A chilly exchange between U.S. Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo and China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, on Monday was the latest sign of sharply deteriorating relations between the world’s two largest economies.
Wang was unusually sharp during an appearance with Pompeo before their meeting at the Diaoyutai Guest House, demanding the U.S. stop its “mistaken actions” against China. He accused the U.S. of escalating friction on a range of fronts involving the country’s affairs.
Pompeo responded with equal bluntness that the United States had fundamental differences with China.
The episode illustrated how swiftly relations have soured between Washington and Beijing in recent weeks, with analysts warning of a new era of bruising global competition between the U.S. and China.
The tensions include hefty trade tariffs, military friction in the South China Sea — including a recent near-collision between U.S. and China warships — spying scandals, and disagreements involving self-governing Taiwan, which China considers part of its territory. Examples of problems include President Trump recently telling reporters that Chinese President Xi Jinping might no longer be his friend and the cancellation of a bilateral security dialogue due in Beijing this month — capped by a public disagreement on who called off the security talks.
“Recently, as the U.S. side has been constantly escalating trade friction toward China, it has also adopted a series of actions on the Taiwan issue that harm China’s rights, and has made groundless criticism of China’s domestic and foreign policies,” Wang said. “These actions have affected the mutual trust between both sides, and have cast a shadow over the prospects for China-U.S. relations, which completely go against the interest of our two peoples. We demand that the U.S. side stop these kinds of mistaken actions.”
Pompeo responded: “The issues that you characterized, we have a fundamental disagreement. We have great concerns about the actions that China has taken, and I look forward to having the opportunity to discuss each of those today because this is an incredibly important relationship.”
Wang made it clear that U.S. officials had sought the meeting, not China. He said Pompeo had contacted China about the visit, “and we are willing to meet you.”
Expectations for the meeting were never high, given that it came just days after a stinging attack on China by Vice President Mike Pence, who accused Beijing on Thursday of meddling in U.S. elections, the wholesale theft of technology and intellectual property, military aggression, religious oppression and other issues. China’s foreign ministry described Pence’s speech as unwarranted slander and warned that nothing could stop China’s progress.
Many analysts see the speech as a signal that the Trump administration is preparing for an economic cold war with China, decoupling America’s economy from China’s, rather than just a tough trade battle.
China has become increasingly assertive over the “one China policy,” pressuring companies including Apple, international airlines and others to remove references to Taiwan as a country.
In recent months Beijing has been angered about U.S. military sales to Taiwan worth $330 million approved last month; a commitment to support Taiwan in the U.S. Defense Act; the Taiwan Travel Act signed by Trump in April encouraging U.S. officials to visit Taiwan; and two stopovers by Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen to the U.S. in the summer when she visited the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley and the Johnson Space Center in Houston.
The souring relationship has seen opportunities for dialogue between the U.S. and China swiftly curtailed, with the cancellation of several important military and trade meetings, and no plans for new trade talks.
On Monday, the two sides openly disagreed on who called off a security dialogue between the U.S. and Chinese defense officials scheduled for this month. In his remarks Monday, Pompeo criticized China’s decision not to participate in the dialogue, contradicting China’s public insistence that it did not cancel the talks.
"I regret that the strategic dialogue between our two countries is something you all chose not to undertake," Pompeo said, calling it an “important opportunity” for dialogue.
Wang responded swiftly: “The strategic dialogue was not called off by the Chinese. I am stating a fact.”
The next opportunity for dialogue that could thaw the growing chill could come late in November when Trump and Xi are expected to attend the G20 summit in Argentina. Pence and Xi will be present at an Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation summit in Papua, New Guinea, in mid-November, but Pence’s sharply critical speech last week appears to rule out any hope of a breakthrough then.
Trump’s decision not to attend the APEC summit meeting also raises questions about his administration’s stated determination to play a leading role in the Pacific region, where China is increasingly assertive.
Pompeo’s visit came at the end of a tour to four East Asian countries focused on efforts to denuclearize North Korea. The Trump administration is relying on China to maintain pressure on North Korea by enforcing U.N. sanctions.
A tweet from Pompeo indicated his hope that the meeting would focus on efforts to denuclearize North Korea, saying it was important for the U.S. and China to work together to achieve the “final, fully verified denuclearization” of North Korea and to enforce sanctions.
He told Wang he expected “good, candid, frank conversations” about North Korean denuclearization and to brief Chinese officials on the results of his meeting Sunday with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
“I know that you are still very interested in exchanging views with China on hot issues such as the Korean peninsula,” Wang said. “This just shows that the two major powers, the two permanent members of the Security Council, need and should strengthen communication and cooperation and assume the responsibilities entrusted to us by the international community. At the same time, such cooperation should be supported by a healthy and stable bilateral relationship.”
China, North Korea’s closest ally, has played a key role in bringing Kim to the negotiating table, but at a U.N. Security Council meeting last month China and Russia called for sanctions on North Korea to be relaxed because of “positive developments” in the last few months. Wang told the Security Council it should consider easing sanctions to encourage North Korea to progress on denuclearization.
Pompeo called for the continued strict enforcement of sanctions at the Security Council meeting -- which he said had been repeatedly violated.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in said Monday Kim was planning to visit Russia soon and Xi was expected to travel to North Korea to meet Kim. Moon said Pompeo’s meeting with Kim had created the conditions for another Trump-Kim summit soon.