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The escalation levels between the USA and China are now igniting faster and faster. After the striking closure of the Chinese consulate in Houston, Texas last week and the subsequent closure of a US representation in the western Chinese metropolis of Chengdu, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has adopted an aggressive tone that has been well known in US-Chinese relations 40 years has not heard.

"If we bend our knees now, our children's children could be at the mercy of the Chinese Communist Party," said the former CIA chief militantly in a speech in Yorba Linda, California. The free world must triumph over the new tyranny: "We want a free 21st century and not the one that Xi Jinping dreams of", who believes in a "bankrupt totalitarian regime". China has "snatched their intellectual property away" from the Americans, "sucked out American production chains" and replaced them with "slave labor". This cost millions of Americans the job. "Communist China is already operating within our borders." China's army does not protect the Chinese, but rather wants to enlarge the Chinese empire.

Washington conjures up the foreign policy enemy

Not even the Republican President George Bush spoke like this after the bloody crackdown on the Beijing protest movement in 1989. Why are Pompeo and Trump talking like that now? It is obvious: China is much more powerful today. The country generates 30 percent of the world's economic growth. The US only 11 percent.

China's government is less and less willing to put up with it, while the US has major domestic political problems that extend well beyond Corona. The administration in Washington is now trying with all its might to summon the foreign policy enemy so that the people stand together in the face of this danger - under the leadership of US President Donald Trump. Elections will take place in the USA in just under 100 days. Therefore the danger from outside cannot be great enough now.

It was no coincidence that Pompeus gave his keynote address at Richard Nixon's birthplace. The Chinese diplomatic mission in Houston, which Pompeo referred to as the "hub of espionage and theft", was created as a direct result of the establishment of diplomatic relations with Beijing that Nixon initiated in 1972. In 1979 this agency opened as one of the first Chinese consulates in the USA. In his speech, Pompeo said of Nixon that he created a "Frankenstein" when he opened the gates to the western world for China.

Nixon has long been dead. He can no longer defend himself, but his then security advisor Henry Kissinger emphasized last November that in the event of a second Cold War there would be no winners, only losers. "A discussion about our mutual goals and the attempt to limit our conflicts as much as possible therefore appear to me to be indispensable," warns the 97-year-old.

DW columnist Frank Sieren

The fear of China has long been cross-party politics. Although Trump mocks Joe Biden as China-friendly "Beijing Biden", the Democratic presidential candidate has meanwhile also made a tough stance against China the central part of his election campaign. He calls Xi Jinping a "criminal" because he is imprisoning Uyghurs in Xinjiang. Pompeo, unlike Biden, speaks of "concentration camps." Biden, on the other hand, accuses Trump of only having his trade agreement in mind and of "completely disregarding" human rights. When the corona pandemic broke out, he was too careless about Beijing, and when it came to foreign policy with China, he was "completely lacking in strategy."

Rhetorical arms race among Republicans and Democrats

Several polls show that Trump actually no longer has a head start when it comes to which candidate, in the eyes of the US public, will go tougher with China. Trump wants to change that. A kind of rhetorical arms race between the Republicans and the Democrats over China has now broken out. However, this will not end with the election of the next US president in November. Even if Joe Biden wins, the conflict between the descending world power USA and the rising world power China will persist.

Public interest: Press and onlookers in Chengdu in front of the US Consulate General on July 26, 2020

A number of high-ranking representatives of the Chinese Communist Party would now even prefer it if Trump is re-elected. Because thanks to its short-sighted policies, the US has alienated many of its allies and withdrawn from global institutions such as the World Health Organization (WHO). China benefits from this, as it can easily distinguish itself in international leadership roles.

If Biden wins, he will likely try to mend relations with traditional US allies and, together with new partners in Asia, put multilateral pressure on Beijing - something the Trump administration will fail, despite Pompeo's call, as it will with the The termination of alliances such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP), the Paris Climate Protection Agreement or the nuclear deal with Iran has shown how little it cares about international cooperation. Apart from the Japanese and the Australians, no government in Asia feels any great desire to bind itself more closely to Washington. Even the Indians are careful. In Africa and South America the preferences are clear: Better China than the USA.

China is unlikely to embark on military adventures

And even in Europe the situation is mixed. Even Angela Merkel, who suffered under communism in the GDR, does not want to switch to the US course. The Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi calls the current China policy of the USA a "McCarthy-like paranoia": "At the moment it seems as if every Chinese investment has a political purpose, every foreign student has a espionage background and every cooperation has low ulterior motives." Merkel would probably agree with him on this point. But not with many other topics, for example dealing with Hong Kong, the Uyghurs or the openness of the Chinese markets. Her motto is, especially when there is a problem, you have to talk to each other more.

Still friendly at the time: US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (l) with China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi (r) in 2018

The situation is not made easier by the fact that Beijing is less and less critical of its hard line in the South China Sea, in Hong Kong and against neighboring Bhutan, as well as the sharper tone against India, Australia, Great Britain and Canada. Still, China is unlikely to embark on military adventures. Beijing has too much to do with keeping the economy stable at home. This is one of the reasons why Beijing is sticking to the phase 1 agreement agreed in January in the trade dispute and wants to continue to work with the United States in the fight against the coronavirus.

"As long as both sides have the will, we will find ways to get our relationship out of trouble and get back on track," said China's Foreign Minister Wang. After all. Pompeo, on the other hand, apparently wants nothing less than regime change in Beijing. He calls on the "freedom-loving" Chinese to turn against their government. It won't happen anytime soon. On the contrary: In the global struggle between systems, the alternative USA is losing its attractiveness with the Chinese every day. Of course, Beijing knows that. The hundreds of people who applauded the closing of the US consulate in Chengdu were very likely not claqueurs. The Chinese are also pulling together in the face of attacks from outside.

In terms of foreign policy, Pompeo will not move much with his speech. It is entirely possible, however, that Trump and Pompeo's China bashing is having an impact on domestic politics.

Our columnist Frank Sieren has lived in Beijing for over twenty years.