Future of Asia, Global Pairings

Trump and America’s China Problem

While the U.S. President grandstands, the Chinese leadership changes global power dynamics – by stealing a page from American history.

Credit: www.flickr.com

Takeaways


  • Remarkable role reversal after the arrival of Trump: Now it’s China that champions the long-time American success formula.
  • Trump tweets about today's China ignorantly. US founding fathers two centuries ago modeled the country in part on Chinese principles.
  • President Xi’s “China rejuvenation” narrative recaptures his country's historic glory, at a time when the US is retreating.
  • Trump has turned America into a grotesque reality-show. China tutors the US president by making friends and influencing others globally.

President Donald Trump is on his maiden Asian trip, which will most prominently include meeting with President Xi Jinping of China. To understand the significance of what lies ahead, it is worth reflecting on the dynamics of the Sino-American relationship along deeper historical lines.

Memories of the past matter

The Chinese lost over 400,000 Chinese solders to U.S. bombs during the Korean War, including Chairman Mao Zedong’s only son. The apparently never-ending conflict continues to this day.

As North Korea—with over 25 million people—intensifies its ballistic missile program, the United States has opened a $11-billion military base in South Korea and deployed the anti-missile THAAD system, even though it would neither fully protect American forces nor South Korea.

In resolving the Korean conflict, what understandably lurks in the background for the Chinese are the painful memories of the three-year Korean War, the Japanese invasion and Nanjing massacre and most importantly the Century of Humiliation under Western powers.

Against that tragical backdrop, President Xi and the Chinese people justifiably want to have a sense of natural place and peace in the existing world order, preserving their own territorial integrity.

In that pursuit, China has diplomatically settled almost all 14-nation border issues neighboring the Middle Kingdom—most recently with India near the Bhutan and Nepal borders. North Korea with its complicated legacy is the greatest challenge for Xi.

Know your China

While Trump happily, but ignorantly tweets about China and what it should do, the enlightened founding generation of U.S. leaders over two centuries ago understood the Middle Kingdom.

It was, in fact, eager to learn from the wisdom of Chinese culture, literature, and history. That is how the “Commerce Clause” was embedded into the U.S. Constitution. The purpose was to focus on the unifying force-multiplier of trade, to create a commercial civilization in the new republic and beyond its shores—as China did with its ancient Silk Road civilization.

Since the arrival of Trump, there has been a remarkable role reversal. Now it is China that champions the long-time American success formula, while the White House itself retreats from the (Chinese-inspired) founding vision to herald President Trump’s “America First” strategy.

Thus, President Xi’s “China rejuvenation” narrative through his most ambitious foreign policy of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is not just a mega-sized infrastructure experiment.

Even more noteworthy is that it provides a way to recapture China’s historic glory. This is occurring at a time when the U.S. is retreating. No wonder they are tickled with joy to know that their country is now viewed in the same terms as the long-lines of American history, as an “experiment” running counter to the “old world’s” establishment thinking.

The BRI is China’s art of Peaceful War to redress the old wounds that were inflicted on the Chinese people, notably without causing collateral damage to those who were involved in it.

If anything, the existing powers, like the West in general, are sidelining themselves. The Chinese are just filling the commercial vacuum created by those powers’ lack of vision, action and the sustained political will.

The price of pomposity

In his Art of War, Sun Tzu had foreshowed this kind of inconsistent behavior and undisciplined language in a lost power: “Now the general who wins a battle makes many calculations in his temple ere [before] the battle is fought. The general who loses a battle makes but few calculations beforehand. . . . It is by attention to this point that I can foresee who is likely to win or lose.”

By providing ever more bizarre and indefensible arguments on trade issues, most prominently on China, the U.S. keeps playing a losing hand—all the more so as it seems incapable of developing a sound China strategy.

All the White House strategists have mustered so far is playing word games, à la: “We’re not at economic war with China, China is at economic war with us.”

Meanwhile, China continues with economic development and global trade through its BRI, the Silk Road Fund, and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Thus, while the U.S. fidgets and fiddles, China makes its moves.

As a result of that imbalance of vision, action, and reason, the U.S. government loses its prestige and influence globally.

As the ever more unpredictable President Trump has turned America largely into a reality-show and entertainment factor for personal fame and private gain, China makes more friends, influences others and continues to tutor the American president.

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About Patrick Mendis

Patrick Mendis is a Rajawali senior fellow of the Kennedy School of Government’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at Harvard University.

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