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CvT: How Did We Get Here? A Glance at US-China Relations in 2020

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From pandemic accusations to market fluctuation, 2020 has been anything but a placid year for the relations between two of the world’s top superpowers. Here’s a look at some key moments that have defined the year so far, and a look towards what is to come.

Trade

In January of this year, the US and China signed a trade agreement called the Phase One deal that enumerated each nations’ expectations, including the loosening of US tariffs on Chinese goods and China’s commitment to purchase US$200 billion of US goods over two years. The Phase One deal aimed to signify significant progress in U.S.-China relations, but has since shown underwhelming results. As of June 2020, China had already fallen short of import commitments in key sectors, namely agriculture and energy. Both sides have slapped billions of dollars’ worth of tariffs onto one another’s goods, and neither nation is backing down.

Coronavirus

Following the virus out of Wuhan and across borders, Washington was quick to point fingers at Beijing. From barring citizens from traveling between countries, to accusations of bio-warfare and military provocation, official responses to the pandemic inspired further tensions. While both countries have since shifted their rhetoric to a less militant tone, underlying distrust continues to characterize the bilateral relationship.

Hong Kong

Hong Kong has enjoyed a special economic status from Western nations after the city’s 1997 handover stipulated that the region would enjoy unique autonomy from the Mainland via the “one nation, two systems” governance framework. After a growing democracy movement that first swelled in 2014 and peaked in 2019 garnered international attention, Beijing began cracking down on the city through a series of reforms that culminated in a new national security law that effectively stripped the city of its political, judicial, and economic autonomy. President Trump and several allied Western nations decisively terminated Hong Kong’s special status, ending prior special privileges and favored economic treatment for the semi-autonomous region.

Tech Wars

As August rolls around, Chinese tech goliaths Tik Tok and WeChat have found themselves at the frontline of the US-China spat, with both apps’ US operations at risk of termination. Citing a threat to national security, President Trump announced a five-pronged plan to secure America from cyber-threats, including shielding business IP and COVID vaccine research. The plan implicitly refers to the two social media apps as threats and cites the need to establish clean networks, carriers, and apps that are free from Chinese ownership. This clean network program aims to protect data from Beijing by building an “e-fortress” around US citizens’ data and reflects how escalating tensions are extending into the tech frontier. 

Looking Forward

It is tough to predict the future of US-China relations during such volatile times. The two superpowers are so deeply interconnected that, despite sitting on opposite ends of the political spectrum, a complete decoupling is impractical to discuss – even in theory. As the U.S. election season approaches, it is unlikely that de-escalation is in the cards for the two nations, especially as they continue to embrace a strongman approach to their relations with one another.

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