A more hard-nosed stance with Beijing is emerging from the Trump administration as China’s help with North Korea wanes and trade talks stall


WASHINGTON—The Trump administration is moving deliberately to counter what the White House views as years of unbridled Chinese aggression, taking aim at military, political and economic targets in Beijing and signaling a new and potentially much colder era in U.S.-China relations.

In the first 18 months of the administration, ties between the world’s two biggest powers were defined by negotiations over how to restrain North Korea and ways to rebalance trade. Those high-profile endeavors masked White House preparations for a more hard-nosed stance with Beijing—a strategy now surfacing as China’s help with Pyongyang wanes and trade talks stall.

Interviews with senior White House officials and others in government make clear that recent volleys in what appears a new Cold War aren’t the exception to President Trump’s China policy. They are exactly what the administration wants—putting the spotlight on a meeting between Mr. Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping at a multilateral summit planned for November.

Vice President Mike Pence last week gave a blistering speech on U.S.-China relations, saying “the United States has adopted a new approach to China” with the message to China: “This president will not back down.”

On Wednesday, the Treasury Department announced new rules targeting China that tighten national security reviews of foreign investment. On the same day, the Justice Department said it had brought a Chinese intelligence operative arrested in Belgium to the U.S. to face charges he conspired to steal trade secrets from GE Aviation and others. It was the first time prosecutors publicly identified someone in custody as a Chinese intelligence officer.

The Energy Department announced Thursday heightened controls on nuclear technology exports to China. The administration also signed off recently on Justice Department directives that force a pair of Chinese state media outlets to register as foreign agents.

The speed of the U.S. shift to a more confrontational China strategy has surprised many Chinese officials and sent Beijing scrambling to stabilize the relationship, with Washington the disrupter, analysts said.

“The U.S. is getting tougher and tougher, confronting China on all fronts,” said Zhu Feng, an expert on China-U.S. relations and international security at Nanjing University. “Beijing should be very coolheaded because does a new Cold War serve China’s interests? No.”

The U.S. moves represent an emphatic shift from a “constructive engagement” strategy that dates to the establishment of diplomatic ties in 1979. It was based on hopes China would slowly liberalize economically and politically.

Underpinning the change is the view that China has reversed course since Mr. Xi took over in 2012 and began recentralizing political and economic controls, pledging to build his nation into a great world power.

The more aggressive U.S. approach was forecast last December in the National Security Strategy that put China on par with North Korea, Iran and jihadist terrorist groups as the biggest U.S. threats. At the time, the strategy contrasted with Mr. Trump’s personal diplomacy.

Early in his term, Mr. Trump flattered Mr. Xi, talking up a holiday card he received before taking office and sharing “the most beautiful piece of chocolate cake” at their Mar-a-Lago dinner in the spring of 2017. He scotched a campaign promise to label China a currency manipulator, saying he didn’t want to jeopardize a potential ally against the threat from North Korea.

Since then, White House advisers have changed to a more hawkish crew. And Mr. Trump has seen that his personal and controversial gambits—extending a lifeline to China’s ZTE Corp., for instance—haven’t yielded enough in return. After a dozen phone calls with Mr. Xi, an exchange of letters and several face-to-face meetings, the tepid response from China has irritated the president, one senior administration official described, like death from a thousand cuts.

Beijing was infuriated by the U.S. decision last month to impose sanctions on a Chinese military agency—and its chief—for purchasing Russian SU-35 jet fighters and equipment related to its S-400 antiaircraft missile system, U.S. officials said.

China responded to the sanctions by lodging a formal complaint with the U.S. ambassador, ordering the return of its navy chief from a visit to Washington, and refusing permission for a U.S. Navy ship to port in Hong Kong.

Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi, speaking recently at the Council on Foreign Relations, said growing U.S. fears that China would seek global hegemony was a serious strategic misjudgment.

“Where this ends is a trade deal,” a senior administration official said. “Xi is starting to look at this and say, ‘Wow, Trump is doing the things he said he’s going to do,’ and realize that he has to get to work.’”