Xi’s Strong Hand Against Trump

LONDON – The world will soon witness a historic test of wills between China and the United States, two superpowers whose leaders see themselves as supreme. In the immediate sense, it will be a battle over trade. But also at stake is the strategic leadership of East Asia and, eventually, the international order. As things stand, China holds a stronger position than many people realize. The question is whether Chinese President Xi Jinping will feel confident or brazen enough to want to prove it.

The test of wills was hardly China’s choice; but nor does it come as a surprise. US President Donald Trump’s recently announced import tariffs on steel, aluminum, and other Chinese-made goods are in keeping with his brand of economic nationalism. And his decision to accept North Korea’s invitation to hold bilateral talks on its nuclear program reflects the same “bring it on” attitude that he applied to the North’s earlier threats of war.

The upcoming test will be historic because it promises to reveal the true strengths and attitudes of the world’s rising power vis-à-vis the weakened but still leading incumbent power. For better or worse, the result could shape the world for decades to come.

On the trade front, China’s large bilateral surplus with the US could mean that it has more to lose from a trade war, simply because it has more exports that can be penalized. It is often said that surplus countries will always be the biggest losers in any tit-for-tat escalation of tariffs and other barriers.

But this assumption misses multiple points. For one thing, China is more economically resilient to the effects of a trade war than it used to be. Trade as a share of its total economic activity has halved in the past decade, from more than 60% of GDP in 2007 to just over 30% today.

China also has major advantages in terms of domestic politics and international diplomacy. As a dictatorship, China can ignore protests by workers and companies suffering from US tariffs. In the US, where mid-term congressional elections will be held this November, the outcry from exporters, importers, and consumers facing higher costs will be heard loud and clear.

Of course, Trump, too, might ignore protests against his trade war if he is convinced that taking on China will please his core voters and win him re-election in 2020. But congressional Republicans will probably feel differently, especially if their states or districts are among those being singled out by Chinese import tariffs.

In terms of international diplomacy, Trump’s trade war will help China present itself as the defender of the rules-based international order and multilateral institutions such as the World Trade Organization. To be sure, not all countries would follow China’s lead. The WTO does not recognize China as a market economy, owing to the Chinese government’s significant involvement in industry and alleged theft of intellectual property.

But China will have a chance to play the victim, while arguing that the US now poses the single largest threat to the global trading system that it helped create. And if a US-initiated trade war drags on, China’s case will become only stronger as more countries suffer the disruptive effects of tariffs.

Of course, China may choose not to fight Trump’s trade war at all. With symbolic concessions – such as an agreement to import US-produced liquefied natural gas or promises to offer new guarantees for intellectual-property rights – it could convince Trump to stand down. But if Xi suspects that a show of strength will bolster China’s international standing while undercutting that of the US, he may decide to act accordingly.

The North Korea issue is more complicated. But here, too, China will have an advantage. Even barring real progress in the talks, China already looks like a good global citizen. Over the past year, it has been pressuring the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, to negotiate. By participating in coordinated economic sanctions against the Kim regime, and by reportedly capping vital exports of oil and other essentials to the North, China has played its part in bringing Kim to the table.

On paper, the fundamental question is whether North Korea will be willing to abandon its nuclear-weapons program, the fruit of more than 30 years of work. And as China well knows, North Korea would never give up its nuclear weapons without major changes in the military balance on and around the Korean Peninsula.

Kim will likely offer to denuclearize solely on the condition that the US withdraw its forces from South Korea, and perhaps from Japan, too. Barring that, he would not feel secure enough to do without the nuclear deterrence on which he has staked his regime’s survival. For his part, Trump could not possibly accede to such a condition. At best, he could agree on a process through which such extraordinary moves might be discussed at a later date.

Either way, China comes out on top. In the event of stalemate, it will have gotten Kim to the table and put America in the position of being a refusenik. And if the US does agree to any military concessions, China’s strategic position will be strengthened.

The only real question for Xi, then, is whether he wants to assert China’s top-dog status now, or sometime in the future.

 


Bill Emmott, a former editor-in-chief of The Economist, is the author of The Fate of the West.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2018.
www.project-syndicate.org

 


This article is brought to you by Project Syndicate that is a not for profit organization.

Project Syndicate brings original, engaging, and thought-provoking commentaries by esteemed leaders and thinkers from around the world to readers everywhere. By offering incisive perspectives on our changing world from those who are shaping its economics, politics, science, and culture, Project Syndicate has created an unrivalled venue for informed public debate. Please see: www.project-syndicate.org.

Should you want to support Project Syndicate you can do it by using the PayPal icon below. Your donation is paid to Project Syndicate in full after PayPal has deducted its transaction fee. Facts & Arts neither receives information about your donation nor a commission.

 

 

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Added 23.07.2018
How does the current global economic outlook compare to that of a year ago? In 2017, the world economy was undergoing a synchronized expansion, with growth accelerating in both advanced economies and emerging markets. Moreover, despite stronger growth, inflation was tame – if not falling – even in economies like the United States, where goods and labor markets were tightening.
Added 22.07.2018
While the US is busy slipping off of its precipice, many of its best known political figures are beating a rather tired old drum – the new Cold War, Russia, China, North Korea. It is boring, predictable, and dated. In the meantime, Russia and China are proceeding apace to reshape world order – without America.
Added 12.07.2018
The cabinet members who resigned this week apparently feared that politics is taking May toward a “soft Brexit,” their worst of all possible worlds........“soft Brexit,” maintains the status quo, more or less, letting Europeans freely circulate into British labor markets and allowing European firms to operate easily in the UK. The problem with “soft Brexit” is that it raises questions about why the UK is leaving at all, since it will still have the same obligations to Europe as before, it just won’t have a voice when the remaining 27 members of the European Union meet to make decisions.
Added 12.07.2018
One study on the 2010 World Cup found that there was a 37.5% rise in admission rates across 15 accident and emergency departments on England match days........Examining reports of domestic abuse in Lancashire (a county of approximately 1.5m people in Northern England), across the 2002, 2006 and 2010 World Cup tournaments, we discovered a 26% increase in reports of domestic abuse when England won or drew, and a 38% increase when England lost. Reports were also more frequent on weekends, and reached their peak when England exited the tournament.
Added 10.07.2018
If, back in the 1980s and 1990s, the US government, rather than arguing for Chinese economic opening, had prohibited any US company from investing there, China’s rise would have been significantly delayed, though not permanently prevented. Because that did not happen, China’s rise is now self-sustaining. A huge and increasingly affluent domestic market will make exports less vital to growth.
Added 10.07.2018
Comparing today’s demagogues with Adolf Hitler is almost always unwise. Such alarmism tends to trivialize the actual horrors of the Nazi regime, and distracts attention from our own political problems. But if alarmism is counterproductive, the question remains: At what point are democracies truly in danger? What was unimaginable only a few years ago – a US president insulting democratic allies and praising dictators, or calling the free press “enemies of the people,” or locking up refugees and taking away their children – has become almost normal now. When will it be too late to sound the alarm?
Added 09.07.2018
In view of such actions, expectations for Trump’s behavior at the upcoming summit have gone from prickly to dangerous. The sense of foreboding has been heightened by the announcement that, just four days after the summit ends, Trump will meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin, in Helsinki. The nightmare scenario is easy to imagine: Trump lays bare NATO’s fractures, including by questioning mutual defense, before selling his allies down the river by publicly embracing Putin. But this does not need to be the outcome.
Added 09.07.2018
After 2027 (or maybe even 2025, only 7 years from now), the number of EVs will rapidly accelerate, as virtually all new vehicles bought will be electric (an effect of rapidly falling battery and other component costs and of the fuel for electric cars being essentially free; you can power one off your rooftop solar array).
Added 03.07.2018
Most pundits interpret Trump’s outbursts as playing to his political base, or preening for the cameras, or blustering for the sake of striking future deals. We take a different view. In line with many of America’s renowned mental-health experts, we believe that Trump suffers from several psychological pathologies that render him a clear and present danger to the world.
Added 03.07.2018
In the United Kingdom, Brexit looms large, with everyone from government ministers to tabloid newspapers frothing daily about the deal that will be struck with the European Union and the effects that it will have. But the EU faces too many pressing challenges to be obsessing about Britain. The UK’s concern is understandable: evidence is mounting of the likely damage a departure from the single market and customs union will do to the UK economy. According to new research from the Centre for European Reform, the UK economy is already 2.1% smaller than it would have been had voters chosen to remain. The hit to public finances totals £440 million ($579 million) per week.
Added 26.06.2018
Nowadays, Britain’s words and actions on the world stage are so at odds with its values that one must wonder what has happened to the country. Since the June 2016 Brexit referendum, British foreign policy seems to have all but collapsed – and even to have disowned its past and its governing ideas. Worse, this has coincided with the emergence of US President Donald Trump’s erratic administration, which is pursuing goals that are completely detached from those of Britain – and of Europe generally. 
Added 26.06.2018
With each passing day, it becomes increasingly evident that US President Donald Trump’s administration cares less about economics and more about the aggressive exercise of political power. This is obviously a source of enormous frustration for those of us who practice the art and science of economics. But by now, the verdict is self-evident: Trump and his team continue to flaunt virtually every principle of conventional economics.
Added 26.06.2018
The sights and sounds of Central American children being ripped from their parents by US Border Patrol officers have, by now, spread across the globe. The experience has been traumatizing to its victims and deeply painful to watch. It has also done incalculable damage to the very idea of America. This is June when we are supposed to be celebrating "Immigrant Heritage Month". Each year, I have taken this opportunity to recall my family's immigrant story - the opportunity and freedom they sought, the hardships they endured, and the remarkable progress they made in just one generation. 
Added 24.06.2018
State terrorism comes in many forms, but one of its most cruel and revolting expressions is when it is aimed at children. Even though U.S. President Donald Trump backed down in the face of a scathing political and public outcry and ended his administration’s policy of separating migrant children from their parents, make no mistake: His actions were and remain a form of terrorism.
Added 22.06.2018
It is now clear that the twenty-first century is ushering in a new world order. As uncertainty and instability associated with that process spread around the globe, the West has responded with either timidity or nostalgia for older forms of nationalism that failed in the past and certainly will not work now. Even to the most inveterate optimist, the G7 summit in Quebec earlier this month was proof that the geopolitical West is breaking up and losing its global significance, and that the great destroyer of that American-created and American-led order is none other than the US president. To be sure, Donald Trump is more a symptom than a cause of the West’s disintegration. But he is accelerating the process dramatically.
Added 20.06.2018
Sessions quoted a line written by the apostle Paul to a small community of Christians living in Rome around 55AD to defend the Department of Justice’s approach. He said: "I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13, to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order." Sessions used the Bible because one of the most vocal opponents of the crackdown on asylum cases has been the Catholic Church. It’s no surprise that Sessions appealed to Romans chapter 13 verse 1 in response: not only did he hope to undermine Catholic authority by using the Bible against them, he cited a statement so broad that one might use it to defend anything a government does, good or bad. Picture below St Paul writing his epistles, by Valentin de Boulogne, via Wikimedia Commons.
Added 19.06.2018
 

I find it exceptionally irritating when I hear liberals worry about whether Israel will be able to remain a "Jewish and Democratic State" if it retains control of occupied Palestinian lands.

Added 18.06.2018
Daniel Wagner: "My prediction Korean War will be formally ended, the peninsula will be denuclearised, and a lasting peace will be the result."
Added 14.06.2018
Extract: PiS [ the ruling Law and Justice party] has established the most significant addition to the Polish social safety net since 1989: the Family 500+ program. Launched in 2016, Family 500+ embodies the nationalism, traditional family values, and social consciousness that the PiS seeks to promote. The program pays families 500 złoty ($144) per month to provide care for a second or subsequent child...........The program has been enormously popular. Some 2.4 million families took advantage of it in the first two years. The benefit, equivalent to 40% of the minimum wage, has almost wiped out extreme poverty for children in Poland, reducing it by an estimated 70-80%........... Liberal pro-European politicians and policymakers are not convinced. They complain that such a generous family benefit will weaken work incentives and blow up the government budget. But initial evidence suggests that Family 500+ has actually increased economic activity. It has also reversed the post-communist decline in fertility, increased wages (particularly for women), and enabled families to buy school materials, take vacations, buy more clothes for their kids, and rely less on high-priced credit for basic household needs. And, thanks to rapid economic growth, the government deficit has steadily fallen, not grown.