In previous tense moments, the two leaders, Mr. Trump and Mr. Xi, sometimes smoothed over differences with a long phone call or a meeting. It has happened in the past when trade fights boiled over, as well as early in the coronavirus outbreak, when the rhetoric between both sides intensified.
The tone now in Washington, though, has worsened. And Mr. Trump no longer seems interested in defusing the crisis.
“Xi Jinping could take the initiative instead,” said Susan L. Shirk, the chairwoman of the 21st Century China Center at the University of California, San Diego. “Xi could also demonstrate China’s benign intentions by inviting the U.S. to join with it in leading an international effort to plan now for the testing, manufacture and fair distribution of Covid vaccine.”
The tough policies and tougher rhetoric from Washington indicate that the United States, not China, is setting the ever more confrontational tone in the bilateral relationship. “I think originally you could have faulted the Chinese for much of the imbalance,” said Orville Schell, the director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society, “but now the U.S. doesn’t seem as ardent about leaving the door open for remedy, as it is arching its back against China.”
Given the breadth of American actions and increasingly bipartisan support, it is not clear that China can hope for an improvement even if Mr. Trump’s challenger, Joseph R. Biden Jr., wins the election.
Mr. Schell noted that as vice president, Mr. Biden met with Mr. Xi frequently, even traveling together.
“There’s a kind of symmetry there that he could use to recast the relationship,” he said. “The real question is whether Xi can respond the same way — whether giving a little to get a little is seen as weakness.”