ASIA’S largest country featured heavily in the election campaign of Donald Trump. Singling it out as an unwanted competitor, the president-elect regularly pronounced that “we can’t continue to allow China to rape our country”. China was seen to be trading unfairly, cheating international rules and holding America back from being great again. After his victory, Mr Trump has continued to criticise China, ramping up his rhetoric and attacking key parts of their relationship.

First among these was accepting a congratulatory phone call from the Taiwanese president, the first since 1979, which suggested that the United States would disregard Beijing’s “One China” policy. For Beijing, Taiwan is a separatist province considered part of China. Such a policy is non-negotiable for China and had been respected by the US in previous treaties.

Mr Trump has also condemned China’s actions in the South China Sea, which Beijing regards as its natural domain critical to its border, trade and energy security. Such bombast has called into question China’s independence and status in East Asia yet has ignored the presence of several US bases and 64,000 US troops across the region, which China perceives as encircling its territory.

Some observers have deduced that Mr Trump’s targeting of China is designed to illicit trade concessions from Beijing and place relations on a more equitable footing. Such a strategy is intended to present the new President as a tough talking deal maker able to stand up to the most rapidly rising country of modern times. Such a tactic ignores the huge degree of deep-seated economic interdependence and synergy between the two countries.

In 2015, mutual trade was $598 billion (£486bn), with China being the US’s second largest export market and the US being China’s largest export destination. In turn, Beijing is the largest holder of US debt, amounting to $1.24 trillion (£1trn) or 20 per cent of the total. China also has the world’s largest gold and currency reserves at $3.41trn (£2.8trn), mostly in cash dollars. Policies upsetting any of these areas would negatively affect both sides, while the selling off of US debt/dollar reserves is a powerful form of negotiating leverage if Chinese leaders want it to be.

Faced with Mr Trump’s hostile posturing, Beijing initially adopted a wait-and-see approach that echoed the president-elect’s campaign penchant for contradiction and mistruth. His Taiwan and South China Sea overtures were however regarded as highly provocative and counter-productive, with Chinese state media declaring Trump to be an amateur who “bears no sense of how to lead a superpower”. Beyond this rhetoric, China’s only aircraft carrier battle group has also conducted its first live ammunition exercises, whilst a Chinese salvage ship seized an unmanned underwater drone operated for the US Navy, later returned after “friendly consultations”.

Just as Trump’s actions are intended to resonate with US voters, Beijing’s responses are also aimed at its population. Often virulently nationalistic, and raised upon Communist Party narratives of restoring China to its past status, China’s leaders must be seen to reply to Mr Trump’s provocations. They therefore have no choice but to also show that their country is strong, will not be intimidated by external powers and is willing to stand up for its principles and interests.

It is for these reasons that outgoing President Barack Obama has warned against US-China relations sliding into “full conflict mode”, in which neither side is willing to back down, and their leaders are forced to act upon their words, despite the damaging costs that would result. Such a miscalculation appears more likely from Mr Trump, as his disregard for the last 45 years of US-China relations has shown.

That both countries have the world’s largest militaries and economies, are nuclear-armed and are led by authoritarian-minded leaders buoyed by evermore-nationalist populations, should be of great concern. Any confrontation would have a major impact, ranging from possible worldwide recession if a trade war arises to global depression if full-blown conflict erupts. With the president elect appearing to be inexperienced, thin-skinned and unpredictable, all these outcomes seem plausible, especially if his narrative of China as a threat to US power gains greater legitimacy.

Dr Ogden is senior lecturer in Asian Security at the School of International Relations at the University of St Andrews.