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What Is The Future Of U.S.-China Relations?

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Relations between the U.S. and China have hit a new low this week. Today China ordered the closure of the U.S. consulate in Chengdu in southwest China. It was retaliation for the Trump administration's decision earlier in the week to close the Chinese consulate in Houston, Texas. These closures are just the latest in a growing list of flashpoints between the two countries. Joining us to talk about where the relationship could be headed is Evan Medeiros. He ran China policy as a member of President Obama's National Security Council, and he's now a professor at Georgetown. Welcome.

EVAN MEDEIROS: Thanks, Ari. Great to be here.

SHAPIRO: So Chinese state media has described the U.S. move to close their consulate in Houston as the true face of American bullying. Meanwhile, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke of Xi Jinping as a true believer in a bankrupt, totalitarian ideology. These are very sharp words from both sides. Does it look to you like a new low between the two countries?

MEDEIROS: It may, in fact, be a new low. U.S. and China have had relations for over 40 years. We've gone through some very difficult times in 1989 after the Tiananmen massacre, but it looks like we're increasingly on a trajectory to a long-term strategic competition. What worries me is that the Trump administration doing moves like closing the consulate in Houston looks like they're trying to make this an ideological competition.

SHAPIRO: This tit-for-tat consulate closure is just one item on a long list of issues between the U.S. and China. I mean, there have been Chinese researchers charged with fraud, reports about China working to steal vaccine research, the new Hong Kong security law. At the same time, we're not hearing very much about trade, which has been the biggest sticking point between these two countries for the last few years. How do you interpret this moment?

MEDEIROS: Well, I think what we're seeing is this interesting period in which the Phase 1 trade deal, the trade deal that the U.S. and China signed in January of this year, is sort of being compartmentalized. It's something that Trump wants because the Chinese are buying a lot of agricultural goods from U.S. farmers who are important for his politics. And the Chinese are hedging their bets. They know Trump wants the trade deal, and they're going to continue to buy U.S. agricultural goods to keep Trump happy. But below the surface there is a growing number of differences between the U.S. and China on a broad range of economic issues that really aren't being addressed; they've just been pushed to the side. Economic espionage is one of them.

SHAPIRO: And as with so much in the world right now, it's really hard to know what the long-term view of this is because we don't know whether President Trump is going to be in office for six more months or four and a half more years. How does that affect the way China is responding to all of this?

MEDEIROS: Well, I think that's a little bit of a silver lining because even though the administration has taken a variety of actions against China - closing the consulate, putting Chinese - trying to put Chinese companies out of business, banning Chinese officials from coming to the United States - the Chinese are hedging their bets. They don't know if Trump's going to be reelected or not, and I think that puts a little bit of a floor underneath the relationship. So in other words, the Chinese have to respond or feel they need to respond to Trump actions, but they won't respond in a way that leads to uncontrolled escalation or does anything that imperils the relationship for the long term.

SHAPIRO: You know, President Trump so often says he wants to hold China accountable, whether that is for the coronavirus or actions in Hong Kong or the treatment of Uighurs or other things. You're obviously critical of the way he's gone about that. What do you think the right way to hold China accountable would be? What would that look like?

MEDEIROS: Well, it's really about costs and imposing costs. And the question is, is do the Chinese feel that it is costly for them to do things like undermine the rights of ethnic and religious minorities in Xinjiang? And so, you know, the question is, what's the best way to do this? And I think doing it internationally with partners and allies is probably going to be a much more sustainable strategy than just telling a bunch of Chinese officials who wouldn't come to the United States that they can't. That's not to say that those measures aren't useful in the short term. The question is, how do you affect China's long-term incentives?

SHAPIRO: That is Evan Medeiros, professor of Asian studies at Georgetown and a former top China policy official in the Obama administration. Thank you for speaking with us today.

MEDEIROS: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.