By Mel Gurtov
The trade war with China that Trump so confidently predicted would result in a great new deal now threatens to become a permanent feature of US-China relations. Why that is likely may have less to do with the specific trade issues in dispute than with the vastly different negotiating styles and operating principles of the two countriesâ€™ leaderships.
Letâ€™s recall that this dispute has gone through several stages of escalating US demands and Chinese counterattacks. Trump owns this trade war: He has decried Chinaâ€™s unfair trade practices and consequent huge trade surplus for many years, and his view of China as the main enemy goes back to 2011 (in an interview with CNN). Trump said long ago that if he were president, he would be able to force China to back down because it needs us more than we need it.
Barring some dramatic change in thinking in Washington or Beijing, Trump will carry through on his threat to impose 25-percent tariffs across the board on the remaining $300 billion of Chinese imports. That move will come on top of blacklisting Huawei, the telecommunications giant, hoping to starve its reliance on US-made components and force European customers to reject Huaweiâ€™s 5G network. Sanctioning Hikvision, the dominant maker of video surveillance products, may be nextâ€”though not because of legitimate human rights concerns.
What Trump is doing is entirely in keeping with his aggressive business style: threaten oneâ€™s adversary, avoid making concessions, donâ€™t back down, and above all win. The substance of the administrationâ€™s complaints, which previous administrations negotiated, has been overshadowed by Trumpâ€™s ego. The trouble with that style is that his Chinese opponent has a long history of dealing with threats from a more powerful country, typically denouncing them as â€œbullyingâ€ and â€œhumiliation.â€ Neither Trump nor, it seems, any of his advisers has the slightest notion of the history and power of Chinese nationalism. One of them, Mike Pompeo, thinks the struggle with Huawei is ideological: either â€œWestern valuesâ€ or communist values will rule the Internet, he says. One wonders what Trump and company think on reading translations from the Chinese press of how Xi Jinping and the party leadership are responding to this latest foreign assault: the references to a â€œnew Long March,â€ overcoming difficulties, and defending Chinaâ€™s economic development path, which it now calls a â€œcore interest.â€
â€œWhat is most important,â€ Xi says, â€œis still that we do our own things well.â€ In other words, China will not be moved from its present course, which has served it well and may even have given it the moral advantage with some of Americaâ€™s best friends, for example the Japanese and the Koreans who have also felt the heavy hand of Trumpâ€™s transactional style. He has given the Chinese the gift of being able to play the victim.
Trump evidently is convinced that the Chinese will eventually cave in to US commercial demands. No doubt heâ€™s correct that the trade war will hurt Chinaâ€™s economy more than it will the US economy, but the Chinese leadership is very unlikely to accede to Trumpâ€™s demands for that reason. History, face, and public opinion provide considerable backbone for resisting the Americans. Nor will Trumpâ€™s â€œgreat friendshipâ€ with Xi make a differenceâ€”no more than his love affair with Kim Jong-un has influenced Kimâ€™s strategy. Trump may think that smiles and glitzy receptions transcend national interests, but thatâ€™s certainly not a notion the Chinese share. If anything, Trump has proven to Xi that initial Chinese assessments of compatibility with the new US president were badly mistaken.
Despite the pessimistic outlook of many observers, mutual pain and political realities may eventually lead to a temporary fix on trade, which will be a boon to US and Chinese firms as well as investors in China and Wall Street stockholders. But this trade deal, like others such as NAFTA.2, will not offer enforceable protections to workers. Thatâ€™s the missing ingredientâ€”missing, as well, in most media accounts that make it seem â€œtradeâ€ is only about shipping and markets, just as the US and Chinese governments would have it.
Chinaâ€™s foreign ministry spokesman said on May 23 that if the US attitude is â€œsincereâ€ and â€œserious,â€ China will welcome a return to the negotiating table. But the spokesman added that â€œa good agreement must be founded on mutual respect, equality, and equal benefit.â€ These longstanding Chinese principles can only be understood in an historical context. Does the US side appreciate what lies behind those principles? Does the first-time reference to â€œcore interests,â€ usually reserved for Taiwan and Tibet, suggest a Chinese red line that the Trump administration should take as an indication that â€œwinningâ€ is not a realistic goal?
The trade war is about a lot more than technological competition, soybeans, and even workersâ€™ rights. It is the tip of the iceberg, just one reflection of a world order that, to the Chinese, is rapidly changing in Chinaâ€™s favor. The US-China relationship is the worldâ€™s most important, and one in which â€œwinningâ€ is a loserâ€™s game. The current US crackdown on Chinese student and scholar visas, to which Beijing is retaliating, is the kind of shortsighted action that undermines cooperation and goodwill. If the US and China donâ€™t get their relationship right, the chances of reaching agreement on a wide range of other critical issuesâ€”nuclear weapons, the South China Sea, Taiwan, the climate crisis, Korean peninsula securityâ€”are virtually nil. A violent outcome in some disputes, whether by design or miscalculation, increases significantly. Sadly, the key ingredients for getting it right are missing: mutual understanding, a search for common ground, and talks on the basis of equality and global as well as social responsibility.
And in memory of those who stood up for democracy at Tiananmen 30 years ago today.
Mel Gurtov, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University.