The trade war that started back in March involves Trump slapping tariffs on half of China’s exports to the US and China retaliating in kind.
Recently Trump has been sending some more positive signals. A couple of weeks ago he tweeted that he had had “a very good conversation” with President Xi Jinping “with a heavy emphasis on trade”.
He raised hopes that they might reach a compromise at the G20 world rulers’ summit at the end of November. After all, Trump stepped back from a trade war with the European Union (EU) in July.
Clearly this prospect is unwelcome to some in his administration. Peter Navarro, director of the White House National Trade Council, launched an astonishing attack on “globalist billionaires” last Friday.
He accused them of being “unregistered foreign agents” acting as part of a Chinese “influence operation” to get Trump to withdraw his tariffs. “Globalist” has become a far right antisemitic code word for “Jewish”.
It’s true that the Chinese government invited a number of leading US bankers to meet Vice President Wang Qishan in September.
The fact that they went had nothing to with any conspiracy by “Jewish finance”. US banks and corporations have benefited heavily from the liberalised world economy that has allowed capital to move where profits are high and wages low.
This doesn’t mean that the confrontation with China is just a personal eccentricity of Trump’s. Ever since the ruling Communist Party started to integrate China into the world market in 1978, it has never been just another low-wage location for corporations.
The party has maintained state control over the banks and large industrial enterprises. Now China is the world’s second biggest economy and the largest manufacturer and exporter.
One of Xi’s main policies is called Made in China 2025. This aims to upgrade the Chinese economy into more and more hi-tech areas.
It scares many Western companies and governments who fear Chinese firms will take their markets. There are also widespread accusations that Chinese takeovers of Western firms are used to obtain valuable intellectual property.
The truce struck by the US and the EU back in July involved a joint investigation into—though not in as many words—alleged Chinese theft of Western technology.
This isn’t just a matter of economic competition. China’s rise represents the most serious threat so far to the global hegemony of US capitalism.
The US fears that firms with connections to the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) are trying to get access to research into artificial intelligence that could have military spin-offs.
Both the US and European states, including Britain, are starting to clamp down on Chinese investments that might affect their security.
The tensions go in both directions. Xi has revived former leader Mao Zedong’s old slogan of “self-reliance”.
Defence minister General Wei Fenghe told an international forum organised by the PLA that the island of Taiwan “is China’s core interest”. “If anyone tries to separate Taiwan from China, China’s military will take action at all costs,” he warned.
Taiwan was historically part of China, but is independent thanks to US support.
The US didn’t invite China to observe Rimpac, the huge naval exercise it holds in the Pacific every two years. And it imposed sanctions on a branch of the PLA for buying the Russian S-400 missile defence system.
But there’s no controversy in the US ruling class about this kind of action. They assume the US has the right to dominate both the Pacific and Europe.
Although there’s lots of opposition to Trump’s tariffs in US business circles, measures intended to show China who’s boss are fine.
Crises are on the horizon