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Confronting China – The New York Times

michael barbaro

From The New York Times, I’m Michael Barbaro. This is “The Daily.”

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Today: A cooperative relationship with China has been a pillar of the United States’ foreign policy for more than half a century. Edward Wong on why the Trump administration believes it’s time for a change.

It’s Wednesday, July 29.

Edward, can you tell me what happened in Houston last week?

edward wong

Sure. We first got a tip that something was up with the Chinese consulate in Houston around Tuesday afternoon or so — that the Chinese ambassador to the U.S. had been told by American officials that he had three days to shut down the consulate, and that the employees here had 30 days to then leave the country. And a colleague and I started chasing this tip, but we couldn’t quite nail it down to publish a story.

archived recording

Right now at 10, breaking news —

edward wong

And then —

archived recording 1

Houston firefighters and police responding to the Chinese consulate in Montrose after reports of a fire.

archived recording 2

Crews were called to the building off Montrose and Herald about 8:20 tonight.

edward wong

In the evening, I started seeing these videos of people burning things in metal barrels, in open metal barrels. And there was video of fire trucks and police cars surrounding the consulate with their lights on, so it’s quite a dramatic scene.

archived recording

And local media were reporting that documents appeared to be being burned in the courtyard of that building.

edward wong

You know, for people in the national security world and the foreign policy world, when you see people burning lots of documents or papers at a diplomatic mission, the assumption is that they’re about to clear out of the mission. So when I saw those videos, I realized that the tip we had gotten that the Chinese ambassador had been told to shut down the Houston consulate within three days was indeed true.

archived recording (wang wenbin)

On July the 21st, the U.S. abruptly asked China to close its consulate in Houston.

edward wong

And within hours, the Chinese foreign ministry confirmed that in Beijing.

archived recording (wang wenbin)

We urge the U.S. to reverse this incorrect decision immediately. Otherwise, China will definitely take necessary legitimate actions.

michael barbaro

And why would the U.S. take this pretty significant move of kicking these Chinese diplomats out of this consulate in Texas?

edward wong

Officially, people in American government told us that they targeted the Houston consulate because it was a hub of economic espionage and trade secrets espionage in the U.S. But American officials haven’t given us detailed evidence on the activities undertaken by the Chinese diplomats. And it’s not clear to us how much farther these activities go beyond the types of covert or espionage activities that take place at missions around the world, including ones run by Americans. But in the bigger picture, a main goal of some American officials in the Trump administration is to unwind a range of diplomatic and economic ties that have built up between the U.S. and China over the decades ever since President Nixon started the opening of China back in 1971.

michael barbaro

So there’s a version of this where the U.S. was looking for a reason to unwind this relationship, and espionage — real or not — was that reason.

edward wong

Right.

michael barbaro

And why would the Trump administration want to unwind its relationship with China? I mean, it’s our single biggest trading partner. It’s a global superpower. It’s a nuclear power, so that’s a pretty significant decision.

edward wong

It is significant, and there are some senior officials in the administration who are against this. Throughout the last three and a half years, we’ve seen, broadly speaking, two factions of advisers on China competing against each other for Trump’s ear. And that helps explain some of the contradictory impulses and policies that we’ve seen coming out of the administration on China during this period.

michael barbaro

What do you mean?

edward wong

On one side, you had the ones wanting to confront China, in part over trade, and also in part over national security matters. You had Peter Navarro, who’s a White House trade adviser.

archived recording (peter navarro)

How do you work with a country that lies through its teeth?

edward wong

Who wrote a book called “Death by China,” and then you also had Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

archived recording (mike pompeo)

They very much want to undermine our Western values, all the things that we hold most dear.

edward wong

And those people saw China as a threat to America. And then on the more cooperative side, you have, for example, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin.

archived recording (steve mnuchin)

We need to work together to maximize the benefit for both sides.

edward wong

People who still clung to the classic notions of free trade and thought that the traditional relationship with China was a stabilizing force in the world. And that this had helped American companies get wealthy over the years, as well as had benefited American consumers.

michael barbaro

And Edward, when comes to those who want to confront China, when it comes to the Peter Navarros and the Mike Pompeos, what is their case for why China is such a threat to the U.S. and should be reined in?

edward wong

Well, they argue that China presents a range of strategic threats to the U.S. For example, they say that China’s attempts to export its 5G technology, its next generation communications technology, around the world presents a security threat. They say that China’s recent military expansionism in the South China Sea, and its vast maritime claims in that sea, are also a security threat, and they would impede American military dominance in the Asia-Pacific. They point to attempts at economic espionage by China and a vast range of cyber attacks that have targeted the American government and other important institutions around the world.

michael barbaro

Am I right to think that, from the start of his presidency, the confrontation camp more or less prevailed?

edward wong

Well, it’s complicated. The first big blow to the U.S.-China relationship under the Trump administration was in mid-2018.

archived recording (donald trump)

We’re going to have some incredible things. We’re just announcing very big tariffs today on China, because China has been —

edward wong

When President Trump started putting tariffs on billions of dollars of goods made in China, China retaliated by doing the same on American goods.

archived recording

So here’s what they would do. They target farm products such as soybean cars, seafood —

edward wong

And then just spiral downward from there.

archived recording 1

Medical equipment, energy products, that would start a little bit —

archived recording 2

As the U.S.-China trade war escalates, business leaders have been speaking up. FedEx C.E.O. —

edward wong

So the trade war had this huge impact on companies, both in the U.S. and outside of the U.S. And it created a lot of instability in their thinking about how to do business.

archived recording

The escalating trade battle between the U.S. and China is rocking investors around the world.

edward wong

It created a lot of instability in the stock markets, which Trump watches closely. And —

archived recording

Some farmers in the U.S.A., the disruption of normal trade with China has forced many of them to go bankrupt.

edward wong

Important groups of voters who had supported Trump, for example, farmers in the Midwest, were starting to suffer.

archived recording

I was a Trump voter. I voted for the president, certainly. But he certainly hasn’t come through. He’s lost on trade. He’s lost on trade, and certainly —

edward wong

They saw agricultural products like corn and soybeans piling up in the Midwest, because China had imposed tariffs on their end to strike back at Trump.

archived recording

So I won’t be voting for the president again.

edward wong

So Trump and some of his economic advisers, especially those who were preaching more cooperation with China, started to get nervous about these economic signs that they were seeing, as well as about the anxieties of these midwestern farmers and potential Trump voters there.

michael barbaro

And so what do they do, these cooperation camp folks who are not happy with this trade war?

edward wong

Well, as they go through negotiations for a potential truce to the trade war, President Trump talks with President Xi of China several times. And they have these, like, sort of one-on-one conversations that Trump likes to do with leaders. And in each of these, Trump sort of cozies up to Xi, and it’s clear he’s willing to sort of brush aside a lot of sort of the most egregious behaviors of China in the pursuit of this trade deal.

michael barbaro

Like what?

edward wong

In one conversation, according to John Bolton — the former national security adviser — Trump encouraged Xi to actually continue building internment camps for Muslims in the northwest of China and sort of signaled that this wasn’t a big issue for him.

michael barbaro

These are the Uighurs?

edward wong

Right, these are the Uighurs, exactly. The ones a million or more held over recent years in internment camps. And, for example, we’ve seen these, during this period, these pro-democracy protests arise in Hong Kong. And while Trump’s national security aides are supportive of them, Trump himself tells Xi privately in a phone call that Xi should just handle those in whatever way he wants to deal with those, and that Trump himself will not say anything about those, and he’ll tell his aides not to say anything vocally among those protests either.

michael barbaro

So in this trade war that’s supposed to represent confrontation with China, there’s actually a fair amount of cooperation going on, most of it behind the scenes.

edward wong

Right, exactly. And ultimately, in December, they reach a tentative agreement, and then they signed that in January of this year. And I think that brought a big sense of relief to the people in the cooperation camp. I think they were relieved to see a sense of stability returned to this key economic relationship. Now, the confrontation people in the White House and in other agencies were generally disappointed, I think, by the outcome of the deal. They felt that Trump had sidelined a lot of the hardline policies they had pushed for in the first half of the administration for the sake of just trying to get a marginal increase in agricultural purchases. And also, there is a sense of outrage among some of them.

And this was in John Bolton’s recent book, that Trump was also aiming for this negotiated truce purely for re-election purposes. That he pleaded with Xi in a conversation that Xi should get help him get re-elected, should help him win, and that the best way to do this was to reach some sort of truce or deal in the trade war that he could then bring back to his constituents. And so certain national security people were outraged by this, saying that Trump was focused purely on personal politics and was not looking after the national security interests of the United States.

michael barbaro

Edward, what you’re describing so far, especially this trade deal, does not seem like a relationship that is about to be fundamentally unwound and blown up. So what happens to get us from that truce to now, into the shutdown of this consulate in Houston?

edward wong

Well, what changes things is this pandemic that starts in central China and spreads across the globe.

That sets the two powers on a much more confrontational course.

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michael barbaro

We’ll be right back.

archived recording (donald trump)

I spoke with President Xi. We had a great talk. He’s working very hard. I have to say he’s working very, very hard.

edward wong

So in the first weeks after the virus started spreading around the globe, Trump was still praising Xi publicly.

archived recording (donald trump)

If you know anything about him, I think he’ll be in pretty good shape. They’ve had a rough patch, and I think right now, they have it — it looks like they’re getting it under control more and more.

edward wong

This was in January and February right after they had signed the trade agreement, so Trump was still in this mode where he wanted intensely to preserve that negotiated truce. But by the spring —

archived recording (donald trump)

We got hit by the virus that came from China.

edward wong

Trump was laying into China publicly for what had happened. You know, the pandemic had spread into all corners of the U.S. The economy was in shambles. Trump was seeing his re-election chances starting to go down the drain.

archived recording (donald trump)

And we continue our relentless effort to defeat the Chinese virus.

archived recording

Why do you keep using this? A lot of people say it’s racist.

archived recording (donald trump)

Because it comes from China. It’s not racist at all, no. Not at all. It comes from China. That’s why. It comes from China. I want to be accurate.

edward wong

And so his campaign strategists came up with this idea that they can try and shift the conversation to China, rather than having people focused on Trump’s failures on the pandemic. And that by blaming China for all of this, they could win back some of the votes that Trump’s starting to lose. Some of his top advisers. started speculating whether the virus might have started from a lab accident —

archived recording

I can tell you that there is a significant amount of evidence that this came from that laboratory in Wuhan.

edward wong

— even though there was no evidence for that.

archived recording

Have you seen anything at this point that gives you a high degree of confidence that the Wuhan Institute of Virology was the origin of this virus?

archived recording (donald trump)

Yes, I have. Yes, I have.

edward wong

So you have this very concerted effort by Trump to really cast China as the person or the entity to blame for all of this.

archived recording (donald trump)

China’s cover-up of the Wuhan virus allowed the disease to spread all over the world, instigating a global pandemic.

michael barbaro

And where does the pandemic fit into the kind of now familiar outlines that you have described of the confrontation camp versus the cooperation camp? I have to imagine it kind of challenges both.

edward wong

The pandemic really empowers the hawks in the administration to say, we really have to go after China. Look at how their misgovernance, how their political system led us to this point — led America into an economic crisis that’s been the worst since the Great Depression. And even the people in the cooperation camp are starting to change their minds a bit. It’s hard to tell the world that we should prioritize this trade agreement that just rests on some agriculture purchases when you’ve got this global crisis enveloping everything, and when American citizens are anxious about their future.

michael barbaro

And how does China respond to these attacks from Trump and from his advisers?

edward wong

So what we’re hearing this spring is Chinese officials denouncing the U.S. for all of these attacks. And they also point out that the Chinese system actually has handled the virus a lot better than the American system. They say even though there might have been this outbreak in central China, look at how we controlled it through the measures we took, and look at how the virus is running rampant in the U.S. And China also then starts to try and send out aid to other countries. It starts sending shipments of, for example, medical supplies, medical equipment, facemasks, to other countries around the world, and even to parts of the U.S., to try and sort of mask over its own responsibility for how the outbreak began in its country. So the relationship between the two powers was bad, and then it got worse.

archived recording

And we have some breaking news coming in. China’s annual parliamentary meeting has been officially opened in Beijing, and it’s expected that national security legislation for Hong Kong will be discussed during the seven-day session.

edward wong

In the late spring, Chinese officials start talking about this new national security law that they want to impose on Hong Kong.

archived recording 1

Well, the specifics of the news has sent shockwaves across the city.

archived recording 2

It says Beijing will set up a new National Security Bureau in Hong Kong, supervised by the central government to crack down on dissent in the city.

archived recording

The legislation has faced sharp criticism from governments all around the world and sparked new protests in Hong Kong.

edward wong

And so this continues the downward spiral that U.S.-China relations have been on.

michael barbaro

Right, and I’m imagining that that security law was especially upsetting to those who want confrontation with China. That seems to be exactly the kind of thing that they find so objectionable.

edward wong

That’s right. As you recall, they were very upset at Trump for putting the Hong Kong issue on the backburner in his aim to try and reach some sort of trade truce with China. And now they were intent on pushing forward on policies and actions that would make the Communist Party pay a price, not only for what they would do in Hong Kong, but for their actions in other parts of the world and for their role in the pandemic. So they started announcing a series of actions against China that really brought the relationship to a new low. They said that Hong Kong was no longer an autonomous entity, and that the U.S. would break off its special relationship with Hong Kong.

michael barbaro

Wow.

edward wong

They imposed visa restrictions on a category of students who were associated with military institutions in China. They said that these students can no longer come to the U.S. to do research or study because of suspicions of potential economic espionage. They’ve even floated a proposal internally to block all 92 million members of the Communist Party from traveling to the U.S., as well as their family members, which could encompass hundreds of millions of people. It’s really felt like a moment where the gloves have been taken off in this relationship, and where the people in the administration who want to fundamentally reorient the relationship with China have the upper hand right now.

michael barbaro

Edward, is it possible that, at the end of the day, what you’re describing here and the events of the past couple of weeks, it’s the right strategy for the U.S.? Because China is behaving in ways that fundamentally violate American values, especially in Hong Kong, especially with the Uighurs. And so no matter what motivates Donald Trump to begin confronting China, is that potentially a good thing for the United States?

edward wong

Well, the people who are supportive of the more confrontational approach say that this type of strategy on China is long overdue. Now it’s time to really push back against China on all these fronts, especially at a time when China hasn’t overtaken the U.S. yet as the world’s largest economy and it’s still a rising power. And this is a moment when we have this opening to really reframe the conversation on China, not only U.S., but globally, and sort of rally countries to really confront China on a whole range of issues.

michael barbaro

Right. So basically, this is our last chance?

edward wong

Right. They see it as time running out. Then you’ve got people on the other camp who say, we don’t know where this will end. This starts this downward spiral in relations that starts to erode all the diplomatic ties, economic ties, the people-to-people ties that have kept the relationship firm over the decades, a relationship that’s an unlikely one. You’ve got this close relationship between a Western democracy and an authoritarian state. And somehow, they’ve managed to avoid open conflict. They’ve managed to avoid war. And where could we end up, where could the world end up if we start breaking off those ties now?

michael barbaro

Right. It could end up in a pretty dangerous place.

edward wong

Right.

michael barbaro

So I want to return to where we started this conversation, Edward, which is with the U.S. kicking China out of this consulate in Houston, because it very much seems like this is the capstone to this approach. And I wonder what the response has been from China, and what that tells us about what this dynamic of confrontation is going to start to look like over the next coming months and maybe even years.

edward wong

Well last Friday, we saw China announce that it was going to force the U.S. to shut down its consulate in Chengdu, which is the only diplomatic mission that the U.S. has in Western China. It’s a very critical mission for the U.S., because it allows American officials to observe what’s going on in the vast reaches of that part of the country, including in Tibet, which is a very important issue for the U.S.

The people in Beijing couch this as a reciprocal action. And some people still say that they could have taken a more escalatory step, but that they appear to be willing to hold back and see whether there might be some reset of the relationship if Trump loses the election in November. But even if that were the case, I’m not sure that their orientation of the relationship would change. There might be a temporary halt to the tit-for-tat cycle that we’re seeing. But it feels like because of where the U.S. and China are now in the world, and the entrenched ideological systems in both countries, we might be on course for a long-term confrontation.

archived recording (mike pompeo)

Thank you. Thank you all.

edward wong

And you could hear that a few days ago in this very dark speech that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo gave at the Nixon Library.

archived recording (mike pompeo)

We, the freedom-loving nations of the world, must induce China to change in more creative and assertive ways, because Beijing’s actions threaten our people and our prosperity.

edward wong

He laid out a vision of a potential cold war with China, and said that China was the most challenging foe to the United States.

archived recording (mike pompeo)

Now, people of good faith can debate why free agents allowed these bad things to happen for all these years. Perhaps we were naive about China’s virulent strain of communism, or triumphalist after our victory in the Cold War. Or cravenly capitalist, or hoodwinked by Beijing’s talk of a peaceful rise. Whatever the reason, whatever the reason, today, China is increasingly authoritarian at home and more aggressive in its hostility to freedom everywhere else. And President Trump has said enough.

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michael barbaro

Edward, thank you very much.

edward wong

Thanks a lot, Michael. It’s been great being on the show.

michael barbaro

We’ll be right back.

Here’s what else you need to know today.

archived recording

Mr. Barr, you may begin.

archived recording (william barr)

Good morning, Mr. Chairman, Ranking Member Jordan. I’m pleased to be here this morning. On behalf of the Department of Justice, I want to pay my respects —

michael barbaro

During his first appearance before the House since Democrats took control in 2018, Attorney General Bill Barr was repeatedly challenged over his response to everything from the Russia investigation to nationwide protests over policing.

archived recording (david cicilline)

Is it ever appropriate, sir, for the president to solicit or accept foreign assistance in an election?

archived recording (william barr)

It depends what kind of assistance.

archived recording (david cicilline)

Is it ever appropriate for the president or presidential candidate to accept or solicit foreign assistance of any kind in his or her election?

archived recording (william barr)

No, it’s not appropriate.

archived recording (david cicilline)

OK. Sorry you had to struggle with that one, Mr. Attorney General. Now let’s turn to —

michael barbaro

Several Democratic lawmakers, including Representative Pramila Jayapal of Washington State, demanded to know why Barr had deployed federal agents to Oregon to monitor Black Lives Matter protests, but not to Michigan, where conservatives protested a coronavirus lockdown order.

archived recording (pramila jayapal)

There is a real discrepancy in how you react as the attorney general, the top cop in this country. When white men with swastikas storm a government building with guns, there is no need for the president to quote, “activate you,” because they’re getting the president’s personal agenda done. But when black people and people of color protest police brutality, systemic racism and the president’s very own lack of response to those critical issues, then you forcibly remove them with armed federal officers, pepper bombs, because they are considered terrorists by the president. Did I get it right, Mr. Barr?

archived recording (william barr)

I have responsibility for the federal government, and the White House is the seat of the —

archived recording (pramila jayapal)

Mr. Barr, let me just make it clear —

michael barbaro

And on Tuesday, the nation’s second-largest teachers’ unit, the American Federation of Teachers, announced that it would support members if they choose to go on strike over unsafe school reopenings. The union said that strikes should be a last resort, but the announcement gives local teachers greater leverage in negotiations over the kinds of protections that teachers should have in reopened schools.

[music]

That’s it for “The Daily.” I’m Michael Barbaro. See you tomorrow.

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