Make China great again!

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Why Xi Jinping would vote for a president Trump

America’s political culture can be befuddling even for someone like me who hails from another English speaking democracy. Imagine how baffling it must seem to someone who’s reference point is China. A twitter account called the Relevant Organs, which parodies the Communist Party’s English language propoganda, had fun with this notion during one of the Republican debates. The fictional official running the account supposedly struggled to understand the proceedings:

One can only imagine what this official would have made of the ‘Orange defendant’ saying in an earlier debate that:

“The TPP is a horrible deal, It is a deal that is going to lead to nothing but trouble. It’s a deal that’s designed for China to come in, as they always do, through the back door and totally take advantage of everyone.”

The Trans Pacific Partnership, to give it its full name, is a free trade deal recently signed by the US and 11 other countries. Trump’s assertion was strange because as Senator Rand Paul promptly pointed out, China wasn’t one of those 11 countries and is unlikely ever to qualify to join. Indeed, and this is what would have made Trump’s point so confusing for Chinese viewer, the deal is supposed to exclude rather than include rather China. Believing that is not Chinese paranoia. When TPP was signed Bloomberg reported:

A 12-nation Pacific trade deal strengthens President Barack Obama’s hand in his strategic pivot toward Asia and challenges China to accept U.S.-backed rules for doing business. A trading bloc stretching from Chile to Japan, with the U.S. at the economic center, bolsters Obama’s effort to counter growing Chinese military and economic influence in the Pacific.

TPP’s failure – which would be assured if Trump ever became president – would actually be a big win for China both economically and geo-politically.

I point up this incident to highlight a major problem with Trump’s policy proposals. He presents them as a sign of his toughness and his determination that America should ‘win’. Yet they’d almost certainly weaken America’s position.

To see why place yourself in the position of a Chinese observer of America considerably more sophisticated than our fictional debate watching official: Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping. Foreign policy is important to you. Once upon a time, the rule of the Party was legitimised by Maoist ideology but you gave up on that decades ago; then it was the astonishing improvements in living standards the people were seeing and for which the Party took credit but now those seem to be tapering off; so now he will be hoping that nationalism might do the job. If you can show them the Party has – to coin a phrase – ‘made China great again’ then they’ll feel good about that and won’t start asking for any pesky democracy.

You’re well on its way to achieving that objective. Gone are the days of Western powers waging wars to make the Chinese buy opium or of Japanese soldiers marauding round the country commiting every human rights abuse imaginable. And in the near future – recent troubles notwithstanding – China should become the world’s largest economy  and that will eventually pay for the most powerful military.

Nonetheless, you still worry about the US. Not that you have anything against the place; your daughter went to Harvard! But history has taught you not to trust them. All the way back to the 19th century despite their anti-imperial rhetoric they followed the lead of the European nations and took part in the exploitative unequal treaties. They’ve been arming the rebel holdouts in Taiwan for decades. And moves like TPP give you every indication that they intend to continue undermining your country for a while longer.

Given the shifting balance of power, you know they can no longer achieve that alone. They need the co-operation of your neighbours. Unfortunately, they have a lot of scope to do that. Despite all that spending on Confucius Institutes, most people in the world still have more admiration and trust for American liberalism than Chinese autocracy. That’s especially true of your neighbours who regard you as an overbearing bully. So what you really need is an undiplomatic oaf to come along and torpedo America’s relations with these potential allies. Well cometh the hour, cometh the man!

The aforementioned oaf is not an unknown quantity in the People’s Republic. He was an executive producer for a Chinese version of the Apprentice and the original American version has fans in China. And his books have been translated into Chinese. And in a country with such a rapidly growing economy entrepreneurs are a revered group. To quote one of Xi’s most important predecessors: “to get rich is glorious“.

Nonetheless, Xi Jinping is unlikely to be impressed by Trump. His boorish sexism and racism probably won’t bother Xi as much as it does most westerners; despite the CCP’s supposed commitment to equality and brotherhood, the niceties of political correctness have never really caught on in China. Still even for the head of a regime that regularly equates Islam and terrorism, banning all Muslims will seem a bit much. But what will be really shocking to someone like Xi is that an individual without a background in public administration might be considered a fit person to be president. The Chinese system, in theory at least, is a meritocracy that owes more to Confucianism than communism. Entrance to the civil service is by competitive exam and promotion is – in theory at least -based on performance. In order to be allowed to run a big city you must first prove yourself running a small one. Hence in order to reach a position like Xi’s you need to have a great deal of experience. The possibility that a newcomer with a flair for showmanship could be made president just he gets the most votes, confirms all your prejudices about democracy.

And Xi can already see the mistakes Trump is likely to make. The rejection of TPP would undermine US credibility with regards to the territorial disputes over the South China Sea. All of the countries that claim islands within that space – Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia – were signatories to TPP. If Washington proves unreliable on trade, then why would these countries expect it to back them up militarily? Without a superpower in their corner they are going to be much less assertive in challenging Beijing, which would conversely then feel able to be more assertive. It might well begin building more artificial islands and deploy larger forces to the islands it already has. The US would then be faced with a China able to lock them out of the South China Sea altogether, which is precisely what American policy up to this point has been geared towards avoiding.

That turn of events would certainly perturb Tokyo and Seoul. However, what would really concern them are the noises Trump is making about America’s treaty commitments to defend their countries. Essentially, Trump wants them to contribute to the cost of keeping American forces in the region – which they already do – and to have a reciprocal requirement to defend the US. Now given his self-image as the master deal maker, he would contend that he’d make Japan and Korea agree to his demands. But there are practical difficulties he may not be able to bluster past. There are lobbies in both countries that dislike the presense of American soldiers and would make it hard for their governments to make concessions. And Japan’s pacifist constitution – which was written by the US – would make things complicated. And even if Trump could bring this shift about, Japan and Korea would be left smarting and resentful and less likely to co-operate on other matters.

Even on the other side of Asia, Trump would likely push countries towards China. He subscribes to the conventional Republic stance on Iran: that he would back out of the nuclear deal. That would suit China fine. If it is the US turns its back on a perfectly viable deal then China will feel no need to reimpose sanctions. That will allow it to form trade links with Iran and thereby gain second hand influence in the Middle East.

 

Trump might well respond that this wouldn’t matter because as president he would put China in its place and leave these allies and potential allies with nowhere to turn but the US. The meat of this appears to be his intention to slap tariffs on Chinese goods imported into the US in retaliation for China’s manipulation of its currency. Essentially what Trump and others allege is that China has artificially lowered the value of the Renminbi to make its exports cheaper than they otherwise would be. There are a number of problems with this. For starters, it’s not true. China has been actively trying to stop the Renminbi depreciating and its one of the few currencies of emerging markets not to have fallen in value recently. And tariffs are a weapon that launches backwards as well as forward. Slapping them on Chinese goods would hurt American consumers as well as Chinese producers. Indeed, while reducing Chinese exports to the US would have a negative impact on firms that exports it wouldn’t necessarily be a disaster for their economy overall. One of its major problems, which Xi appears to be trying to rectify, is that the economy relies too heavily on selling goods abroad rather than at home. American tariffs that depressed exports might actually help achieve this objective. So what Trump is proposing is essentially to threaten Beijing into stopping something it’s not doing in the first place with a policy which if enacted would cause more harm to the US than China. And by utilising that weapon to combat a phantom threat, he does not have it available to retaliate against say a cyberattack.

Trump’s misreading of the situation vis a vis America’s relationship with China arises from two fundamental problems. Both of them can be gleamed in his claim that:

America doesn’t win anymore… nothing works in our country. If I am elected president we will win again.

 

Such a sweeping claim is unlikely to right in all circumstances and buying into it will obscure the cases where it isn’t. Clearly there are aspects of US foreign policy in Asia that aren’t working. For example, North Korea is resolutely not being denuclearised, quite the opposite in fact. But plenty of what the US is doing to maintain a geopolitical balance with China seems to be working. In particular, it does seem to be preserving and expanding its network of allies in the region. Consider the following for evidence of this:

Screenshot (10)

That’s not enough to stop a shift in power from the US to China but remember that power is a relative concept. America can lose it not through its own failure but as a result of the success of others. Indeed, it would be surprising if China did not become more powerful in the wake of shirking off the self-imposed handicap of a centrally planned economy. Washington can find better or worse ways to deal with China’s rise but that ascent does not necessarily indicate that American policy isn’t working.

Among the worst ways of dealing with the situation would be to alienate allies. Trump’s focus on relentless ‘winning’ seems misplaced with regards to geopolitics. Is it desirable to ‘defeat’ your friends? If President Trump was to make losers out of Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, the Philipines, Malaysia, Indonesia, India and even Iran that wouldn’t make America the winner. The beneficiary would be China. Rather than facing a co-ordinated effort to prevent it asserting it dominating its neighbours, it would face a variety of actors none of whom would be strong enough to challenge it and many of whom would doubt it was worth it anymore. That would substantially increase China’s options and reduce America’s. So if Xi Jinping had a vote in the Republican primaries, he’d probably cast it for Trump.

 

Caveat: The post above has taken it as an axiomatic that the US should see China’s rise as a threat and seek to counter it. There’s a real debate to be had about that. Nonetheless, Trump seems to percieve China as a menace and I have chosen to critique his proposals on their own terms.

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