In this year of dashed hopes, few have been more significant than a US-China rapprochement. The two countries signed a Phase One trade agreement in January. President Donald Trump also praised Xi Jinping’s handling of the then-nascent coronavirus. The way seemed open for what cynics in Washington suggested was Mr Trump’s plan all along. He would claim eventual “victory” on trade, however spuriously, credit his tough line against Beijing and ride a grateful stock market to re-election.
This was just seven months ago. It feels like an eternity. Last week, the US closed the Chinese consulate in Houston, citing intellectual-property theft. China has responded in kind to a US diplomatic mission in Chengdu. There have been vicious recriminations over the source of Covid-19, which Mr Trump refers to as the “Chinese virus”.
Most ominously of all, Washington’s complaint about China has expanded from its trade practices (which animated Mr Trump upon his election in 2016) to its authoritarian mode of government. Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state, calls the rival superpower a menace to the “free world”. Such language will take many readers back to the cold war.
Until now, talk of a repeat of that conflict has seemed over the top. America and the Soviet Union fell out over rather more than a current-account imbalance, after all, or even a technological race. It was a clash of incompatible ideologies. Each side wanted to maximise the share of the world that subscribed to its model, or at least remained nonaligned.
The US and China are not there yet, but the direction of travel is unmistakable. Their squabbles are much wider ranging than at the start of the Trump administration, and touch on values as much as material interests. Within China, western liberal democracy is increasingly cited as What Not To Do — a clear inferior to Chinese statism and one-party rule. Since America’s botched response to the pandemic, this argument has been easier to land.
As for the US itself, Mr Pompeo’s philosophical objection to the Chinese way of rule is not unique to him or even to Republicans. Lots of Democrats — who might, in Joe Biden, provide the next president — want to confront China over its treatment of minorities and of protesters in Hong Kong. Crucially, both America and China suspect the other of trying to make its system universal.
The US is in some ways catching up with China whose domestic rhetoric under Mr Xi has long been of an ideological clash with the west. To an extent, the US shift is welcome. It has led to the airing of subjects, such as the rights of Uighurs, that had been obscure in the west.
But it also implies a conflict that is open-ended and intractable. As nasty as trade wars are, differences can be split and accommodations arrived at. First principles are not so amenable to compromise. If the US and China come to see each other’s systems as inherently wrong, it is not clear what there is to discuss. There is no ideological equivalent of a Phase One agreement. The US-Soviet schism only ended when one side collapsed entirely.
Because it was concluded bloodlessly, and in the west’s favour, that half-century showdown is sometimes romanticised now. But the cold war often turned hot: in Vietnam, Korea, Afghanistan and elsewhere. It also caused two human generations to live under nuclear dread. The stakes of another ideological confrontation should not be lost on either the US or China. How strange to think that the tariff wars of recent years might come to seem like the good old days.
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