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Wargaming A Trump Doomsday Part 2 – China

Trump and China

PLA-N Frigate Sanya in Cambodia [Reuters]

The US relationship with China has been problematic for as long as it’s existed. From colonial exploiter to the current tetchy marriage of convenience, there have been periods of freeze, thaw and warfare of most varieties – cold, hot, proxy and direct. The current relationship is fraught with difficulty and complexity. China’s fundamental social and political values are not just different to the USA’s, they’re almost entirely irreconcilable. Add to this a worrying degree of economic co-dependence,  and it’s easy to get the idea that the only thing keeping China and the US from war is the liberalist international order, of which Trump and his advisers appear to be so contemptuous. And from there is but a short step to the left wing screamsheets’ confident prediction that President Trump will inevitably propel us into catastrophic global warfare.

But this isn’t really the case. China has arguably attracted more printed falsehood than any other nation apart, perhaps, from the ancient Sumerians. This is due, in part, to the exigencies of propaganda requirements over the ages, but I think that what it mainly indicates is a Western world which has never really fully understood China, its aims or its place in the world. There is much more than the liberalist international order keeping China from war with the West. There are many, many factors, but the two which I feel to be most important are:

  1. They are not ready;
  2. They are not willing.

China does not have a modern military force, it has a rapidly (and this is a very relative adverb) modernising one. China is also not an expansionist power. The rights which they have been attempting to arrogate to themselves do not represent new aspirational boundaries, but old, revanchist ones. China’s number one priority has remained unchanged for hundreds of years – unity. China’s ruling powers have always been aware that to keep their disparate and often quite discontented empire (yes, it’s an empire) together, its peoples need to be convinced that they are under an invincibly strong government which is able to provide prosperity. Thus, China’s apparent aggression, assertiveness, or whatever you wish to call it. Some of it can be accounted for by their mission to restore themselves to pre or early Manchu boundaries, and the rest is for home consumption.

So, after that little primer on China, how exactly can President Trump push this self-obsessed, bought and sold, internally paranoid power to a state where it actually looks belligerently at something other than itself? As it turns out, there are really only a couple of apocalyptic touchpoints. Sure, Trump can severely degrade any diplomatic relationship just by being himself, but the only real doomsday scenario here is war – be it conventional, economic, or a delightful mix of the two.

Probably the most likely of these is a trade war. Trump’s declared trade and economic policies have worrying (for China) overtones of protectionism. There are a few ways in which Trump could attempt to reinvigorate the USA’s manufacturing sector (assuming he intends to pursue this, and that’s a big assumption), and the most direct and obvious one is to strangle foreign imports with tariffs and other protectionist measures. This will seriously impact a nation like China and the knock on effect is most likely to be a sort of price war in which both economies will attempt to undercut each other, both in each other’s markets and across the world. This is an extremely worrying scenario, being likely to cause great pain and suffering and, if pushed far enough, history tells us that this can lead to war. Having said that, it’s not all that likely. Not only is it unlikely that Trump will actually embark on a fully fledged and immediate program of protectionism, China will also do everything in its power to prevent a trade war. Leading Chinese academics and commentators, who generally speak for the state, are already making multiple overtures to the Trump administration on this front. Articles, think-tank pieces and a raft of other media are being co-opted to sell Trump the message: “Let’s use our combined market power to make both our nations great again.” I find it highly unlikely when given conciliatory offers of favourable trade terms in exchange for trade guarantees, that any Trump administration will ignore these and try to push on without actually working China. Especially considering that the only possible outcome of a trade war between these two is that they will both lose. Trump’s gaggle of bankers and corporate raiders know this very well indeed, no matter how tough his sinophobic administration pick likes to talk.

And then there’s Taiwan. The whole world knows, by now, the story of the infamous phone call. What I don’t think most of the world understands is what it actually meant. We have two competing narratives here: the left sells the story that incompetent Trump impulsively took the Taiwanese call, while the right says it was months in the planning. The likelihood is that neither of these stories is true, but in the end, I don’t think it really matters. Short of official recognition of Taiwan, there’s very little to suggest that the status quo is receiving anything more than a bit of a shake. It’s pretty clear that Trump is playing a game of brinksmanship here. He wishes, with largely meaningless gestures, to assert US credibility on cultural and political issues. This is apparent in his support for Taiwan and Hong Kong. The reality of his support, though, is that apart from that element which is clearly for home consumption, it’s almost certainly a gambit. There are some tough negotiations ahead on a number of issues if Trump is to make even token efforts to satisfy his base, and it’s apparent that he’s counting his chips and letting the other players know he has them.

To the extent that it’s possible to determine the actual intentions of a more or less inarticulate demagogue, I think the most sensible analysis here is that what we’re looking at is not so much the precursor to an apocalypse as it is an adjustment back to an older version of the USA. Once again, when it comes to China, Trump would have to be spectacularly unlucky to trigger doomsday in this case, as China neither wants nor needs a direct confrontation and will work feverishly to prevent one.

Category: Politics


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