Chinese Communist Party at 99: Is its conflict with the US now at a point of 'no return'?

From Nixon to Trump, Mao to Xi, the rocky relations between US and China

Unfazed China hikes tariff on US products; says will not succumb to Trump's pressure tactics [File] US President Donald Trump chats with Chinese President Xi Jinping during a welcome ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing | AP

The relations between China and US have always been very conflicted. The Obama administration, when asked whether the country was an ally or enemy of the US, had declared that it was "too complex to described in a single word".

Now, on the 99th foundational anniversary year of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), tensions have risen to new heights on what has always been a rocky road, as the ambitions of a rising superpower increasingly clash with those of the established one. China ordered the closing of the US consulate in the southwestern city of Chengdu on Friday, in rapid retaliation for the closing of its consulate in Houston.

As the Trump administration and the People's Republic look increasingly set on a path of increasing escalation, what are the intricacies of the relations and how will they look going forward?

CCP through the years

The CCP, founded in July 1921 on principles of Marxism-Leninism and massively influenced by the Bolshevik revolution in USSR, came to power after expelling the Kuomintang's Nationalist Government. It has seen some tumultous years. Party chairman Mao Zedong announced the formation of People's Republic of China (PRC) in 1949, with later leaders like Deng Xiaoping implementing reform measures like ending one-man rule, bringing in the concept of consensus in decisions, and institutionalising a term limit (of two five-years) for the chairman. Over the years, the party has implemented firm restrictions on freedom of press, expression, religion, and embedded itself into every aspect of life of its citizens, with a firm nationalist line on avenging a "century of national humiliation". 

Xi Jinping came to power in 2012, after a power transition from Hu Jintao, becoming one of the most influential leaders—in a way, a mirror image of Mao Zedong. In 2018, China’s constitution was amended to roll back the term limits, paving the way for Xi to remain officially in power beyond 2022. Xi's school of thought, which envisages stricter regulations on economy and stronger bind between the CCP and the Chinese public, is now an official part of the constitution. 

During the party's 99th anniversary celebrations, Xi Jinping, according to South China Morning Post, evinced two centenary goals—turning China into a “comprehensively well-off society” by the end of this year, and a “powerful socialist country” by 2050.

The party faced its sternest tests in the 1989 Tiananmen democracy protests and the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. The latter incident forced a rethink in China on the need of reforms to avoid sharing the same fate as their socialist counterpart.

US-China relations over the years

Two weeks ago, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi asked aloud if the US-China relations could stay on track. On Thursday, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivered an answer: "The time has come to change course. The old paradigm of blind engagement with China simply won't get it done," he said in a speech at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library in southern California. "We must not continue it. We must not return to it."

It was Nixon's visit to China in 1972, the first by an American president since the Communists took power in 1949, that upended a Cold War paradigm and paved the way for the normalisation of relations in 1979. The United States had been a close ally of then-Chinese leader Chiang Kai-shek in World War II and for three decades recognised Taiwan as the government of China after Chiang fled there when he lost control of the mainland in 1949.

Relations between Washington and the communist government in Beijing began to thaw in the 1970s, as China's ties with the Soviet Union deteriorated and Chairman Mao sought a counterweight to its more powerful neighbour. Deng Xiaoping, visited the US in 1979 after the establishment of diplomatic ties, smiling in photos as he tried on a cowboy hat in Texas. The Houston consulate that is being shut opened later the same year. It was China's first in the United States.

Setting aside political differences, the US and China promoted economic, social and cultural ties that were briefly interrupted a decade later by China's military crackdown on the 1989 pro-democracy demonstrations in Beijing's Tiananmen Square. Economic links grew exponentially in the following years, with heavy investment by US businesses in China and an accompanying Chinese trade surplus that has reached $350 billion annually.

The relationship was punctuated by bouts of tension. The US continues to support Taiwan militarily, and the Clinton administration sent an aircraft carrier through the Taiwan Strait in 1996 after China fired missiles toward the island. In 2001, a Chinese fighter jet and a US Navy surveillance plane collided over the South China Sea, a vital shipping lane in the Asia-Pacific region. China detained the US crew for days after its plane made an emergency landing at a Chinese base.

As China has grown into the world's second-largest economy, behind only the US, it is increasingly viewed as a competitor, both economically and militarily, and a potential challenger to the Western-led democratic model that has dominated the post-World War II era.

So, how have different presidents reacted to China? As a Livermore Paper on Global Security put it: the Clinton administration sought a “constructive strategic partnership” in which China was integrated into the emerging post–Cold War order and conflict over Taiwan was avoided; the George W. Bush administration initially cast China as a rising challenger, but after the terrorist attacks of 9/11 tried to engage China as a “responsible stakeholder”; the Obama administration attempted to “rebalance” political and economic engagement with an Asia–Pacific policy. "The Trump administration has expressed a clear commitment to working with China in areas of shared interest, such as North Korean nuclear proliferation. Nevertheless, the administration emphasises strategic rivalry with China, especially as to military modernisation, economic coercion, and China’s diplomatic attempts to roll back the existing regional and global orders," according to the paper. 

As a Carnegie Endowment paper US-China Competition for Global Influence put it, given the traditional animosity between the United States and China since the founding of the PRC in 1949—a hostility that abated but never fully evaporated even after their rapprochement during the latter years of the Cold War—it is not surprising that the CCP never bought into the idea that the reconciliation between Washington and Beijing was anything other than a tactical adjustment. China, according to the paper, stresses on relentless competition as the essence of international politics. "Thus, for example, at exactly the time when the Obama administration was trying to most deeply engage China, the CCP’s Qiushi Journal published a detailed analysis of the six strategies that the United States was supposedly pursuing to contain China." 

In addition, US politicians routinely bemoan (accentuated at the time of coronavirus), the trade deficit the country faces vis-a-vis China, and the "economic advantage" that China is reaping from the Western open market system even while restricting its own. But, there are shades of grey in that narrative: According to Brookings, "The US-China economic relationship delivers more benefits to the US than is commonly understood. For example, recent data shows that US exports to China support around 1.8 million jobs in sectors such as services, agriculture, and capital goods. However, trade with China has also led to job destruction in some U.S. industries—particularly low wage manufacturing. "

How do the relations look going forward?

Election-year politics in the US are fanning the flames, as President Donald Trump appears to be using friction with China to drum up support among his base. Whether or not he is re-elected in November, underlying differences will remain for the foreseeable future. If there is one issue that Democratic candidate Joe Biden and Trump agree on, it is the need for a hawkish stance on China. Trump has ratcheted up tensions to an extreme, blaming China for the coronavirus, embarking on trade wars and military build-ups in the South China Sea. 

The US domestic tide is also turning, with polls showing that an increasing number of Americans are now harbouring increasingly negative views of China; a Pew poll put the number at 66 per cent. As the common parlance goes, the relation might just be at a point of no return.