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Rising Tensions Between The U.S. And China Go Beyond Trade Dispute


How bad are things with China? And how much worse might they get? Let's review what happened in less than a week.

President Trump set a deadline of September 1 for a trade deal with China. And if no deal is reached, new tariffs will take effect. In response, the Chinese government let its currency weaken. That may soften the impact of those tariffs. And that led the U.S. Treasury Department to formally label China a currency manipulator. And all that is only on the trade front.

Here to discuss what else is flaring up between the U.S. and China is Robert Daly of the Wilson Center.

Welcome back to the program.

ROBERT DALY: Good to be here.

SHAPIRO: So we've been hearing about the trade war week after week for months. How do you see that fitting into the broader U.S.-China relationship right now?

DALY: What we really see now is long-term contentious relations between the United States and China. This is a major development that is going to be worked out most likely over the course of decades. China is now, essentially, a peer competitor to the United States...

SHAPIRO: Meaning it has a comparably sized economy.

DALY: It means it has a comparably sized economy. It is narrowing the gap - military gap - especially in the Western Pacific, where it is using asymmetric tactics that can offset things like our aircraft carriers. China is also an education leader. It is becoming a technological leader. And it's the world's biggest trading nation.

So China is on the move all over the world. And the U.S.-China relationship is not anymore just Beijing to Washington. It's being measured in Africa, in South America, at both poles, in cyberspace and outer space.

SHAPIRO: And is it becoming a more adversarial relationship now because of China's growth, because it suddenly is big enough to really challenge the United States?

DALY: Well, there's a big argument in the United States about this. There's one group of folks who think that engagement policy failed. We engaged with China from 1979 until about 2013 when Xi Jinping came into power. And the idea of engagement was that coevolution was in the American interest as well as in China's interest. And you could bring China along to be a responsible player to some degree.

Many hardliners in the United States government - and outside and including in the expert community - now claim that engagement was a sucker's game and that we have raised up a tiger which could now devour us. But there are different schools of thought about this, and many of us think that we still need to engage with China, albeit more strategically.

SHAPIRO: That image of raising a tiger that will devour us is very dramatic. Is that what we're talking about here? I mean, like, one or the other will triumph?

DALY: I don't think so. I'm actually borrowing from a Chinese phrase - (speaking Chinese) - you don't want to raise up a baby tiger because it grows up. But again, there are people like Steve Bannon and the Committee for the Present Danger: China, which now claim that China is an existential threat to the United States. And they're also claiming that the United States cannot coexist with the Chinese Communist Party, despite the fact that we've been doing so at least since 1949.

So the question is, how do we frame this competition? Is coevolution still possible? Or are we headed for something more like a Cold War scenario with China? And one of the key questions raised by that issue is, do the American people share Washington's alarm? And are they willing to pay long costs - costs over the long term - to compete with China? It isn't clear that they are.

SHAPIRO: You said that some thinkers, including Steve Bannon, think that the U.S. and China cannot coexist. At least in American politics, Steve Bannon is considered on the fringe.

DALY: Yes.

SHAPIRO: Is his view of U.S.-China relations also on the fringe? What is the mainstream view of the way these two countries are going to relate to each other?

DALY: I think the mainstream view can be characterized like this. China is now seen by Republicans and Democrats as our greatest long-term strategic challenge. China really brings the complete suite of capabilities and is trying to develop what it calls comprehensive national power. And that's their word for what we've enjoyed since World War II.

SHAPIRO: There is clearly a Chinese interest in having a good relationship with the U.S. Can you find in there any kernel of hope for the future of the relationship between these two countries?

DALY: Well, right now, there are very few bright spots other than the fact that both nations are determined not to go to war. And there are, in fact, very few...

SHAPIRO: That's good.

DALY: That's good. That's a start.

SHAPIRO: That's good.

DALY: But there are also very few issues that could get us at daggers drawn in the short term. You could have a misunderstanding and miscalculation in the South China Sea. Taiwan remains very concerning.

But overall, to date, there are very few areas in which the United States and China are headed toward conflict with each other. And there is great concern in both capitals that it not get there. But between that observation - that we mustn't go to war - and the growing list of complaints against each other, there is insufficient strategic thinking in both capitals.

SHAPIRO: Robert Daly is director of the Wilson Center's Kissinger Institute on China and the U.S.

Thanks for coming to the studio.

DALY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.