2020: US-CHINA RELATIONS IN REVIEW
Taking you through the most important themes, trends, and events of Sino-American affairs in 2020, one of the most consequential years for the relationship in recent history.
At the beginning of 2020, the trade war between the US and China appeared to be de-escalating as the US removed China’s designation as a currency manipulator, and the Phase One trade deal with China was finally signed. While the Phase One trade deal did not address some major sticking points, it signaled a truce in commercial hostilities. China also made several concessions to the US, the largest being China’s commitment to buying $200 billion more US goods and services over the next two years. However, China was soon forced to turn its attention to containing various COVID-19 outbreaks. The economic impact of lockdowns and other government efforts to contain the virus sparked doubt about China’s ability to meet its ambitious commitments, which could damage the long-term outlook of the trade deal.
As we all know, the COVID-19 pandemic defined 2020, causing a public health crisis that spurred economic decline and upheaval of daily routines across the world. COVID-19’s origin is believed to be Wuhan, China, and on January 31st, President Trump banned all flights from the country. President Trump and members of the administration began labeling COVID-19 as the “China virus” and the “Wuhan flu,” lambasting China for the pandemic. Using such labels and rhetoric politicized the issue further, increasing domestic tensions and decreasing the likelihood of global cooperation in handling it. The United States also withdrew from the World Health Organization (WHO) during the pandemic, due to what the Administration viewed as undue favoritism toward Beijing, labeling the WHO as “Beijing’s puppet.” In China, where life had already returned to relative normalcy by the spring, nationalism and anti-Americanism strengthened. Similarly, in the United States, anti-Chinese sentiment grew exponentially in the first months of the year. At the end of 2020, both Chinese citizens and American citizens viewed the opposing superpower with an overwhelmingly negative stance.
The opening months of 2020 also saw the US and China further restrict journalistic access from one another, beginning with the US deeming five major Chinese state-run media organizations, including big names Xinhua, China Global Television Network (under CCTV), and the distributor for the People’s Daily in the US, as foreign missions, along with imposing visa restrictions on journalists. As foreign missions, the US didn’t ban but recognized these agencies as essentially under the control of the Chinese Communist Party, and operating with its interests in mind. In retaliation, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs expelled 13 journalists representing important US media sources, namely the New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal. The effect of tightening access for Chinese journalists in America and American journalists in China, not to mention citizens in general as a result of COVID-19, has certainly facilitated the ability for harsher rhetoric. Past condemning language, it has restricted US access into the undertakings of an already secretive Chinese regime, and set a precedent built upon throughout 2020, and likely into the future.
April 3: Hong Kong government introduces amendments to the extradition laws that would allow criminal suspects to be sent to mainland China for trial.
April 7: The U.S. State Department condemned China's sinking of a Vietnamese fishing vessel near the Paracel Islands. Washington accused Beijing of capitalizing on the global COVID-19 crisis to aggressively assert maritime claims in the South China Sea.
April 8: Wuhan ends its lockdown after 76 days.
April 30: Trump claims COVID-19 originated in Chinese lab.
May 3: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says China is responsible for the spread and severity of COVID-19 and should be held responsible.
May 15: Department of Commerce issues rule to bar Huawei from use of American tech and software.
May 22: China unveils new national security legislation against Hong Kong at its annual legislative session.
May 27: Mike Pompeo says Hong Kong no longer has autonomy from China, doesn't merit special trade relationship, in note to Congress.
May 30: Concessions to the Hong Kong extradition bill are introduced.
June 15: Hong Kong Extradition bill is indefinitely delayed.
June 17: Trump signs legislation mandating that individuals would face sanctions for oppressing Uighurs
After securing its interests in Hong Kong through the National Security Law, China set its sights on its next great source of embarrassment- a US-friendly Taiwan. In traditional fashion, China stonewalled Taiwan from participating in WHO meetings despite Taiwan’s extraordinary success in containing the spread of the pandemic. While China regularly sends around 2000 bomber patrols annually through the straits as an intimidation tactic, each year they have been taking more threatening routes. This year, the US promised Taiwan 4.8Bn in arms, sent marines to train the Taiwanese military, praised Taiwan’s COVID-19 response, and arranged a high-level meeting to ink out a 5-year agreement. All of this has left China visibly irritated, as the burgeoning security relationship between the Republic of China and the United States is both shifting the status quo and threatening Chinese leadership. China responded with fighter jets and by launching “Grey Zone” warfare against Taiwan in the straits. US official arms negotiations and visits to the island are the first since 1979 and symbolize the importance of Taiwan in the ideological battlefield of the Sino-US relationship. Many experts have noted that US military assistance to Taiwan is a ticking time bomb that may be the trigger for reunification.
During the summer, economic relations between the US and China were filled with uncertainty. Delays in the review of the trade deal and mixed messages from the Trump administration led to growing concerns about the outlook of US-China economic relations. While President Trump signaled continued support for the Phase One trade deal, he was disinclined to pursue talks for the second phase of the trade deal because of growing tensions between the two countries regarding China’s early handling of the pandemic. The second phase of the trade deal was intended to tackle some of the more difficult issues that had led to the trade war in the first place. In the context of China’s struggling economy and growing tensions with the US, Xi Jinping called for a greater focus on growing the domestic market to decrease China’s dependence on foreign firms, technology, and markets.
In 2020, one of the most public indications of US-China Relations’ changing nature existed in the tech industry, most notably, the attempted US bans of TikTok and WeChat led by the Trump Administration. Following a hardening stance on Chinese business and tech operation in the United States, encapsulated by the Trump Administration's push to eradicate domestic and foreign market use of Chinese technology through the clean network, restrictions, and potential bans on TikTok and ubiquitous Chinese super-app WeChat were proposed. The Administration became concerned with security threats posed by these apps, which are owned and operated by China-based companies ByteDance and Tencent respectively. Although the bans have been thwarted by judicial action in the United States and attempts by the parent companies to accommodate US desires, the development thrust US-China competition into--quite literally--billions of people’s attention, irrefutably changing the public dynamic and strategic toolkit of both superpowers.
Joe Biden after delivering a speech at Sichuan University in Chengdu in southwestern China's Sichuan province, August 21, 2011. /AP
October 5: Chinese military media are told to steer clear of covering US election stories.
October 18: Chinese coastal missile bases were rumored to be upgraded and equipped with a new advanced hypersonic missile.
October 19: China top leadership develops Fourteenth Five Year Plan (2021~2025).
October 21: $1.8 billion arms sales to Taiwan approved by US.
November 12: The 30th-anniversary celebration of Shanghai Pudong's Development.
November 15: 15 including China but not US- nations sign Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership.
December 1: China begins to enforce 'controlled exports' restriction, preventing foreign companies from purchasing select technological and military products.
December 7: Second US Federal Court Judge overturns ban on TikTok.
December 17: Trump administration trade representative Robert Lighthizer claims "Trade wars are good, and easy to win".
December 31: New York Stock exchange bans three Chinese telecom SEOs from trading.
December 31: Xi Jinping gives customary New Year's Address, focusing on China's 'epic' pandemic response and anti-poverty policy.
January 1: Huanan wet market is shut down after it is believed to be the location of animal to human disease transmission.
January 13: The US drops China’s currency manipulator label.
January 21: US CDC announces first US COVID-19 case.
January 23: Wuhan lockdown begins at 10 AM. However, around 300,000 left Wuhan between the announcement of lockdown and the start.
February 14: China halves tariffs on $75 billion of US imports.
February 16: Lockdown of entire Hubei Province, forced quarantine measure for anyone entering Beijing.
February 18: US State Department labels major Chinese news network as ‘foreign missions’.
February 19: China expels three Wall Street Journal journalists.
March 12: Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Zhao Lijian indicates in a tweet that it may have been the US army who “brought the epidemic to Wuhan.”
March 16: For the first time, Trump used the term “Chinese Virus” to refer to COVID-19.
March 18: China expels over thirteen U.S. journalists from major newspapers, New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal.
May brought a glimpse of the tech cold war between the Trump administration and Beijing. The race for 5G tech pushed China in the lead as its use of 5G infrastructure was utilized during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, while the US fell behind and lost its position to lead the new technological era. But tech tensions rose due to a rule change from the US Department of Commerce that would bar Huawei, China’s leading telecom-equipment maker, and its suppliers from using US tech and software in September 2020. The USDOC’s previous run in with the Chinese firm in 2019 had it added to an “entity list” that barred US product exports to the firm and its suppliers, reflecting US concerns of threats towards national security and intelligence. Yet with the US issuing these stricter restrictions in both 2019 and 2020, the efforts to collaborate on 5G technology proved to be difficult with Beijing under fire with COVID-19 accusations from Trump. Needless to say, investors have got more to look out for during this pandemic.
The arrests of prominent pro-democracy protesters and a total crackdown on Hong Kong not only worsened US-China relations but also alerted other democratic nations, notably the United Kingdom. The situation in Hong Kong was intensely embarrassing for the CCP, evoking images of Tiananmen Square. To experts and international observers the crushing response, in spite of the severe sanctions imposed by the Trump administration, did not come as a surprise. With all the classic repressive strategies enabled, the Hong Kong legislations of spring 2020 marked the end of a year of protests and death to the democratic hopes of nearly eight million people. With Trump revoking Hong Kong’s special status, it became clear that Hong Kong was never important enough to be a flashpoint in the US-China relationship. The same cannot be said for Taiwan.
Political tension between the US and China surged throughout the pandemic and was notably exacerbated by the Trump Administration’s response. Despite praising China’s early containment efforts and “transparency” regarding the virus, the President's subsequent attacks on Beijing’s culpability were received by China as a personal affront. As Covid-19 began to pose a serious threat to Americans, influenced by both the President’s shifting viewpoints and controversial claims circulating around the internet, conspiracy theories about the virus’s origins sparked. The result: Chinese public perception of the US reported as “significantly more negative” than in 2019. As the US and China faced increasing cases, deaths, and economic consequences, both Trump and Xi were able to use criticism of the other to redirect negative attention away from the country’s domestic troubles.
Lam Yik Fei/NYTimes
June 22: US designates US operations of Chinese news services as foreign missions.
June 29: The US ends exports of US-origin defense equipment to Hong Kong, effectively designates Hong Kong as China.
June 30: China passes National Security Law.
July 9: The US imposes visa/asset restrictions on officials linked to abuses in Xinjiang.
July 13: The US says China has no legal grounds for most claims in the South China Sea, as the first instance of a firm stance on this issue.
July 14: China sanctions Lockheed Martin for the involvement of US arms sales to Taiwan.
July 22: The US orders closure of the Chinese consulate in Houston. The US consulate in Chengdu is closed soon afterwards.
July 23: Mike Pompeo relays official state policy towards China as "Distrust and Verify".
August 5: Mike Pompeo announced a new effort to protect US telecom infrastructure as part of the Clean Network Program.
August 6: President Trump signs executive order to ban WeChat and TikTok.
August 13: The US State Department labels China’s Confucius Institute as a “foreign mission” of the People’s Republic of China.
August 18: President Trump announces that he decided to postpone talks with China regarding the trade deal, stating he did not “want to talk to China right now.”
September 1: From April to September, the US issued just 808 visas for Chinese students, a 99% decline from 2019.
September 15: Oracle confirms it reached a deal with TikTok to become its “technology partner.”
September 19: Almost 40 warplanes breach Taiwan Strait median line; Taiwan president calls it a 'threat of force'.
September 20: Federal court judge blocks Trump administration's WeChat Ban.
On October 19th, the 19th Central Committee of the Communist Party of China published the 14th Five Year Plan, laying the groundwork for new frontiers in foreign and domestic policies. Among the most consequential goals for this omnibus policy plan are achieving carbon neutrality by 2060, sponsoring the world’s premiere central bank virtual currency, and expanding the development of the “One Belt, One Road” initiative. In a communique released ahead of the three-day conference, the CCP highlighted immense successes from the past five years in poverty alleviation and public health. Overwhelmingly, the key characteristics of the 14th Five Year Plan concern scientific and technological development and improving internal supply chains, thus leading to greater economic self-sufficiency. That being said, conspicuously absent were more political-oriented plans strengthening national security, addressing heating tension with Taiwan, and explicitly addressing the trade war with the US. Overall, this Five Year Plan is exceedingly vital to the future of US-China relations as China seeks to distance itself from an export-based relationship with the US in light of the trade war. With China’s pioneering status in the green energy, healthcare, and cryptocurrency sectors, an incoming Biden administration and foreign investors should expect a new ‘in China, for China’ attitude.
This year has been a political rollercoaster, to say the least. A controversial US election, increasingly antagonistic public opinion, and congressional infiltration have proven pivotal for the US-China relationship. The 2020 US Presidential Election realized the peak of this political volatility, resulting in a contentious victory for Democratic nominee, Joe Biden. Thanks in part to the Trump Administration, ‘tough on China’ oriented rhetoric is likely to remain the bipartisan default for US foreign policy. In his own words, President-Elect Biden plans to “get tough with China'' on issues from censorship to climate to trade, in an effort to maintain, what some have deemed, a “cold peace” between the two nations. Chinese officials are hopeful for a Biden presidency and see the new leadership as a chance to “restore normalcy” to US-China relations.
Thousands gathered on New Year's Eve to celebrate what was a highly anticipated night, in none other than Wuhan, China - the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic. This event serves as a reminder of the immense progress global leaders have made in regards to the pandemic but also a stern reminder of the obstacles, desperate to be surmounted. While cooperation between the US and China has been sparse, the two superpowers have done more than enough to fast track their own vaccine programs. Although, these hopeful vaccine developments have been undermined by the fact that vaccine distribution is unlikely to outpace, or even keep up with, case rates for months to come. The fall has seen vast improvements in terms of global health, but both the US and China have a long way to go, seeing as even a common enemy has failed to bring the two nations any closer together, arguably only furthering the divide.
LOOKING AHEAD INTO 2021
The new US Administration has already acknowledged the crucial importance of US-China relations, and Joe Biden does not plan on going “easy” on China. One key indicator of the President’s position on China is his hand picked team- none of whom have any interest in giving unnecessary leeway to China. This is not to say that we won’t see change- we will, but it will be methodical and not in all directions. Some of Trump’s China policy is likely to remain. What will change, however, is the policy making process, which, during the Biden administration, will strive to be more pragmatic, carefully calculated, and compromising in nature. As for China, the plan is simple, keep on keeping on. Steady GDP growth and consistent extension of international olive branches will likely be the hallmark of a strongly positioned China in 2021.
Heading into 2021, there will be significant barriers to amicable relations between the US and China, as America remains overburdened with the pandemic and endemic internal division. President Biden seeks to re-enter international organizations, such as the already re-entered World Health Organization, in an attempt to tackle COVID-19 with the help of international institutions. Conversely, China has done well in mitigating the effects of COVID-19. Despite recent breakouts, Chinese public health isn’t likely to be a large issue for the country, however legal inquiries and international investigations into the virus’s origin are a different story.
Upon inauguration, President Biden immediately faced a unique set of geopolitical challenges, left unfinished by the Trump administration. Among these, South-East Asian territories like Hong Kong and Taiwan will be of great concern. On Saturday, January 9, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced he was lifting self-imposed US restrictions on Taiwanese officials. With the Trump administration out of the picture, this is likely to spell early tension between Biden and Xi. Recognizing Taiwan is seen by China as an act of “cowardly sabotage,” and perceived as a direct threat to Beijing’s sovereignty. In order to keep things cool, despite domestic US support for the island nation, President Biden will have to walk a thin line, likely meaning strict maintenance of the precedent set by the Trump administration without further escalation. As for China, no sudden changes are expected to take shape, but the “One Belt One Road Initiative” is still in full force and international expansion will continue to be the theme of Chinese geopolitical grand strategy.
It will take time for the Biden administration to repair the US’s trade relationship with the EU and Beijing, if that ends up being its goal, but with China growing at 6% even during the pandemic, it will be a key development. The US may also follow the EU and engage in investment protection practices. In tandem with China’s ever expanding geopolitical ambitions, the nation's exports are also likely to steadily keep increasing. In addition to this international growth, according to China’s latest central planning plenum, the country also plans to emphasize domestic growth in a more targeted manner. This means that while international trade will continue to be a sticking point for the Biden administration and a bright spot for Beijing, China will be more likely to focus its efforts on domestic productivity.
Written by Zack Rosenfeld, Aedan Yohannan, Medha Prasanna, Maya Crowden, Cameron Cayer, Ishani Chettri, and Sam Horner