The Daily

Confronting China

A cooperative relationship with China has been a pillar of U.S. foreign policy for more than half a century. So why does the Trump administration think it’s time for a change? Guest: Edward Wong, a diplomatic correspondent for The New York Times. For more information on today’s episode, visit nytimes.com/thedaily Background reading: Why top aides to President Trump want to leave a lasting legacy of ruptured diplomatic ties between China and the United States.

00:00:00
From The New York Times, I'm Michael Barbaro, this is The Daily. 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.
00:00:32
It's Wednesday, July 29th. Edward, can you tell me what happened in Houston last week? 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 there 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 right now with 10 break.
00:01:10
And then Houston firefighters and police responding to the Chinese consulate in Montrose after reports of a fire crews were called to the building on. In the evening, I started seeing these videos of people burning things in metal barrels and open metal barrels.
00:01:30
And there was video of fire trucks and police cars surrounding the consulate with their lights on, so it's quite a dramatic scene. And local media were reporting that documents appeared to be being burned in the courtyard of that building.
00:01:46
Think, 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've gotten that the Chinese ambassador have been told to shut down the U.S. consulate within three days was indeed true.
00:02:10
Q Josh, a year on July the 21st, the U.S. abruptly asked China to close its consulate in Houston.
00:02:16
And within hours, the Chinese foreign ministry confirmed that in Beijing.
00:02:21
We urge the U.S. to reverse this incorrect decision immediately. Otherwise, China will definitely take necessary actions. And why would the US take this pretty significant move of kicking these Chinese diplomats out of this consulate in Texas?
00:02:41
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.
00:03:10
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.
00:03:28
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. Right?
00:03:40
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.
00:03:53
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, to factions of advisors 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. What do you mean? On one side, you had the ones wanting to confront China in part over trade and also in part over national security matters.
00:04:26
You had Peter Navarro, who's a White House trade adviser.
00:04:29
How do you work with a country that lies through its teeth who wrote a book called Death by China?
00:04:36
Right. And then you also had Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
00:04:40
They very much want to undermine our Western values, all the things that we hold most dear.
00:04:45
And those people saw China as a threat to America. And then on the more cooperative side, you have, for example, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.
00:04:55
We need to work together to maximize the benefit for both sides, 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 have benefited American consumers. And Ed, when it comes to those who want to confront China, when it comes to the Navarros and the Mike Pumphouse, what is their case for why China is such a threat to the US and should be reined in?
00:05:34
Well, they argue that China presents a range of strategic threats to the US, 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.
00:06:14
Am I right to think that from the start of this presidency, the confrontation camp more or less prevailed?
00:06:21
Well, it's complicated. The first big blow to the U.S. China relationship under the Trump administration was in mid 2018.
00:06:29
We're going to have some incredible things.
00:06:31
We're just announcing very big tariffs today on China because China has been when President Trump started putting tariffs on billions of dollars of goods made in China. China retaliated by doing the same on American goods.
00:06:47
So here's what they would do.
00:06:48
They target farm products such as soybean cars, seafood, and then just spiral downward from their medical equipment, energy products. That would start a little bit. As a US China trade war escalates, business leaders have been speaking up. FedEx.
00:07:01
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.
00:07:11
The escalating trade battle between the US and China is rocking investors around the world and created a lot of instability in the stock markets, which Trump watches closely.
00:07:21
And some farmers in the US say the disruption of normal trade with China has forced many of them to go bankrupt.
00:07:28
Important groups of voters which supported Trump, for example, farmers in the Midwest were starting to suffer.
00:07:34
I was a Trump voter. I voted for the president, certainly, but he certainly hasn't come through.
00:07:40
He's lost on trade. He's lost on trade.
00:07:42
And certainly he saw agricultural products like corn and soybeans piling up in the Midwest because China had impose tariffs on their end to strike back at Trump.
00:07:53
So I won't be voting for the president again. So Trump and some of his economic advisers, especially those who were preaching more cooperation on 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, their.
00:08:20
And so what do they do, these cooperation camp folks who are not happy with this trade war? 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.
00:08:40
And in each of these, Trump sort of cozies up to see 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.
00:08:53
Like what? In one conversation, according to John Bolton, the former national security adviser, Trump encouraged me to actually continue building internment camps for Muslims in the northwest of China and sort of signal that this wasn't a big issue for him. These are the wiggers. These are the we are 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.
00:09:23
And while Trump's national security aides are supportive of them, Trump himself tells me privately in a phone call that he 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 about those protests either.
00:09:42
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.
00:09:51
Right, exactly. And ultimately, in December, they reach a tentative agreement and then they sign 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 return 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 hard line policies they have pushed for in the first half of the administration for the sake of just trying to get a marginal increase in agricultural purchases.
00:10:34
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. See in a conversation that he 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.
00:11:13
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?
00:11:31
Well, what changes things is this pandemic that starts in central China and spreads across the globe.
00:11:41
That sets the two powers on a much more confrontational course. We'll be right back. Upworthy is the world's largest network of proven remote talent devs, UI designers, writers, strategists, you name it, whatever skills your scope demands up work is how Prouse available short a long term, one time or as often as you need them. And they're proven, rated and reviewed. Need to find coders outside your area code and specialist for six weeks, or a designer or writer for six months.
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00:12:30
I'm Wendie Door and I'm an editor on The Daily. For most of my adult life, I thought of The New York Times as a giant news machine that spit out news stories all day long, kind of like a vending machine. And I'm embarrassed to say that it wasn't really until I came to work here at the Times that I started to think about the reporters behind those news stories and what it takes to get the story in the first place. Sometimes these reporters risk their lives.
00:12:57
Sometimes they talk to us at 2:00 in the morning. Sometimes they call us from a war zone.
00:13:02
And not only do they tell us what's happening on the ground wherever they are, but they also give us the context that we need to understand it. If you like hearing from these reporters every day, which I know I do, the one thing that you can do to support them and the Daily is to subscribe to The New York Times. If you'd like to do that, go to NY Times dot com subscribe. I spoke with President Xi, we had a great talk, he's working very hard, I have to say.
00:13:33
He's working very, very hard.
00:13:35
So in the first weeks after the virus started spreading around the globe, Trump was still praising Xi publicly.
00:13:41
If you know anything about him, I think he'll be in pretty good shape there. 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.
00:13:54
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. That negotiated a truce.
00:14:03
But by the spring, we got hit by the virus that came from China.
00:14:09
Trump was laying into China publicly for what had happened. You know, the pandemic had spread into all corners of the US. The economy was in shambles. Trump was seeking his re-election chances, starting to go down the drain.
00:14:23
And we continue our relentless effort to defeat the Chinese virus.
00:14:29
Why do you keep using this? Because it comes from to racist. It's not racist at all, no matter if it comes from China. This one comes from China to be accurate.
00:14:39
And so his campaign strategists came up with this idea that they can try and shift the conversation to China rather than having people focus 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 starting to lose. Some of his top advisers started speculating whether the virus might have started from a lab accident.
00:15:05
I can tell you that there is a significant amount of evidence that this came from that laboratory and one, even though there is no evidence for that.
00:15:12
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? Yes, I have. Yes, I have.
00:15:23
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.
00:15:33
China's cover up of the Wuhan virus allowed the disease to spread all over the world, instigating a global pandemic.
00:15:45
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.
00:15:57
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.
00:16:39
And how does China respond to these attacks from Trump and from his advisers? So what we're hearing the spring is Chinese officials denouncing the US 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 US and China also then start to try and send out aid to other countries.
00:17:14
It starts sending shipments of, for example, medical supplies, medical equipment, facemasks to other countries around the world and even to parts of the US to try and sort of mask over its own responsibility for how the outbreak began in its country. Mm hmm. So the relationship between the two powers is bad and then it got worse. 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 in the late spring.
00:17:49
Chinese officials start talking about this new national security law that they want to impose on Hong Kong, while this is something that has sent shockwaves across the city.
00:17:57
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.
00:18:05
The legislation has faced sharp criticism from governments all around the world and sparked new protests in Hong Kong.
00:18:12
And so this continues the downward spiral that US China relations have been on.
00:18:21
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.
00:18:33
That's right. As you recall, they were very upset at Trump for putting the Hong Kong issue on the back burner 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.
00:19:04
They said that Hong Kong was no longer an autonomous entity and that the US would break off its special relationship with Hong Kong while they impose 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 US to do research or study because of suspicions of potential economic espionage. They've even floated a proposal internally to block all ninety two million members of the Communist Party from traveling to the US as well as their family members, which could encompass hundreds of millions of people.
00:19:43
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. 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 wiggers.
00:20:18
And so no matter what motivates Donald Trump to begin confronting China, is that potentially a good thing for the United States?
00:20:27
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 has overtaken the US 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 us, but globally and sort of rally countries to really confront China on a whole range of issues.
00:21:00
So basically, this is our last chance, right? They see it as time running out. Then you've got people in the other camp who say, we don't know where this will end, this start 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 unlikely when you've got this close relationship between a Western democracy and an authoritarian state.
00:21:28
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? Right. It could end up in a pretty dangerous place. Right. So I want to return to where we started this conversation, Edward, which is with the US kicking China out of its consulate in Houston, because it very much seems like this is the capstone to this approach.
00:21:57
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.
00:22:10
Well, last Friday, we saw China announced 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 US.
00:22:33
The people in Beijing couched 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.
00:23:03
But it feels like because of where the US 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. Thank you.
00:23:17
Thank you all. 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.
00:23:26
We, the freedom loving nations of the world, must induce China to change more creative and assertive ways because Beijing's actions threaten our people and our prosperity.
00:23:36
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.
00:23:44
Now, people of good faith can debate why free nations allowed these bad things to happen for all these years. Perhaps we were naive about China's virulent strain of communism or triumphalists 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. President Trump has said enough. Ed, thank you very much.
00:24:29
Thanks a lot, Michael. It's been great being on the show. We'll be right back. Your personal information needs to only be in your wallet or a safe deposit box. Now it's on your smartphone computer practically everywhere, leaving you vulnerable to cyber threats. Norton 360 with LifeLock provides all in one protection with device security, identity theft protection and a VPN for online privacy. No one can prevent all cybercrime and identity theft, but Norton 360 with LifeLock is your ally for cyber safety.
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Sign up today and save 25 percent off your first year. Go to Norton dot com slash daily. Here's what else you need to know, Mr. Barr, you may begin. Good morning, Chairman, Ranking Member Jordan. I'm pleased to be here this morning.
00:25:27
On behalf of the Department of Justice, I want to pay my respects during his first appearance before the House since Democrats took control in twenty eighteen. Attorney General Bill Barr was repeatedly challenged over his response to everything from the Russia investigation to nationwide protests over policing.
00:25:48
Is it ever appropriate for the president to solicit or accept foreign assistance in an election? What kind of assistance is it ever appropriate for the president or presidential candidate to accept or solicit foreign assistance of any kind in his or her election? No, it's not appropriate. OK, I'm sorry you had to struggle with that one, Mr. Attorney General. Now let's turn to several Democratic lawmakers, including Representative Pramila Jiah Paul 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.
00:26:36
There is a real discrepancy in how you react as the attorney general, the top cop in this country when white men with swastikas stormed 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.
00:27:15
Don't get it right, Mr. Barr.
00:27:17
I have responsibility for the federal government and the White House is the seat of Mr. Barr. Let me. And on Tuesday, the nation's second largest teachers union, 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. That's it for the daily unlikeable Borro see tomorrow.
00:28:11
As a surgeon and president of Howard University, Dr. Wayne Frederick believes even our toughest times can lead to strength and change.
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