After years of angry rhetoric on trade and, more recently, dubious claims that Covid-19 emerged in a Chinese laboratory, President Donald Trump is threatening to end bilateral relations altogether.
“We could cut off the whole relationship now," he said in an interview with Fox Business News. “If we did, what would happen? We’d save $500 billion.” The risk of a military clash between the two countries is increasing even if neither side wants war, Hu Xijin, the outspoken editor-in-chief of China’s Global Times tabloid, wrote on Twitter.
For all the intemperate language, there’s less to this latest clash than meets the eye. Trump and Beijing are both adept at filling their diplomatic language with sound and fury, signifying nothing. A look at China’s other strained ties shows there’s usually far more realpolitik than ego at play.
Take Australia. The testy relationship with Canberra is going through another bad patch, with China threatening tariffs on barley and banning beef imports from some slaughterhouses after Australia called for an inquiry into whether its wet markets were responsible for the emergence of coronavirus.
Australia exports more to China than to its next four biggest trade partners put together. From China’s perspective, only the U.S., Japan and South Korea buy more mainland goods. Yet Canberra has been in the doghouse with Beijing for several years. The last meeting between their leaders was in 2016. Chinese President Xi Jinping hasn’t managed to fit the country into his busy travel schedule since 2014. Recent years have been dotted with spats over foreign-influence laws, China’s human rights record, its detention of Australian writer Yang Hengjun, and even a doping scandal around now-banned Olympic swimmer Sun Yang.
In spite of all that, economic and social relations are as good as they’ve ever been. Chinese imports from Australia have never been higher than in the 12 months through December; the number of Chinese students enrolling at the country’s universities was also at a record, running nearly double the level when warmer ties prevailed back in 2014.