BEIJING — With or without a trade deal, US-China relations are destined to deteriorate as they enter an era of increasingly nationalistic rivalry in the diplomatic and economic arena, according to analysts.
The United States faces a growing challenge to its lone superpower status from a Communist-ruled China whose global influence, military might and high-tech capabilities are rapidly rising.
The toughening stances on both sides in their trade war showed that the two powers are ready to play hardball to protect their national interests.
President Donald Trump followed through Friday on a threat to target all remaining Chinese exports with tariffs, then warned Saturday any trade deal would be “far worse for (China) if it has to be negotiated in my second term”.
Beijing said it would make no concessions on core principles, even as the two sides eye more talks.
There are many other sources of tension ripe for flare-ups: US military aid to self-ruled Taiwan, Chinese territorial claims in the disputed South China Sea, US criticism of Beijing’s Belt and Road global infrastructure programme, and US security warnings against Chinese telecom champion Huawei.
“US-China relations are continuing their steady deterioration, which I think is an inevitable consequence of national interests that are starting to overlap and bump into each other and cause friction,” said Jonathan Sullivan, a China specialist at the University of Nottingham.
“Despite the Trump wild card factor, I would suggest that the current trade war is a symbol of things to come.”
The downward spiral coincides with increasing top-level nationalism in both countries.
Xi touts his “Chinese dream of national rejuvenation” — a return to the nation’s former glory — which sounds like Trump’s “Make America Great Again”.
The director of policy planning at the US State Department, Kiron Skinner, raised eyebrows last month when she described the rivalry as a “a fight with a really different civilisation and a different ideology.”
Skinner put it in racial terms, telling a security forum the China was first US “great power competitor that is not Caucasian”.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang hit back, calling it “absurd and utterly unacceptable” to look at bilateral ties “from a clash-of-civilisations or even racist perspective.”
The trade war is stirring nationalist sentiment in China.
“Objectively, trade war has unprecedentedly mobilized hostility between Chinese and American societies toward each other,” the editor-in-chief of China’s nationalist Global Times tabloid, Hu Xijin, wrote on Twitter on Saturday.
“I am very worried the mutual hostility could spiral out of control, causing a big retrogression of the entire international relations.”
The trade war has made “many more people in China, not just the paranoid cadres, but a much broader swath of the elite and population realise or believe that America’s goal is to keep China down,” said Bill Bishop, publisher of the Sinocism China Newsletter.
Beijing could attempt to harness nationalism in the trade war, he added, though it is a “double-edged sword” that could spiral out of control.