lampton said. 

But a more positive U.S.-China relationship in the future might lean on America focusing on problems internally. “Rather than try to slow China down, which I think is going to be pretty hard, we've got to speed ourselves up. In other words, I think we need to be less defensive and get our own house in order, increase our national savings rate, raise our R&D expenditures, and so on,” Lampton explained. 

“In other words, we have to start acting like Americans: confident of our own capabilities, rather than trying to knock the other guy down,” he said.