As Trump attacks, China sees a worrying trend for its future

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A Beijing supporter displays a placard during a protest against the U.S. sanctions outside the U.S. Consulate in Hong Kong Thursday, July 16, 2020. China has accused the U.S. of seeking to obstruct its development with moves to sanction officials who undermine local autonomy in Hong Kong. (AP Photo/Vincent Yu)

BEIJING – On Monday, it was the South China Sea. On Tuesday, it was Hong Kong. On Wednesday, Huawei and human rights.

The Trump administration appears to be accelerating a push to define China as a strategic threat, a worrying trend for the country's leaders as the ambitions of a rising economic and military power collide with America's.

A senior official accused the U.S. this week of using the Hong Kong issue to try to obstruct China's development.

Vice Foreign Minister Zheng Zeguang told U.S. Ambassador Terry Branstad in a meeting in Beijing that threats of U.S. sanctions and the withdrawal of special trading privileges for Hong Kong are not about democracy and freedom in the semi-autonomous territory but an attempt to contain China.

“I want to warn the U.S. sternly that any bullying and unfairness imposed on China by the U.S. will meet resolute counterattack from China, and the U.S. attempt to obstruct China’s development is doomed to failure,” he said, according to an account carried by state media.

Behind the tough words is growing concern. Foreign Minister Wang Yi said in a speech last week that U.S.-China relations face their most severe challenge since the two countries established diplomatic ties in 1979. He asked if bilateral relations will be able to stay the course after a more than four-decade voyage.

At one level, the Trump administration's attacks on China are seen as election-year politics, an attempt to woo voters and distract them from problems at home. President Donald Trump has sought to blame the coronavirus outbreak on China, rather than on any shortcomings in how his government dealt with it.

But America's differences with China go beyond Trump. The tone could change if he is not re-elected in November, but the underlying issues will remain.