President Donald Trump‘s escalating trade war with China could signal a new era of confrontation between the two states, experts warn.
On May 10, the president levied higher tariffs on $200 billion worth of Chinese imports, after trade negotiations between Washington and Beijing collapsed. The Chinese government responded by raising tariffs on $60 billion of US goods.
The moves were the latest in a series of disputes between the US and China which have left relations between the states at their worst point in decades.
Ely Ratner, director of studies at the Center for a New American Security, and a former adviser to former vice president Joe Biden, told the Washington Post that the failure to strike a trade deal could see the US unleash “harsher measures” against China, for example by increasing its military presence in the disputed South China Sea.
In January, Bruce Jones, Vice President and Director of the Brookings Institute, wrote that 2018 had marked a “turning point in U.S.-China relations, the closing of an era of expanding cooperation,” which he said reached their high-water mark in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis.
President Barack Obama at a 2009 meeting of the US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue called for a new era of cooperation between the US and China on issues the recovery from the 2008 economic crisis, renewable energy and the proliferation of nuclear weapons.
But over the course of the intervening decade the relationship has soured, with the US and China clashing over increased Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea, Chinese industrial espionage and hacking, as well as trade.
Jones wrote that relations between the countries were now marked by confrontation.
“The era of U.S.-China cooperation is drawing to a close. What follows is strategic competition — but not necessarily conflict.”
China is also among the most urgent concerns of America’s military chiefs.
A Defense Intelligence Agency report that month warned that China posed an increasing threat to American military power, and that the US was not responding quickly enough to Chinese efforts to dominate the Pacific.
On Monday there was a fresh confrontation between the powers in the South China Sea. Beijing accused the US of “provocative actions” after US warships sailed near waters China has claimed ownership of on Sunday. The US has criticised China for militarising the region, whose ownership is disputed by several nations, by building a string of installations on artificial islands.
China has called on the US to cease naval patrols in an area where it claims sovereignty, while the US claims the patrols are “freedom of navigation” exercises.
In a sign of how national security and economic concerns are interwined, the US last week blacklisted Chinese telecoms giant Huawei, making it difficult for US firms to do business with the company. US Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said the move was aimed at bids to “potentially undermine U.S. national security or foreign policy interests.”
Experts have for months been warning about the deterioration of Sino-US relations.
Back in November former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson warned of a “economic cold war” developing between the US and China if they continued along their current path.
“The U.S. — China strategic interaction is by far the most consequential in the world. I am very sobered by the trajectory we are on now,” Paulson said.
“And ultimately, I think it could pose a risk to the very functioning of the international system.”