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Trump Slams China Over Coronavirus, Ratcheting Up Hostilities


We're going to spend the first part of this program focusing on the relationship between the U.S. and China. And we're doing this because this week seemed to point to yet another tense moment in a relationship that has seen many in recent years.

Most recently, President Trump has been expressing fury over China's coronavirus response, claiming in an interview with Fox Business that he is considering a dramatic new escalation of the trade war that the administration seemed to be trying to bring to a close. Specifically, he said that the U.S. could, quote, "cut off the whole thing" - unquote. So we're going to dig into some of this.

A little later, we're going to hear from somebody who represents the bicycle industry, which relies heavily on imports from China. We're going to hear about how that industry has been faring through all this - the trade war and the pandemic.

But first, we want to get a little perspective on this latest turn in the U.S.-China relationship, so we've called Bob Davis. He's a senior economics editor for The Wall Street Journal. He's spent years covering relations between the two countries. He was posted in Beijing for a number of years. And he has a forthcoming book about it.

Bob Davis, nice to have you. Thanks so much for joining us.

BOB DAVIS: Thanks for the invitation. Happy to be here.

MARTIN: So, as we mentioned, President Trump says relations are in jeopardy over China's coronavirus response. He says he doesn't believe that China was forthcoming. He's obviously angry about the economic fallout of having so much of the economy at a standstill. But would it be fair to say that his antipathy toward China predates this?

DAVIS: Oh, yes. He campaigned against China. It was one of his big campaign pillars. China has been ripping us off. And the leaders that - you know, that you voted in before played you for suckers. It was a central theme in the campaign. And it went to more than just China, but to a sort of sense of fairness - to a sense that, you know, the American public was being ripped off not just by a foreign entity but by the leadership.

And he's continued that, you know, as president. I mean, he's been very tough on China on economic and trade issues. Many in his administration even before the coronavirus pandemic also picked up on the president's, you know, views. And, you know, agency after agency has gone after China on all sorts of issues about spying, military confrontations, you know, whether Chinese professors in the United States are secretly working for China. It goes on and on.

MARTIN: I mentioned that you have a forthcoming book with your colleague, one of your Wall Street Journal colleagues, Lingling Wei. It's called "Superpower Showdown." And the subtitle is, "How The Battle Between Trump And Xi Threatens A New Cold War." Now, obviously, you've been reporting on this for, you know, the last three years now. Is that still a possibility? And if so, why?

DAVIS: Oh, my gosh. I think the possibility is greater than when we finished the book. When we finished the book in early 2020 - you know, a few months ago - coronavirus was just coming onto the global stage. And even at that point, relations had gotten so frigid between the two countries that - and that they were moving in opposite directions - or not in opposite directions quite so much, but in different directions.

If anything, the coronavirus pandemic and the reaction from the U.S. and the Chinese reaction to the U.S. reaction has made things much, much worse. The - there's very little comedy between the two nations. Xi and Trump rarely, rarely talk. And Xi Jinping, the Chinese leader, makes an effort to talk to a lot of global leaders. But it's - you know, it's very, very clear that he has essentially snubbed the president. And the president has said, from his point of view, he doesn't want to talk to Xi at this point.

MARTIN: So what would this look like? I mean, what would be - obviously, the worst-case scenario in any conflict between two powerful nation-states is an armed conflict. That's not what we're talking about, right? So what are we talking about?

DAVIS: What we're talking about is the two economies separating. Not decoupling - that's a term that's often used, which would mean that we have no relations with China. That's impossible, honestly, because U.S. companies have invested so heavily in China and are so dependent on the Chinese market, both as a place to sell and as a place to produce, that I don't think decoupling is a - you know, a real realistic possibility.

But what some people call derailment, I think, is an actual possibility - that the two countries don't depend on each other anymore. In terms of, you know, sort of technology development, instead of working together, instead of Chinese companies buying American technology, they'll wind up buying technology from somebody else who developing themselves. You know, instead of U.S. companies investing further in Chinese facilities, they'll invest, you know, elsewhere, outside of the country.

And I think in - economically, in economic terms, I mean, it makes both countries weaker because these are the two biggest economies in the world, and there's a lot of synergy when they work together.

MARTIN: So what are you going to be looking at as this proceeds over the next few months?

DAVIS: I think one thing to look at in terms of a real break, real economic break between the U.S. and China, is whether President Trump starts to attack Xi Jinping by name. He never does that. I mean, part of the reason he doesn't do that is because, you know, he sees himself as the art of the deal guy, and, you know, he wants - he thinks he can work out a deal with anybody.

Now, the other question is the election, right? And so let's say, just for the sake of argument - not as a partisan comment - but that Joe Biden wins. So Joe Biden inherits a U.S.-China relationship where the U.S. has tariffs on three-quarters of everything China sells to the U.S. and also a number of spots in which the U.S. and China are at loggerheads. Well, if you're a president coming in an office like that, you're not just going to say, OK, fine. Let's skip those tariffs. Let's just repeal them.

If anything, I think the campaign - because a lot of it will focus on China - if anything, that campaign will push Biden to take a harder position on China. Maybe on different issues than Trump - you know, on human rights, on national security kinds of issues. But in any event, he would he would probably move to a more confrontational view toward China. So these changes that have been made in the Trump administration, first of all, didn't start with President Trump. They started years before that. And I don't think they're going to end with President Trump, either.

MARTIN: That's Bob Davis. He's a senior economics editor for The Wall Street Journal. His forthcoming book, "Superpower Showdown," which he co-authored with his Wall Street Journal colleague Lingling Wei, is out next month.

Bob Davis, thanks so much for talking to us.

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