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The Latest On The U.S. And China's Strained Relations

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Relations between the U.S. and China are rapidly worsening with the latest tit-for-tat move. This week, the Trump administration ordered China's consulate in Houston to close, and Beijing retaliated by ordering the U.S. consulate in the city of Chengdu to also close - not to mention U.S. steps to sanction Chinese officials for alleged human rights abuses and to challenge Beijing's maritime claims in the South China Sea. To help us understand all this, we are joined by NPR's China correspondent John Ruwitch.

Welcome.

JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: Hi, Leila.

FADEL: Hi. So bring us up to speed. What's really going on here?

RUWITCH: For three years, President Trump has remained pretty cordial with China, and he's had a decent relationship with China's leader, Xi Jinping. He's lauded Xi. There's been a floor under the relationship, even though there was a trade war. You know, and in January, they signed a Phase 1 trade deal. But the pandemic really seems to change the calculus with regard to China. Trump blames China for the pandemic. Then we had in June China passing a national security law for Hong Kong, which was highly controversial. And since then, there have been sanctions on officials, a reversal of Hong Kong's special status, the consulate closure. There've been charges against Chinese citizens suspected of spying - just one thing after another.

FADEL: Right. So who's driving this hawkish tone?

RUWITCH: Yeah, analysts say Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state, is leading the charge. He's been very tough on China, and his rhetoric has been harsh from the get-go. Just to give you a sense of his latest thinking, Pompeo gave a speech on Thursday at the Nixon Presidential Library in California. And it's a symbolic place because Nixon was the president that opened U.S.-China relations in the 1970s. Here's what Pompeo had to say.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MIKE POMPEO: We have to admit a hard truth. We must admit a hard truth that should guide us in the years and decades to come, that if we want to have a free 21st century and not the Chinese century of which Xi Jinping dreams, the old paradigm of blind engagement with China simply won’t get it done.

RUWITCH: It's worth noting that it's not just Pompeo who's been banging the drum on China. His speech was the latest in a series. The national security adviser, the FBI director, the attorney general have all come out with hawkish speeches on China.

FADEL: So how has China been reacting?

RUWITCH: China's generally been matching the U.S. moves step for step. So the consulate is a good example. We closed their Houston consulate. They closed our Chengdu consulate. Or when we put sanctions on Chinese officials over human rights abuses in the far western region of Xinjiang, they sanctioned members of Congress who've traditionally spoken out against China - Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio.

One analyst I spoke to said that the Trump administration seems to be setting the tone and pace in this downward spiral in U.S. relations with China. But remember, China isn't free of blame here. China has been more outspoken, more muscular on the international stage under Xi Jinping. Beijing in the past few months has not just passed the controversial National Security Law in Hong Kong. You know, it's had clashes along the border with India. It's been upsetting its neighbors in the South China Sea and not to mention an intensification of repressive policies at home.

FADEL: So both have been taking these aggressive stances. Is this permanently changing the relationship between China and the U.S.?

RUWITCH: I spoke with Sam Zhao. He's with the School of International Studies at the University of Denver. And he came to the U.S. in 1985. He did his graduate studies here. He's a professor here. Now he's made his life here. He's spent more time in the United States than China, even though that's where he's from. He's witnessed and studied and benefited from this arc of China-U.S. relations over the decades. And he's more worried about the trajectory now than he has ever been.

SAM ZHAO: I feel very concerned, even though the next administration might be more rational. But I don't think they can easily repair this relationship.

RUWITCH: Yeah. So all these tit-for-tat measures are changing the relationship. And Zhao believes that it may never go back to the way it was.

FADEL: That's NPR China correspondent John Ruwitch. Thank you so much.

RUWITCH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.