Trump heading for ‘a new cold war’ with China

Feeding the dragon: Trump views China as a major threat to American businesses.

For decades, China and the USA have carefully avoided hostilities. Donald Trump seems keen to change that. Some are predicting a breakdown in relations between the countries. Are they right?

In 1972, at the height of the Cold War, Richard Nixon did something radical. The American president visited China, supposedly an enemy of the USA, and spoke of the need to normalise relations. Since then, the two nations have worked hard to stay on good terms.

That may soon change. Donald Trump makes no secret of his distrust of China, which views the president-elect with alarm and, increasingly, anger. Trump’s election appears to have ‘opened the gates to a new cold war’, warned The Financial Times on Sunday.

It began on the campaign trail. Keen to portray himself as a defender of jobs, Trump kept accusing China of harming American industries with its cheap exports. Scolding the country for its currency devaluation and import tariffs, he threatened to retaliate with a 45% tax on Chinese exports to the USA.

After the election, he stunned China by doing something no president had done since 1979. He spoke by phone to the leader of Taiwan, a country China does not recognise. Chinese officials cautiously expressed their concern. The media went further, calling Trump ‘as ignorant as a child’ and raising the spectre of war with Taiwan.

Last week, the conflict reached the South China Sea. A Chinese naval vessel came across an American underwater drone and promptly took it, in a move widely seen as a deliberate provocation. In a furious tweet, Trump accused China of ‘stealing’ the drone (which it has since promised to return).

All eyes are now on that sea, where China has rapidly grown its military presence in recent years. This has worried not only China’s neighbours but also the USA, which counts most of those neighbours as allies. One of Trump’s key campaign promises was to boost spending on defence.

Yet much still holds China and the USA together. The world’s two biggest economies trade goods worth $598bn per year (much of which passes through the South China Sea). They would be hit hard by an outbreak of conflict.

Trump has shaken up the rulebook of global politics. On China, he has been harsher than any president in living memory. Does he mean what he says?

Hot and cold

Calm down, say some. There will be no war: both sides have too much to lose, trade-wise. Trump is using harsh words to stake out his negotiating position. Once he becomes president, he will talk business. As he likes to say, he is a deal-maker – and so is China.

Don’t be so sure, reply others. Trump is not afraid to go to war with the CIA, the US media and most of his own party, let alone rival nations. He is aggressive by nature. Meanwhile, what China may lose in trade, it stands to gain in political and military clout. This could well spiral into a cold war, or even a hot one.

You Decide

  1. Should we take everything Donald Trump says seriously?
  2. Is The Financial Times’s cold war comparison appropriate?


  1. Draw a timeline of China’s history since 1949, and mark on it the ten most important events.
  2. Look up Trump’s tweets about China since he won the election. What do they reveal about his attitude towards the country and his approach to foreign policy in general? Answer in 500 words.

Some People Say...

“You must get angry, terribly angry, about losing.”

Richard Nixon

What do you think?

Q & A

How powerful is China?
Very. After the USA, it has the world’s biggest economy and military budget, and it’s a nuclear power. It often provokes neighbours with shows of military force, but has tended to avoid war. However, the Chinese government appears willing to harm anyone who offends it by flexing its trading muscle. This is known as the ‘Dalai Lama effect’.
The Dalai Lama is the exiled spiritual leader of Tibet, a country under Chinese occupation. China does not recognise his authority. In 2010, German academics found that nations whose leaders meet him lose on average 8.1% of exports to China in the following two years. What’s more, the country sells us lots of everyday consumer electronics. If trade were disrupted, the cost of phones and computers could well go up.

Word Watch

Richard Nixon
President 1969–74. He is most famous for his reformist foreign policies and for the Watergate scandal which forced his resignation.
When two countries establish friendship after disagreement, they are said to ‘normalise’ relations.
Currency devaluation
Last year the Chinese government deliberately decreased the value of its currency, the renminbi. This effectively made Chinese exports cheaper, and American exports more expensive.
Does not recognise
See Become An Expert.
The media
The media quoted here is Global Times, a hawkish newspaper which is believed to reflect the views of many Chinese politicians.
In 2015, Chinese exports to the USA were worth $482bn, and vice-versa $116bn. So if trade is hit, China has more to lose. But the goods it sells to the USA – mostly mobile phones, laptops and other electronics – are harder to source from elsewhere than the US exports to China.
When the intelligence agency suggested that Russia interfered in the American election, Trump questioned its credibility. He is warm toward Russia’s leader Vladimir Putin.


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