TOKYO -- The U.S. government's abrupt order for China to close its consulate in Houston this week marks a new phase in the deterioration of relations between the two countries.
President Donald Trump told reporters Wednesday that he might order the closure of more Chinese consulates, a comment that comes as bilateral tensions have spread beyond diplomacy, trade and technology to enter the military realm.
Days earlier, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Beijing's territorial claims across most of the South China Sea were "completely unlawful," in the American government's first straightforward rejection of China's stance.
In addition, the U.S. dispatched two aircraft carriers to the South China Sea for large-scale drills this month, while China also has conducted major military exercises there recently.
But a core change has occurred that deserves stronger attention than the visible frictions: The Chinese Communist Party is rapidly being seen as evil by the U.S. administration and Congress.
On Thursday, Pompeo gave a sweeping speech on China, in which he compared the country to "Frankenstein." Chinese President Xi Jinping "is a true believer in a bankrupt totalitarian ideology," he said.
Essentially, this approach says China continues to violate human rights and international rules with its words and actions precisely because it is under the rule of a CCP dictatorship.
Though this view might not appear all that odd, its conclusion is grave: Pressure and dialogue will not be able to alter Beijing's words and actions -- rather, a change to the regime itself is necessary.
In this column during May, I referred to the emergence of this dark vision of China but said it had not become a mainstay in the U.S. administration and Congress yet. However, U.S. foreign policy experts and others say the view of China as evil is starting to spread throughout American politics.
U.S. cabinet members and other American officials have voiced surprisingly candid hostility toward the Communist Party and its leaders in speeches over the past month.
The trend began on June 24 when Robert O'Brien, Trump's national security adviser, equated Xi to Josef Stalin, the dictator of the old Soviet Union estimated to have killed millions of his enemies.
Christopher Wray, director of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation, and Attorney General William Barr also lashed out at the CCP this month.
The criticism from American leaders positions the CCP as a grave security threat that freely engages in espionage, blackmail and propaganda in the U.S. in order to upset the foundation of democracy.
In addition to cabinet members, government officials bitterly criticized the party during a recent telephone briefing in which I took part.
Frictions between the U.S. and China have been directed mainly toward trade, technology and maritime leadership, areas where compromise can be reached. But if Washington's policy toward China is based on a view of the CCP as evil, a compromise becomes impossible.
U.S. media report that Washington is considering an entry ban on more than 90 million members of the CCP and their families. American distrust of China has grown due to Beijing's hard-line stance on cybersecurity and maritime claims, but it has solidified as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, which has caused more than 140,000 deaths in the U.S.
Many Americans seem to believe that the pandemic was fueled by a cover-up of the initial outbreak in China linked to the CCP's ban on free speech and a free press. This sentiment is spreading in U.S. society, with distrust in China's government forming from the bottom up.
Anti-China sentiment also grows as Trump stresses Beijing's responsibility for the pandemic to cover his policy errors.
Is there any room for the U.S. and China to take a breather and move toward rapprochement? Though Pompeo and Yang Jiechi, a Politburo member and China's foreign policy chief, met in Hawaii on June 17, the meeting appears to have generated nothing but pessimism.
Beijing called for the meeting, a source in Washington insists. Yang appeared to think the U.S. might ease its stance on Hong Kong, the South China Sea, human rights and Taiwan if China used as a hostage their "phase one" bilateral trade deal, to which Trump attaches much importance.
But Pompeo reportedly showed no sign of easing his stance. Since the meeting, the U.S. has successively introduced sanctions on China for its suppression of Tibetans and Uighurs and infringement of Hong Kong's autonomy.
As the sanctions are designed to cut into the Communist Party, they are on a different level from those slapped previously on Huawei Technologies and other Chinese high-tech companies. It is fair to say that they have triggered a war over China's political regime.
The trend appears unlikely to change even if former Vice President Joe Biden wins the U.S. presidential election in November. A hard-line posture on China is bipartisan and strongly supported by Democrats as well, a U.S. government official said. At a recent online meeting hosted by an American think tank, the foreign policy, security and other advisers behind Biden's campaign said they will seek to increase pressure on China in cooperation with U.S. allies.
The U.S. took a hostile view of the CCP and confronted China following the 1989 Tiananmen Square incident, a deadly crackdown by Chinese troops against pro-democracy protesters in Beijing.
But with China's subsequent rapid development, Washington and Beijing attracted each other economically and established honeymoon relations less than 10 years later, even calling themselves strategic partners.
No similar rebound in relations is likely this time, because China over the past 30 years has become a superpower that threatens U.S. leadership in economic and military terms.
The two giants have stepped into a long tunnel of antagonism.