In his recent dealings with China, President Donald J. Trump is resorting to the confrontational tactics which served him well as a property developer, specifically bullying, bluffing and threatening. He has yet to learn that in foreign affairs, particularly with China, these tactics never work.
The president’s willfully ignorant, shoot-from-the-hip style of foreign policy not only does not threaten the crafty President Xi Jinping but is on the cusp of threatening even the web-thin stability of U.S.-China relations.
China is not put off by the eccentric Tweet messages. But they rile at the trade tariffs going up to $60 billion, the ramping up of naval operations in “China’s own” South China Sea and most of all signing the Taiwan Travel Act which China can only see as an infringement upon its claims to Taiwan.
The president seems to be under the illusion that China can be treated with the same disregard for diplomatic norms he has shown towards Pakistan, Qatar, the Palestinian Authority and those African and Caribbean nations he calls “shithole” countries. But he is dead wrong.
As was demonstrated by Kim Jong Un’s carefully arranged “surprise” visit to Beijing, Xi Jinping is not to be underestimated. Kim’s Beijing trip has clearly raised the stakes for their future talks. The images which Beijing gleefully sent the media of Xi and Kim clasping hands like long-separated brothers sent Washington an unequivocal message: China has reasserted its influence over North Korea, and any efforts to shape the agenda for the upcoming Trump-Kim summit will have to go through Beijing.
In trying to bully China on these three sensitive fronts, Trump thinks that his opponent will not hit back. Trump needs to learn those best foreign policy presidents who were good poker players. His dealings with other heads of state have apparently evolved little from his Mafia-ridden, attorney-polluted New York days. It is in his nature as a bully to back his opponents into a corner. Then, the worst that can happen is that the deal falls through.
The author of “The Art of the Deal” needs to learn the art of compromise. Trump’s bestselling book was ghost-written, and the writer confesses his subject had so little to offer, he had to make up much it, so somebody still has to teach Trump patience, compromise and reason.
When Trump attempts to throttle Xi Jinping, China’s president will not cave. He will fight back. I know this well since I came of age in China under the same challenging circumstances as President Xi.
Both Trump and Xi were born sons of privilege and the beneficiaries of their well-connected fathers’ influence. But while Trump’s biggest problem was finding an excuse to evade the draft, Xi’s comfortable city life was far harsher than the property heir’s.
Xi, like millions of us urban youth, was banished to the countryside to labor and live alongside the peasants. Seven years performing hard labor in a remote village, debating with ignorant commissars, breaking up gangs, learning to survive in circumstances which bred feverish diseases had to toughen the future Chinese president’s mettle.
Just as I did, Xi learned to bond with the rural folks. The most capable of us were promoted to head production brigades to learn how to wrangle reluctant farmers into work units and woke at the crack of dawn to give no one an excuse to lie in. Attorneys like Trump’s notorious mentor Roy Cohn might be tough, even vicious. But nothing better prepares one for responsibility than the rigors and deprivations that we “sent downs” endured.
Perhaps the quote that Sun Tzu, the Chinese military philosopher, is best known for is the one roughly paraphrased as “To succeed, know both yourself and your enemy.” President Trump has a more limited viewpoint.
Beijing considers the “Taiwan question” a core interest. Trump should realize that any acknowledgment by the United States of Taiwan’s independence is the crossing of a red line. This is true not only for the leaders but for the otherwise politically inert Chinese masses. Consequently, the American’s president’s obliviousness to the toxicity of this and other historical issues dangerously jeopardizes U.S.-China relations.
An oft-heard refrain in the American media is that China cannot afford to go to war against the United States. That too is a falsehood. We should remember the Korean War of the 1950’s when General Douglas MacArthur assumed China wouldn’t fight. It did, and the result was a war which still has not ended. Few Americans remember this war, but in China, it is known as the first conflict in which America failed to triumph.
Negotiation — a word for which Trump takes virtually proprietary ownership — is the sole reason for Xi Jinping to make concessions. American policy-makers should concentrate their attention on this reality instead of matching China tit-for-tat with warships in the South China Sea. Of course, all the Asian-Pacific nations involved, not just China, must be included in talks.
Since, as I contend, Taiwan is the most sensitive issue involving Taiwan and China, it must be unambiguously communicated to both governments that the “One China” policy will continue and any actions deemed to undermine the status quo will not be tolerated. By America’s assuring China that it respects its sovereignty, President Trump will immeasurably bolster his position in seeking a realignment of our trade deficit with China. A trade war helps no one. And contrary to his recent, tweet, it will not be easy for the United States to win.
The Trump Administration should try substituting the standard phrase “China policy” with “China-America policy” to underscore the reality that neither superpower can thrive without the other’s cooperation.