Further to my recent comments on Cold War 2.0 and on how to have (some) free(er) trade with Asia, including China, The Economist suggests that “The National Security Strategy released by President Donald Trump’s administration last year augured a major change in China-US relations. Where its predecessors lauded the merits of co-operation with the emerging superpower, Mr Trump’s document promised competition and resistance to Chinese trade and other abuses.“
Overdue, popular and irreversible
“The tirade Mike Pence launched against China last week doubled down on that commitment,” The Economist says, “In a speech delivered at the Hudson Institute, a short walk from Congress and the ongoing Kavanaugh brouhaha, the vice-president castigated the Chinese for bullying investors, buying allies with cheap loans, “tearing down crosses” and much else. This may turn out to be Mr Trump’s most significant mark on the world. America’s new adversarial posture towards China is overdue, popular and probably irreversible.“
An inevitable shift but not a real cold war
“Sooner or later,” the article argues, “America’s shift on China was inevitable. After every big hot and cold war of the past century, notes Andrew Krepinevich, a security savant, America’s leaders trusted to collective defence. Woodrow Wilson created the League of Nations, Franklin Roosevelt the “Four Policemen”; Clintonians preached “co-operative security”. But, as surely as nations rise and fall, power politics returns, and this has been apparent in the current iteration for over a decade. China, like Russia, is testing an American-led system it feels constrained by. Distracted by jihadists and fearing the costs of a new superpower rivalry, America has merely been unusually reluctant to accept that fact. Under Barack Obama, the usual mini-cycle of creeping presidential disillusionment with China seemed even to be reversed. His administration drifted from scepticism about China to resignation … [and the article says] … That explains much of the pent-up support for Mr Trump’s more confrontational approach. Though the president’s tariffs and bellicose rhetoric are controversial, there is a consensus among the bureaucracy, many businessmen and both parties that it is time to call China out. “China’s goal is world supremacy and there is bipartisan support for pushing back,” says John Barrasso, a Republican member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “There’s a broader, more intense and ideological competition with China than I had appreciated,” says Chris Coons, a Democratic member of the committee. It is hard to imagine Mr Trump’s successors arguing for a return to trustful co-operation. Yet there are huge uncertainties about what comes next.“
The article explains, and I agree, that “Neither side wants to end all co-operation and it is unlikely, given their economic inter-dependence, they could. China’s strategy is also unlike the Soviet Union’s. A multi-faceted challenger, not a nuclear-armed bankrupt-in-waiting, it aims to increase its leverage on many fronts while avoiding conflict. “Supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting,” wrote Sun Tzu in “The Art of War”. If a stand-off ensued, moreover, the rest of the world would not neatly divide between east and west, an essential feature of the cold war. Its history is mainly relevant because it shows where America’s competitive advantages lie. Worryingly, Mr Trump disdains most of them.” It may be, as I said, that President Trump has conscripted us into something like Cold War 2.0 but we ~ Australians, Brits, Canadian, the Dutch and others ~ are unlikely to be enthusiastic cold warriors as we were in the 1940s, ’50s, ’60s and ’70s.
Trump’s failure to understand
The Economist explains that the liberal, globalist, international order that President Trump wants to tear down “provides avenues to settle, or at least pursue, many of Mr Pence’s gripes,” but he seems hell bent on pulling them down, too. The Trump agenda seems to be that only America must be left standing, every other country must kowtow before it. “Mr Trump, having little understanding of institutions or esteem for the moral high ground,” the article goes on to say, “rejects them all. He also undervalues the alliances that underpin them, which are a second American advantage. “We’re building new and stronger bonds with nations that share our values…from India to Samoa,” said Mr Pence. He should check that with Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister, whose frustration with Mr Trump, on trade and otherwise, is said to have led India to seek warmer relations with Mr Xi.“
The article concludes by saying that “America’s most important advantage is its democratic system. It is the means by which its leaders obtain consent for the financial and other sacrifices that geopolitical struggles entail. Yet, notwithstanding the support for his approach, it is hard to imagine the relentlessly divisive Mr Trump winning bipartisan approval for any difficult policy. This turns a strength into a potentially serious weakness. America will not be able to sustain a costly rivalry with China unless Americans stand united behind it.” President Trump, it seems to me, is ignoring another of Sun Tzu’s maxims:
I think he, President Trump, knows part of America … that part that shares his narrow, fearful, mercantilist view of the world; I suspect that he gravely misunderstands China and the Chinese and, therefore, I suspect that, assuming Sun Tzu is correct, America will succumb in this battle, too. It is a battle the West cannot afford to lose. While I believe that the West must accommodate China’s rise back to great power status we do not want to accept Chinese domination of the global order. The best way to do that is to contain China’s worst ambitions without provoking an all out war. That seems to be too subtle for the Trump brain trust of Peter Navarro and John Bolton, both of whom seem wedded to a scorched earth or all-or-nothing strategy vis-à-vis the Chinese. I doubt that Europe, Asia and even Canada will or should sign on to that strategy and, as I and many others point out, China is not like Russia so Cold War 2.0, if there is one, will not end the same way.