President Trump is stepping up his confrontations with China as the U.S. death toll mounts from the COVID-19 pandemic, blocking trade with Chinese tech giant Huawei, halting some U.S. retirement investments in China and floating the suggestion that Beijing should compensate the world for the coronavirus first discovered in Wuhan.
The president, who once boasted of his warm relationship with Chinese President Xi Jinping, has cut off communications for now with Mr. Xi, even as both sides negotiate quietly to uphold the massive trade deal signed at the White House in January.
“For sure, his personal rhetoric has changed,” said James Carafano, a national security specialist at The Heritage Foundation. “Trump has always liked to play the good cop in our ‘good cop, bad cop’ diplomacy. His role has sharpened. In the great power competition, it’s ‘game on.’”
But Mr. Carafano said the president’s strategy “has always been making across-the-board military, diplomatic, economic challenges to Beijing where they are impinging on vital U.S. interests. That’s how to you get to stable relationship.”
The escalating feud with China also meshes with the president’s campaign strategy of portraying presumptive Democratic nominee Joseph R. Biden as too soft on China. It’s a subject of the campaign’s $10 million nationwide ad blitz against Mr. Biden that began Thursday, and aides say the theme will be prominent through Election Day.
In a fundraising email to supporters on Sunday, the Trump campaign said the “fake news media and their corrupt Democrat Partners will defend Sleepy Joe until the end. They don’t care that he’s in bed with China and wants to see America fail.”
The American public’s views of China have soured during COVID-19 shutdowns. The Pew Research Center found last month that 66% of respondents had a negative opinion of China, the highest percentage recorded since Pew began asking the question in 2005. Only 26% of Americans had a favorable attitude.
“There is a domestic component,” Mr. Carafano said. “Across the board, Americans rightfully blame the failures of the Chinese Communist Party for the global pandemic outbreak.”
On the policy side, the administration is showing no signs of revoking the China trade deal that the president has been hammering out since the start of his presidency.
Asked Friday whether he is considering new tariffs against China or ripping up the trade deal, Mr. Trump replied brusquely, “I don’t want to talk about it.
“China is buying a lot of our products,” the president told reporters. “But the trade deal — the ink was barely dry when this [coronavirus] came in from China. So it’s not like we’re thrilled.”
He told Fox Business that the 4-month-old trade deal “doesn’t feel the same to me.”
“I’m not happy with anything to do with that particular subject right now,” Mr. Trump said during an interview with Fox’s Maria Bartiromo. “Right now, I don’t want to speak to [Mr. Xi].”
White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow said the trade deal “is continuing, absolutely.” He said trade negotiators from both sides, including Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin and U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, had successful phone calls last week.
While the trade talks proceed, however, Mr. Trump is ratcheting up pressure on China on several fronts.
The Commerce Department moved Friday to block global chip supplies to blacklisted telecomm giant Huawei Technologies. A new rule expands U.S. authority to require licenses for sale of semiconductors to Huawei, increasing Washington’s ability to halt exports to the world’s second-largest maker of smartphones.
Sen. Ben Sasse, Nebraska Republican and a member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said the rule was long overdue to prevent the “Chinese Communist Party’s tech puppet from obtaining U.S. semiconductor technology.”
“The United States needs to strangle Huawei,” Mr. Sasse said. “Modern wars are fought with semiconductors, and we were letting Huawei use our American designs. This is pretty simple: Chip companies that depend on American technology can’t jump into bed with the Chinese Communist Party.”
In response, China’s governnment-controlled Global Times said Beijing was ready to put U.S. companies on an “unreliable entity list.”
China is lashing out at American lawmakers who are trying to hold it accountable in U.S. courts for spreading the coronavirus. According a Global Times report, Beijing is ready to “hit back” with its own sanctions.
The communist government is suggesting that China’s massive economy could halt investments in states represented by those who attempt to assign blame. At least four members of Congress “will be put on China’s sanctions list,” said the Global Times, citing “sources close to the matter.”
A number of lawmakers were named in the story, but those who drew particular attention from the Chinese press were Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, Josh Hawley of Missouri, and Rep. Chris Smith of New Jersey, all Republicans.
“American Congresspeople who hold an anti-China stance like Smith have been long-term hawks on China-relevant topics such as Taiwan and Xinjiang. And Republicans like Hawley are also backed by some U.S. defense companies and other companies that compete with Chinese firms,” Diao Daming, a U.S. studies expert at the Renmin University of China in Beijing, told the newspaper last week.
Mr. Smith, who last year authored the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, said he wouldn’t bow to pressure.
“Sanctions will not silence me or anyone who demands genuine accountability for this horrific pandemic,” he said in a statement over the weekend.
He pointed to the death toll from COVID-19 in New Jersey. “Beijing cannot continue to hide, lie and now threaten to stop us from demanding the truth.”
Mr. Hawley took to Twitter on Friday to call the sanctions threat a “badge of honor.”
Mr. Hawley is a former Missouri attorney general. His successor, Eric Schmitt, has filed a lawsuit arguing that the Chinese Communist Party directed the policies that have failed the world, allowing COVID-19 to spread and devastate the global economy.
In Missouri alone, Mr. Schmitt said in the lawsuit, “billions of dollars” have been lost to the coronavirus outbreak.
The Global Times said China will take steps to punish Missouri’s economy.
The White House pressured the board that runs the retirement savings program for federal employees and military personnel last week to halt, at least temporarily, a plan to invest funds in Chinese businesses.
The Federal Retirement Thrift Investment Board voted unanimously to pause its plan to shift billions of dollars in retirement assets to an index fund that includes about 8% Chinese companies, citing the COVID-19 pandemic and a new slate of board nominees from Mr. Trump.
Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia sent a letter to the Thrift Savings Plan’s governing board saying that “at the direction of President Trump, the board is to immediately halt all steps” toward switching to the broader international stock market index.
Mr. Kudlow and national security adviser Robert C. O’Brien also urged the board to “cease implementation immediately.” They said the Chinese government hid crucial information about the virus from the U.S. and the rest of the world.
“These events dramatically increase the risk that Chinese companies could be subject to sanctions or boycotts that jeopardize their business and profitability and strongly militate against the Board making a significant investment of federal workers’ retirement funds in Chinese companies at this time,” they wrote.
White House trade adviser Peter Navarro said Saturday that there needs to be a broader discussion on hitting China for “compensatory damages” because of the way it handled the coronavirus outbreak.
“I think there needs to be a national discussion — has to be bipartisan — about compensatory damages by a country that inflicted this pandemic on the world,” Mr. Navarro said on Fox Business. “This crisis, and China’s role in virtually manufacturing this whole crisis, we need to have a national discussion.”
The coronavirus has infected more than 4.5 million people worldwide and contributed to the deaths of more than 300,000. The U.S., with a population of about 330 million, has recorded nearly 1.5 million cases and more than 88,000 deaths from COVID-19.
“It should have been stopped in China before it got out to the world — 186 countries are affected,” Mr. Trump said. “Russia is now badly affected, France is badly affected. Look at Italy, look at Spain — all of these great countries, in many cases, have had to fight through this. It’s a terrible thing that happened. It should have been stopped right at the source, but it wasn’t.”
White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said Mr. Trump is “very frustrated with China.” She said China “slow-walked” information through the World Health Organization about human-to-human transmissions of the virus as well as information about its genetic sequencing, and allowed flights out of China while the virus was spreading.
“These decisions put American lives at risk, not just American lives, but lives around the globe,” she said.
While the U.S. grows more aggressive in economic competition, the administration is challenging Chinese influence in international organizations such as WHO. NATO put the issue of China on its agenda for the first time at a meeting in London in December.
Mr. Carafano said he expects “a lot more on that front,” including more robust action toward Beijing from the “quad-plus partners” — the U.S., Japan, India and Australia.
“Expect the U.S. to do more, not less, with friends and allies,” he said. “The U.S. push on China in NATO context is just one example, as is the increased level of activity among the ‘quad plus’ partners.”
⦁ David Sherfinski and Gabriella Muñoz contributed to this report