In January, President Donald Trump declared that America’s relationship with China “might be the best it’s been in a long, long time,” praising Chinese President Xi Jinping weeks after inking a first-step trade deal with the country.
Flash forward to July: Trump has effectively cut off trade talks, sanctioned Chinese officials over their internment of Muslims and encroachment in Hong Kong, revealed plans to axe visas for some Chinese students in the U.S., restricted Chinese journalists, shuttered a Chinese diplomatic compound in Houston and vowed retaliation for Beijing’s handling of the coronavirus after initially praising its efforts.
As for Trump and Xi? They haven’t spoken since March.
The reason for the dramatic about-face is partly grounded in recent developments — the Hong Kong sanctions, for instance, are tied to a controversial national security law that recently went into effect. But Trump is also eager to appear tough on China heading into his reelection campaign, where he is polling well behind presumptive 2020 rival Joe Biden, who is hammering the president for his past admiration of Xi and recently unveiled plans to invest in American manufacturing and combat China’s economic practices.
In response, Trump’s tough-on-China campaign has picked up pace. In the last two weeks, his administration has used a variety of methods — press conferences, new legal judgments, numerous op-eds, high-profile speeches, overseas trips — to suddenly hit Beijing over long-standing issues the president often skirted in the past.
“It’s only gotten worse for China in polls,” said John McLaughlin, a Trump pollster. “People always saw China as an economic adversary that stole our jobs, but now they see China as a security threat.”
Trump and his administration have long bludgeoned China over specific issues. The reality TV star relentlessly talked about the country’s trade practices on the campaign trail in 2016 and his Cabinet has regularly warned that the country is trying to force technology companies to hand over data. But the president has always balanced these admonitions with ample praise of Xi himself, at times largely side-stepping human rights concerns, such as Beijing’s infringement on Hong Kong’s separate legal system and its detention of Uighur Muslims, an ethnic minority group.