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U.S. Officials Keep Pressure On China Over Multiple Issues


The U.S. and China are in this tense confrontation, and it's really hard to know exactly where this is all headed. Each country has closed one of the other's consulates. The U.S. has sanctioned Chinese officials for alleged human rights abuses and challenged Beijing's maritime claims. So what's motivating the U.S. and China here? And does the U.S. have the support of its allies? We have correspondents in three capitals with us this morning. Emily Feng joins us from Beijing. Rob Schmitz is our Europe correspondent in Berlin. But I want to start in Washington with NPR diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen. Hi, Michele.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: So what is going on? Why has the United States been getting more and more combative towards China?

KELEMEN: Well, Trump administration officials are kind of portraying this as a battle of ideas. They're taking a very ideological approach to China now, and that's particularly true with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. He laid out a very tough line in a speech last week, and he spoke about this just yesterday at the State Department with Australia's foreign and defense ministers. Let's take a listen.


MIKE POMPEO: Our two great democracies face immediate crises like the COVID-19 pandemic and longer term challenges like the Chinese Communist Party's ambitions. We need to deal with each of these challenges simultaneously.

KELEMEN: And he praised Australia for standing up to pressure from the Chinese Communist Party and, of course, he keeps saying CCP. He doesn't talk about China.

GREENE: OK. So a battle of ideas, ideological struggle, but does the U.S. have a strategy here going forward?

KELEMEN: Well, what Pompeo wants to do is work with like-minded countries, including Australia but also countries in the region and in Europe to counter Chinese influence. He's been pressing them in particular not to let China dominate the technology industry, for instance, warning them not to deal with Huawei or ZTE. And, again, Pompeo puts this in stark, ideological terms.


POMPEO: This isn't about picking America versus China. This is about choosing freedom and democracy against tyranny and authoritarian regime. And I am confident that the democracies, our trans-Atlantic alliance - all of those great nations know precisely which side of that debate they want to be on.

KELEMEN: Now, a lot of experts, David, are kind of skeptical about this all-out ideological approach to China. Many other countries, also, they agree with the U.S. on many points, but they need to deal with China in areas where they can. Even Australia's Foreign Minister yesterday made a point of saying her country's relationship with China is important.

GREENE: Well, Emily, let me turn to you in Beijing. I mean, can you sort of give us a sense of what China's strategy is in all this?

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: China is trying to strike this tricky balance. They do not want to escalate tensions before the November presidential elections in the U.S., but they also have to look tough to their own citizens. And their solution has been to match every U.S. action with their own. So if you sanction our officials, we will sanction yours and so on. And the reasoning behind this strategy is honestly some wishful thinking in China, that the U.S. is being tough on China simply because President Trump is using that as campaign fodder. Here's Chu Shulong, an international relations expert in Beijing, explaining this popular theory.

CHU SHULONG: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: He's saying Trump wants to divert some of the anger against him, create new problems and win the support of conservative elements in the Republican Party. But the problem with this thinking is the U.S. is pretty thoroughly anti-China on both sides of the aisle. And Joe Biden's foreign policy team is running on a platform that they will be tougher on China than Trump.

GREENE: Rob, let me go to you I mean, how is Europe seeing all of this? And have European countries soured on China like the United States has?

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Recently, yeah. I mean, European leaders are certainly uncomfortable with the increasingly aggressive stance of Chinese officials. This has been called wolf warrior diplomacy named after a Rambo-style hyper-patriotic Chinese movie series. European officials are also fed up with Beijing's disinformation campaign in the wake of the pandemic. China's blamed the U.S. for spreading the virus, and its falsely accused French politicians of using racial slurs against the head of the World Health Organization, among other accusations. And when the European Commission compiled a report about these very tactics, Beijing successfully persuaded the EU to remove the damaging parts about Beijing from the report. In the end, China was mentioned but in a pretty watered-down fashion.

GREENE: But are we hearing the same rhetoric as we do from Washington?

SCHMITZ: Well, you know, China is a powerful economic giant, but it's also a very sensitive one. And Europe cannot really afford to anger Beijing at a time when its economy is tanking and when China remains a large source of revenue for many European companies. Germany in particular has been unusually quiet about China's controversial national security law and its impact on Hong Kong. And that's likely because China is one of Germany's most important trading partners and is a big source of revenue for German companies. But this week, European and Chinese officials are meeting to push forward an EU-China investment agreement, and the EU is signaling that it will not sign it unless Beijing stops subsidizing and propping up its own state-owned companies. You know, the U.S. complains about this a lot, too, but Beijing is not budging. And this may mean that these talks will hit a wall.

GREENE: Emily in Beijing, I mean, does the Chinese government feel like their strategy is working? I mean, they seem to be ticking off a lot of countries world.

FENG: Right. It's not working. China sees itself as a victim, the one exercising restraint, but, in reality, China has also been very aggressive in attacking countries who criticize China. And arguably since the 2008 financial crisis, leaders here in China have become disillusioned by Western democracy and market economics. I spoke to James Green, who was a former U.S. official who used to be based here in Beijing, about when he saw the U.S.-China relationship taking a negative turn.

JAMES GREEN: Some time in 2006 to 2010 and certainly accelerated by 2012 to 2018, Chinese policy was much more assertive and much less interested in opening up the economy and certainly society to outside forces.

FENG: So the seeds of this tension we're seeing today were planted long ago. But what's dangerous about the current moment is both the U.S. and China have been more willing to alienate other countries and each other.

GREENE: Rob, what do European countries think about this tough approach from Washington? I mean, are they loving all of it, or do they have some problems?

SCHMITZ: They're basically ignoring it. I mean, they've been fed up with the Trump administration for years, and nothing concrete will likely happen until after the U.S. election. You know, Pompeo in that same speech we mentioned made a point to say that one key European ally was not on board with the U.S. stance on China, and everyone took that to mean Germany.

KELEMEN: And, David, that's really been a feature of this administration. President Trump and his aides are always quick to criticize key allies, and they play down concerns that the Europeans have about U.S. policy, whether that's in China or Iran. And it's a kind of a my-way-or-the-highway approach.

GREENE: All right. We've heard from three of our correspondents, Emily Feng in Beijing, Rob Schmitz in Berlin, Michele Kelemen in Washington. Thanks to all of you.

KELEMEN: Thank you.

FENG: Thank, David.

SCHMITZ: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHELIAN'S "INTRO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.
Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.
Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.