The contours of the Trump administration’s China policy in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic have become clearer in the last few weeks. It is not just China’s economy that might be in America's crosshairs, but the administration is also actively needling its “core interests”: Tibet, Xinjiang and South China Sea.

This is a major policy U-turn for the American foreign policy establishment, which had been deferential to China on these issues. In fact, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has begun to make a distinction between China and the Communist Party, implying that America’s actions are aimed at the regime, and not its citizens. Interestingly, the U.S. establishment made a similar distinction in the 1930s about Nazi Germany.

Donald Trump’s critics had all along claimed that the president had alienated the nation’s traditional allies with his “mercurial temperament” and this would stand in the way of creating an effective anti-China global alliance. However, allies like Japan and Taiwan are pivoting back to the U.S. and seem to be key pieces in this China rebalancing strategy.

In the first strike, Trump restricted China’s access to technology by choking Huawei’s access to technology and markets, scrapped visas for students with suspected ties to the People’s Liberation Army, barred a federal pension fund investing in Chinese equities and even brought tighter scrutiny into the finances of Chinese corporates listed on U.S. stock exchanges.

The second strike intensified the pressure on China's economic interests. FBI Director Christopher Wray has red-flagged China’s infringement of U.S. intellectual property and said its scale is so large that it is tantamount to one of the “largest wealth transfers in human history.”

Close on the heels of the Indian government banning Chinese apps like ‘TikTok’, the U.S. has also hinted at banning the video-sharing app over national security and privacy concerns. ‘TikTok’ owner ByteDance is mulling to shift its servers out of China as similar concerns ripple across world capitals. But the damage seems to have been done: apart from the loss of revenue, the blackballing of Tech China is a slapdown on the ambitions of China's fledgling technology sector.

But the Trump administration's focus on China's “core interests” are going to cause more anger in Beijing and draw sharper reactions than any economic pressure.

A watchtower on a high-security facility near what is believed to be a re-education camp on the outskirts of Hotan, in China's northwestern Xinjiang region, is seen in May 2019
A watchtower on a high-security facility near what is believed to be a re-education camp on the outskirts of Hotan, in China's northwestern Xinjiang region, is seen in May 2019 AFP / GREG BAKER

U.S. guidelines under the new ‘Xinjiang Supply Chain Business Advisory’ warn of action against companies that facilitate Beijing to violate human rights abuses in the northwestern province. The advisory warns corporates to firewall their supply chains against working with firms found using forced labour or guilty of human rights abuses that include “helping” China develop surveillance tools or build internment camps in Xinjiang.

This comes close on the heels of Trump clearing the Uighur Human Rights Policy Act to safeguard China’s Uighur ethnic group. The Act intends to punish Chinese officials for flouting civil and personal liberties. For the first time since establishing diplomatic ties with China in 1979, an American administration has imposed asset and visa sanctions against a member of China’s elite Politburo—Chen Quanguo—and other senior officials under the new law.

Action has already begun on the ground. Early this month customs authorities in New Jersey seized a $800,000 shipment of beauty accessories. The wigs and weaves were made of human hair said to have been taken from people detained in internment camps in Xinjiang.

On July 8, the State Department announced that Chinese authorities who had a hand in restricting journalists, travellers, or American officials from entering Tibet, would be barred from entering the U.S. This comes in the wake of Beijing’s actions against people protesting against the new national security law in Hong Kong. Pompeo asserted that the U.S. is committed to supporting meaningful autonomy for Tibetans, and respect for their fundamental and unalienable human rights.”

The sine qua non of American foreign policy—human rights—vis-a-vis its dealings with China is back. This is in stark contrast to the stance adopted by earlier U.S. presidents, like Bill Clinton, who diluted human rights compliances before renewing China’s most-favoured-nation tag in the 1990s.

Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader who celebrated his 85th birthday last week, has evinced an interest to visit Taiwan. Much to the chagrin of China, the administration of Taipei’s independence-minded President Tsai Ing-wen has said it is eager to roll out the red carpet to the Dalai Lama.

The Dalai Lama is the universally recognised face of the movement for Tibetan autonomy
The Dalai Lama is the universally recognised face of the movement for Tibetan autonomy AFP / STR

Taiwan also recently named Hsiao Bi-khim, a member of its National Security Council, as envoy to the U.S. Hsiao, the first woman ever to serve in the post, has indicated that improving military cooperation with the U.S. remains top on her agenda. Last week, the United States cleared a $600 million upgrade deal for surface-to-air missiles to Taiwan.

Loose Alliance Of Nations Taking Shape To Counter Beijing

Even as Indian and Chinese troops have begun de-escalation on the flashpoints along the Line of Actual Control—the de facto border—Trump’s Chief Of Staff Mark Meadows said that the U.S. would back India and other Asian nations in case of a conflict with China. Two U.S. aircraft carriers—the USS Nimitz and USS Ronald Reagan—are in the South China Sea, where China has been accused of usurping islands to develop military facilities and making exaggerated maritime claims.

Meanwhile, Japan’s ruling party—Liberal Democratic Party—is mobilizing opinion urging the government to scrap Chinese President Xi Jinping first state visit to the country in the wake of the national security law for Hong Kong. Recently, Japanese parliamentarians began discussions on how to lure financial professionals who may want to exit Hong Kong following the clampdown. Not to be outdone, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, described as a rightwing nationalist, is putting together a framework to augment security and defense ties with Australia.

Japan’s relations with China have become strained following disputes over islands in the East China Sea and maritime patrolling by Chinese vessels in these waters. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who pledged to increase his nation’s defense spending by 40% in the next decade, had sought an independent probe into the origins of the coronavirus -- angering Beijing.

Morrison recently caused a flutter by characterizing the current situation in the Indo-Pacific as grave as the conditions prevailing before World War II broke out. Abe and Morrison have pledged to unite other regional partners to ensure stability in the Indo-Pacific region.

With the U.S. targeting China’s economic interests, and a loose alliance of nations taking shape to counter Beijing, China’s has threatened to retaliate soon. But China’s options are somewhat limited, say experts. With its diplomacy making little headway after China’s top diplomat Yang Jiechi met Pompeo at a military facility in Hawaii recently, China has conducted naval exercises in the Yellow, South and East China seas.

Another weapon in China’s arsenal is its economic leverage. However, China scholar Minxin Pei says use of strongarm economic tactics for geopolitical gains may not get the desired results as many nations tend not to capitulate when national honour is at stake.

In the past whenever China has been threatened, it has rallied its people for a struggle. A similar call is being made today. Zhou Li, a former senior official of the Chinese Communist Party's International Liaison Department, published an article in the official media warning of zero or negative economic growth in China, total deterioration of Sino-U.S. relations and full-scale conflict, leading to a world divided into dollar and yuan blocs.

There are more questions than answers raised by this cryptic essay. For starters, will the yuan bloc resemble the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (Comicon) pact formed by nations affiliated to the former USSR? Will the calls for self-reliance (which Zhou alludes to, and are also made frequently by the Chinese leadership) mean China will revert to an era prior to its joining the World Trade Organization?

The essay has sparked immense speculation, with many questioning the rationale of causing a “speculative doomsday scenario” to being made public. Zhou’s dire warning assumes greater importance coming close on the heels of President Xi's directing the nation to prepare for the “worst-case scenario." From the facts at hand: Chinese planes violating Taiwanese airspace and Indian territory; U.S. and Chinese warships conducting war games in disputed seas; Japan, Australia, India and Taiwan upgrading their defenses all point to one thing—while it may be the dawning of an Asian Century, it is going to be a dangerous one.

(Kalpit Mankikar is a journalist and has completed his China studies from the London School of Economics and Political Science. The opinions expressed are the author's.)