President Donald Trump’s bet that he could tame China’s rise through a mix of personal charisma and dealmaking prowess has faltered in the fourth year of his presidency – giving way to the most hostile period of bilateral relations in decades and a pitched conflict that could endure for a generation.
Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping – who toasted their first meeting at Mar-a-Lago in 2017 over what Trump boasted was “the most beautiful piece of chocolate cake” – have not spoken since March. Tensions over the coronavirus pandemic have exposed Trump’s claims of friendship with Xi, the most ruthless leader since Mao Zedong, as expedient and hollow.
Trump was on the precipice of declaring victory with his China strategy as recently as January, when he hosted senior Communist Party officials in a White House celebration of a modest trade pact. But the president has since shifted to attacking Beijing as an even greater danger than he suggested in 2016, when he said China had been allowed “to rape our country” on the march to becoming an economic powerhouse.
In a recorded address to the U.N. General Assembly in September from the White House’s Diplomatic Reception Room, Trump declared that, 75 years after World War II, fellow nations were again waging a “great global struggle,” this time against “the invisible enemy – the China virus.”
“We must hold accountable the nation which unleashed this plague onto the world: China,” he said.
White House aides liken the situation to President Ronald Reagan’s approach to the Soviet Union before its collapse, while Trump’s critics warn that he’s created a dangerously tense relationship born not of an overarching strategy but out of a chaotic and undisciplined style that has defined many aspects of his presidency.