Saturday 23 June 2018

Trump and Xi lock horns over global primacy (Sunday Guardian)

M D Nalapat

Trump knows that it is Beijing and not Moscow that needs undivided attention ‘if the US is to ensure that it remains the globe’s largest economy’.

Almost the entire mainstream media in the US dislikes Donald Trump, and it shows. Television news reports, talk shows and newspaper commentary are filled with a toxicity towards Trump that is reminiscent of the vitriol directed against Chief Minister Narendra Modi from 2002 to around 2012, the year when he became a serious prospect for the Prime Ministership of India. The abuse did little to damage Modi’s electoral prospects in his home state, and the constant level of negative commentary about Trump in the midst of an improved performance by the US economy is proving unable to reverse the steady rise in the approval rating of the 45th US President, which may soon cross the politically significant 50% mark. The Democratic Party has yet to recover from its folly of having been forced by the (still dominant) Clinton personal and political machine to reject Senator Bernie Sanders as the party’s nominee for the 2016 Presidential contest. Given the atmosphere in the US during that year, Hillary Clinton was certain to lose to Trump and Sanders to win. The US would have changed under a President Sanders in a manner as comprehensive as it is during the tenure of President Trump, but in a wholly different direction. However, on the issue of dealing with a rapidly nuclearising Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), it is likely that Sanders would have trod much the same conciliatory path that Trump has been taking, except that in the latter’s case, his actual objectives and strategy remain a secret to all except the President himself and a handful of his confidants, many of the closest of whom are outside government, and most of whom have to date remained outside media attention. Indeed, those who have been written about in the media as being “close” to Donald Trump have usually found their welcome significantly reduced once such flattering reports come out. Influenced by an overwhelmingly hostile media across both sides of the Atlantic, the global perception about President Trump is that he changes his mind often and lacks either vision or a well thought out plan of action that could fulfil his stated objectives. The reality is that Trump does indeed have both a vision as well as a plan designed to ensure its fruition, but covers up both through camouflaging them with tweets and statements that deliberately confuse and mislead his audience, including the countries or the interests that he is targeting. Those close to him say that he has a “laser focus” on objectives that are hidden from public view, and among the most consequential of these is to repeat what Ronald Reagan did with the USSR, this time in the case of the People’s Republic of China. With an eye on trendiness and potentialities, Trump “has been aware for over eighteen years” (in the words of an individual who has had contact with him even after 20 January 2017) that “the only threat to the continued primacy of the US in the global order is China”, especially now that Xi Jinping, a leader in the transformational mould of Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, has established firm control over the Chinese Communist Party and through that, both the administration as well as the military in what is on track to soon being the world’s largest economy.
The ecosystem of the Washington Beltway consists of a dense matrix of think tanks, consultancies and state, as well as private agencies staffed by “experts” who have devoted decades of their lives to “understanding issues” from the 1940s perspective of the Atlantic Alliance. Although global geopolitics has reduced the significance of the European side of the Atlantic and at the same time steadily increased the importance of the Asian side of the Pacific, those with cosy sinecures within the Beltway remain moored to the 1940s worldview, exactly as do the international institutions set up during that period, such as the United Nations, the World Bank, NATO and the IMF. All four have at the core of their control systems the countries forming the Atlantic Alliance, an aberration that continues mainly because US policymakers continue to think and act as though the post-1945 world still exists, and not the world after the firebreak caused by the 1997 handover of Hong Kong to China, the event which first gave a glimpse to the international community as to the identity of the Second Superpower.
Had India post-2014 adopted the “Minimum Government” model promised by Narendra Modi in his 2014 Lok Sabha electoral campaign, by now its annual rate of growth would have crossed the 12% mark and by 2019, it would have been obvious both that Modi would win a second term and that India would soon become the world’s Third Superpower. However, the economic policies and administrative practices of the BJP-led government have in practice been such as to throw both conclusions into doubt. In contrast, the US under Donald Trump and China under Xi Jinping are both transforming themselves at speed, with China outpacing the US in the extent of internal systemic changes. “Digital India” remains a digital colony of the US and China, while “Make Babies in India” seems more accurate a description of the present situation than Make Manufactures in India. Whether in the US or in China, the policy elites of both agree that the immense unlocked potential of India remains locked by a governance mechanism that stifles rather than creates value. The manner of rollout of GST has made Franz Kafka’s depictions of bureaucracy seem a model of simplicity and efficiency, while the less said about the way in which the RBI implemented the 8 November 2016 changeover from Rs 1,000 to Rs 2,000 notes as well as the change in size and colour of Rs 500 notes, the better for those who seek to keep their blood pressure under control. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been badly let down by important elements of his team, but being a large-hearted man, this has not resulted in any adverse impact on their careers. In fact, the reverse has taken place, with several of the “heroes in reverse” of demonetisation and the version of GST formulated by North Block moving on to higher responsibilities. Similarly, those responsible for missteps such as forcing through an alliance between the BJP and the PDP in Kashmir or who persisted even after 2014 with the Manmohan brain-free plan of an alliance of India with Japan, Brazil and Germany to help secure a permanent UN Security Council seat (in fact, the move has almost doomed India’s prospects) either remain at their posts or have moved on to better pastures, thanks to the generous and forgiving spirit that is the distinguishing characteristic of Prime Minister Narendra Damodardas Modi.
“The Europeans are hanging on to the coattails of the US and are dragging us down while pushing themselves up. This must change”, a key confidant of Trumpworld revealed, adding that “the US should not always be giving to Europe but should be getting as well, and this is something US Presidents (before Trump) have not bothered to ensure”. An associate went on to add that “(German Chancellor) Merkel makes much of her surplus from trade from the US, but that does not stop her from constantly attacking US policies and even the President personally in (what she regards as) private gatherings”. At the same time, “to the President in person she (Merkel) is very respectful. This is hypocrisy”. Another serial offender is UK Prime Minister Theresa May, “who talks to her staff in disrespectful terms about the Administration and even the President despite the special relationship between the UK and the US”. A relationship, he added, which President Trump is fully committed to. He pointed out that Trump “early on promised the UK that it would be at the head of the queue in trade agreements”, and that “this is a promise he intends to keep”, although (Prime Minister) May’s often censorious tone has created a distance between the White House and 10 Downing Street. Those privy to the thinking of President Trump say that there exists substantial evidence that elements of the British establishment connived with Hillary Clinton in seeking to damage the Presidential prospects of Donald Trump. “The Clintons have maintained extensive and lucrative contacts, including with the GCC, Russia and China, but the US media and FBI just want to look at the Trump family, “whose own contacts are few in comparison to the Clintons or the Bush clan”, a senior insider complained, adding that “they cannot forgive the President for refusing to be led by the nose the way Obama was for almost all his term”.
If Trumpworld insiders are correct, Donald Trump has “for several years” known that it is Beijing and not Moscow that needs the undivided attention of US policymakers “if the US is to ensure that it remains the globe’s largest economy well even in the 21st century”. The US Head of State is “an old-fashioned patriot whose eyes still moisten when he sees Old Glory (the flag) being lifted”, and “it would be torture to him to watch the US economy take second place to that of China”. While a host of appointments (such as those of former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson) were made “in a futile staff-directed effort to pacify the Beltway, increasingly Trump is forming around him a team that acknowledges that the primary challenger to US supremacy—in fact, the only serious challenger in exactly 99 years—is China. These include National Security Advisor John Bolton and Trade Advisor Peter Navarro, both of whom have been savaged by the pundits of the Beltway almost as viciously as Trump has been. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, while Director of Central Intelligence, “paid particular attention to the systematic manner in which each and every member of the Trump team and family were sought to be approached by individuals linked to the PRC”. According to those in contact with the President, “Pompeo warned the President each time such an approach was made” and in the case of the Trump family at least, “whenever there was such a warning, those close to Trump immediately downsized or gave up entirely contacts identified as potential or actual agents of influence” or “useful idiots of the challenger country” i.e. the People’s Republic of China. Unlike his predecessors, “who allowed their (Atlanticist) prejudice against Russia to dilute their vigil on China”, Secretary of State Pompeo “is entirely on the same page as his boss as to which country needs to be the focus of attention and action”. It may be added that Team Trump “has developed considerable respect for (Chinese Communist Party General Secretary) Xi Jinping for his ruthless determination to ensure that China reaches the top of the global table during his tenure”. During his (by now several) interactions with President Trump, “it became clear that Xi was quick to understand the nuances of an issue and how it could be turned into an advantage for China” in a manner absent from his two previous predecessors, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao. These Trumpworld fixtures add that “the Chinese leadership has become so confident (of the future ascendancy of their country) that they openly declare their intentions in both manufacturing as well as in technology in words that admit of no other meaning than global dominance for the Chinese”. At the same time, the “unprecedented scale of the Belt & Road Initiative has exposed Team Xi’s ambition to make China the hub of global commerce”, including through making the RMB (or Chinese currency) as ubiquitous in global financial transactions as the US dollar has been since 1945”.
“If the US had acted in the high-minded manner mouthed by President George H.W. Bush after (the events of) 1989 in China and followed a policy of constraining the development of that country rather than shrugging away 1989 as of little consequence, workers in the US would not have undergone the agony of the hollowing out of its manufacturing base to China, which took place during the Bush and Clinton period”, an insider within Trumpworld said. According to him, “Both Bill Clinton as well as the two Bushes (during their terms as President) were indulgent to China and cared not a hoot about the economic consequences of such generosity to US interests”. He added that “if the sources of some of the funds that were made available to the Bush library and private interests of family members, and to the Clinton Foundation, were to be seriously examined by the FBI, some missing dots and dashes in alien influence on US policy may get bridged”. However, “the FBI is desperate to protect the Clintons while forcing the removal of President Trump”. Why? Because of the “deep roots that the Clinton machine has within the agencies, especially the machine’s tactic of assisting in secretly providing jobs and other help to those close to agency personnel, including spouses, mistresses and children”, beneficence that often continued beyond an official’s retirement. “President Trump knows that this is the last chance for the US to reverse the seemingly inevitable climb of China towards global leadership (replacing the US), and he intends to take it, no matter how difficult the path”. Team Trump is aware that Xi Jinping is the most formidable competitor the US has had since the 1930s, and that “efforts will be made by the lobbies active on the East Asian giant’s behalf to scare and shock USG (US Government) away from seeking a less one-sided trading relationship with China”. Already, he added, “a cacophony has gone up of those arguing in defence of the longstanding policy of allowing China to race ahead through taking away our technologies”. However, he was emphatic that “the President will not be deterred, as he shrugs off abuse and always moves ahead doing what he knows has to be done”. The probability is, therefore, that the trade scuffles between Beijing and Washington will intensify.
Recent US policy towards the DPRK (North Korea) highlights the innovative approach of the 45th President of the US, who has thrown away (failed) past precedents in his search for a winning strategy. While there remains a steady drumbeat of demands that Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un denuclearise “completely and irreversibly” (a practical impossibility in the technological age), there may be a default strategy hidden away in the inventive mind of the unconventional businessperson who has been elected to lead his country by the US electorate. This may be to “co-opt Kim Jong Un into being a US ally”, exactly the way skilled diplomacy (initiated during the period in office of Barack Obama) has resulted in a de facto alliance between Hanoi and Washington. Kim is seen as a leader untethered to the ideologies of the past, and a steady warming of ties with the US may result in his modernising the DPRK economy the way Deng Xiaoping did in the 1980s. Such a transformation could come about even if the US were not to participate directly in the North Korean economy, leaving that to South Korea and to other powers such as India that may be eager to tap into the mineral and other resources of the northern part of the Korean peninsula. The calculation is that the more the Kim Jong Un regime gets integrated into the global economy, the less the possibility (or indeed the need) for him to adopt an aggressive line with his neighbours. Even Japan’s approach may change, with the hawkish Shinzo Abe being replaced with a more conciliatory politician in much the same way as Moon Jae-In took over from Park Gun-hye in Seoul. The “Surrender or War” option that Abe favours in dealing with Pyongyang could result in several hundred thousand Japanese citizens getting incinerated in the event of a conflict with North Korea, a reality that may persuade enough Japanese voters to move away from Abe to result in the defeat of the LDP. Because North Korea is treated as an outlaw (and has no other way of securing access to materiel and money than through clandestine and unwholesome methods), its weapons capability may be used as a threat as a consequence of the hostility against it. However, if Pyongyang gets integrated into the world economy (and not just China’s), Supreme Leader Kim’s incentive for hostile action would get considerably lowered. By giving Kim Jong Un unprecedented “face” through the personal meeting, and possibly even a visit to Washington, Present Donald Trump has (a) given Kim freedom of action in place of total reliance on Beijing and (b) shown him the benefits of adopting a benign rather than a threatening demeanour. The Shinzo Abe-John Bolton solution (which like the Iraq or Afghanistan campaigns has no Plan B) would result in a minimum of two million casualties (President Trump’s own estimate is 30 million). Tensions around and within the Korean peninsula have for the first time since the 1950s been brought substantially down by the personal diplomacy of President Moon of South Korea, Supreme Leader Kim of North Korea and, most consequential—indeed indispensable—of all, President Trump of the United States.
Although many of his tactics may be camouflaged in “red herring” rhetoric, his acolytes say that the objective of President Donald J. Trump is clear “in his own complex mind”. It is to retain the Numero Uno title of the US against all comers, most notably the formidable challenger that is Xi’s China. Ultimately, insiders within the Trump ecosystem say that a significant slowdown of the momentum of progress in China could get caused by “smart” policy. And that this will result in a fall in public support for the Chinese Communist Party sufficient to create a mass reaction within that vast country. Hence their confidence that President Trump will (especially if he gets a second term) be for China what Reagan turned out to be for the USSR.

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