In early August, President Trump snapped. Having stewed for months over its security implications, he finally signed an executive order all but banning Chinese-owned app TikTok from American soil. The US will take “aggressive action” to ensure its swift expulsion.
TikTok is the latest, but not the first, casualty in a new kind of conflict. Shortly before the President’s declaration, Britain summarily banned the Beijing-controlled telecoms firm Huawei from its 5G infrastructure. Under pressure to secure post-Brexit trade, London was following the rest of the ‘Five Eyes’ intelligence community in seeking a wholesale review of Sino-Western relations. China is no longer to be treated as a competitor, but as an adversary.
Beijing is doing little to shake that image. The National Security Law foisted upon Hong Kong is eradicating the last remnants of civil liberty in what was once an oasis from the tyranny of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The ongoing Uighur genocide underscores the atrocious depths of the regime’s inhumanity if left unchecked. Make no mistake, China may not be the victim in this dispute, but Washington isn’t blameless either. Intensifying military exercises in the disputed South China Sea, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared Beijing’s claims to the region “unlawful”. What’s more, the abrupt closure of the Chinese consulate in Houston, Texas, underlines the administration’s unwillingness to negotiate. Both sides have made a deliberate effort to freeze out the other.
Have we seen this all before? The New York Times certainly think so. Warning starkly that “a new geopolitical era is dawning”, they pinpoint an “ideological spiral” reminiscent of the opening years of the Cold War. The Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison even speculated that an armed conflict between the two superpowers is no longer inconceivable, fuelling worry that a catastrophic repeat of the Cold War may be upon us.
Pompeo’s track record does nothing to ease these fears. The United States top diplomat has spent his tenure attempting to carve the grooves of the Cold War into Sino-American relations. Antagonising Beijing had become his pet project, with his ‘Clean Network’ initiative spearheading the assaults on Huawei and TikTok. It was also him that declared China’s maritime claims in the South China Sea unlawful.
Nowhere was the Secretary of State’s belligerence clearer than in a speech delivered at the Nixon Presidential Library in late July. Quoting the landmark’s namesake, he proclaimed: “The world cannot be safe until China changes…our goal should be to induce change,” The message was clear: the US must wage an ideological conflict against the CCP, with Pompeo at the helm. The irony of his address could not be more glaring. Nixon sought to “induce change” through a cautious unlocking of relations suspended since the Chinese Civil War, but Pompeo seeks to do so through reckless provocation of the kind Nixon knew to be defunct. While Nixon’s ‘Ping Pong Diplomacy’ opened China to the world, Pompeo’s ‘TikTok Diplomacy’ threatens to shut it.
His intransigence risks triggering a cataclysmic confrontation. Earlier this year, the US assassinated Iranian General Qasem Soleimani, widely considered to be Iran’s second most powerful official. Soleimani’s death triggered uproar in Tehran and an outpouring of national grief which, ironically, strengthened the ailing theocracy. Any progress made by the Obama administration’s nuclear deal in warming relations between the two states was undone with the push of a button.
And it was Pompeo who led the charge, urging Trump to order the assassination with little regard for the President’s misgivings at his previous attempts to provoke Tehran. With an anonymous senior official divulging “Mike is the one leading it in the cabinet”, Pompeo’s ideological vice on Trump’s foreign policy looks secure. Left unchecked, it is a matter of time until he begets disaster, this time with a far more powerful foe.
However, there is method in his apparent madness. For one, there can be little doubt of Pompeo’s genuine concern for the victims of Beijing’s authoritarianism. His frustration at previous administrations’ inability to counter the CCP’s tightening grip on both its own citizens and the world was made clear with his steering through fresh sanctions. Pompeo is also conscious of the consequences of neglecting China’s strategy to extend its influence through foreign investment. In the UN Human Rights Council, 53 states defied Washington to support the draconian Hong Kong National Security Law. Keen to check Beijing’s growing influence, it was Pompeo, not Trump, who flew to London to meet with the Conservative Party’s anti-CCP caucus, the ‘China Research Group’. From his perspective, relations with China are steeped in moral imperatives.
The same cannot be said of the President. Without the shackles of Pompeo’s convictions, the leader of the free world treats China as a corporate rival rather than an ideological nemesis. Notably, Trump has imposed punitive tariffs on Chinese goods designed to protect American manufacturing. Trump is taking diplomacy straight from the boardroom, even demanding a cut of Microsoft’s potential purchase of TikTok, which Chinese state media dismissed as “theft”.
The repercussions of this game of business cannot be downplayed. The average American family has lost $1,000 a year to higher prices since the imposition of Trump’s tariffs. What’s more, the president’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement has left a vacuum of economic leadership in Asia which China has filled, costing Americans billions in lost trade.
Trump’s actions don’t just harm the nation he heads. Where Pompeo’s approach seeks to coerce American allies into line, Trump’s threatens to leave the world’s democracies undermined not only economically, but morally too. Through contemptuously flouting the rule of law, the president leaves the ground fertile for Chinese (and of course, Russian) authoritarianism to seize the mantle of global leadership, and the results of such a paradigm shift I could not bear conceiving.
The dissonance in the West Wing is palpable, and it crystallises in the TikTok ban. While his Secretary of State’s ‘Clean Network’ campaign fronted the decision, Trump signed off on it for entirely non-ideological reasons. He did so to ensure American technological supremacy, not the downfall of Chinese communism. Where the President seeks to follow a corporate agenda, Pompeo seeks to drag him into an ideological quagmire.
That is not to lambast the Secretary of State’s moral convictions. The genocidal atrocities Beijing is committing in Xinjiang serve as a constant reminder of the pressing need for a coordinated international response. The CCP is unequivocally not the victim of this dispute.
Yet that does not licence such brash and incoherent policy. Both Trump and Pompeo’s approaches imperil not only the US, but the entire democratic world. One threatens to abandon America’s allies in pursuit of a small-minded nationalism, while the other threatens a disastrous reversal of all the progress made since Nixon, and a return to the darkest years of the Cold War. But we are not there yet. For now, two very different Cold Wars are brewing.