July 20, 2018
M D Nalapat
DURING the early part of the 20th century, newly republican China was an obsession with several in the US, especially to missionaries who sought to “harvest souls” in that vast country. The takeover of power by Mao Zedong in 1949 temporarily set relations between Washington and Beijing back. So much so that Secretary of State John Foster Dulles suggested to Jawaharlal Nehru’s sister Vijaylakshmi Pandit that India take the place of China as a Permanent Member of the UN Security Council, an offer Nehru spurned. Even after the 1962 border conflict, India continued to back Communist China’s claim to the UN Security Council and indeed to the UN itself, a desire which finally came through after the US-China rapprochement scripted by Zhou Enlai and Richard Nixon.Since that time in the 1970s, China has evolved as a major presence in Washington, and today enjoys enormous influence – mostly through the corporate sector – within the Beltway, the traditional repository of power within the US governance system, now facing a challenge from Donald Trump.
The US President has for the first time since the 1970s made China a focus of hostile action both on the military as well as the business front. Naval patrols have multiplied in the South China Sea, while defense relationships with India and Vietnam have been established. Most worrisome for Beijing, there is a growing confluence of military to military between the US and the Republic of China (RoC), otherwise known as Taiwan. It is not accidental that the new US mission in Taipei is much bigger than several of the embassies maintained across the globe by the State Department. In the field of business, for the first time since relations between China and the US were re-established in force forty three years ago, a Trade War has been launched by President Trump against Chinese manufacturers. This step is proving to be immensely unpopular within business groups in the US, several of whom look to China for markets and profit, the latter mainly through import of Chinese wares that are much cheaper than those of the nearest competitor. The fear is that Beijing will turn to Europe and to other parts of Asia for the purchase of items that till Trump’s trade war were mostly sourced from the US, items ranging from soybeans to aircraft.
President Xi Jinping has put in place a finely calibrated strategy to persuade the Trump administration to call of economic hostilities against Chinese businesses. Imports of items produced in farm locations crucial to Republican Party control of the US House of Representatives and Senate have been stopped. As a consequence, prices have dropped and farmers (most of who vote Republican) are angry just months before mid-term elections to the US Congress. At the same time, the thousands of influential individuals who are in favour of good relations with Beijing have been exerting themselves lobbying against the President and his key advisors, many of whom believe that Washington can win a trade war with China if it holds its nerve for long enough. Peter Navarro and John Bolton in particular are of the view that Trump can replicate in the case of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) what Ronald Reagan did in the case of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), which was to force that organisation to respond to US moves in a way that accelerated an implosion in the Soviet economy.
However, the Washington Beltway is opposed to such moves, as it believes that the CCP is far more cohesive than the CPSU ever was, both ideologically and organisationally. Also that Xi Jinping is a much more formidable rival than the post-Stalin leaders of the Soviet Union ever were, especially during the years of Leonid Brezhnev, a mediocrity who ensured only others like him reached the top in the CPSU and hence the Soviet government. The Beltway has doubled down in its efforts at weakening Trump into irrelevance if it cannot get him thrown out of office altogether, and the opportunity presented itself as a consequence of the meeting in Helsinki between Trump and Vladimir Putin. In fact, whether it be on oil prices (which would moderate rather than boil) or on the security of Israel or stability in the Middle East, the Trump-Putin meeting and evident chemistry can only be helpful. However, the Beltway has spun the meeting as a “treasonous giveaway” to Moscow, without specifying what exactly was “given away”. Panicked Republicans joined the Democrats in bad-mouthing Trump, weakening his ability to force the pace of change in Washington. The trade war with China was a bridge too far for Trump to cross, and the Beltway was waiting for an excuse to fire back at the 45th President of the US, a chance that presented itself because of the Helsinki summit. The charge that Trump is a dupe of Putin is ridiculous.Were he so, rather than be overtly friendly to the Russian spymaster turned world leader, the US President would have put on an act, seeming to be hostile to both Putin as well as to Russia. This would have been done to camouflage his actual links with a country that France,the UK and Germany desperately wish to see continued as the “Number One Threat” to the US, even at a time when the Russian economy has shrunk to the level of a Chinese province. The supremacy of Atlanticist (rather than Indo-Pacific) policies in Washington cannot continue unless Moscow is the primary foe. The focus of the Trump administration on seeking to win over allies of Beijing such as Moscow and Pyongyang were distasteful to the Europe-centred political and media establishment in the US, who have jointly made little secret of their desire to force the resignation or removal of President Trump from the exalted office he was elected to.
The skilfully created hubbub around the meeting with Putin is designed to so weaken Trump that he will be President in name only for the remainder of his term, given that even Robert Mueller seems to be finding it difficult to concoct a case that Trump and Putin worked in tandem to rig the 2016 Presidential contest. The expectation is that Trump will no longer have the horsepower to continue such “disruptive” actions as a trade war with China, and will pull back from such a course, returning the US establishment to a policy course first set in the stone of governance during 1945-47 but which has ceased to be relevant since the close of the 1990s. The attack on Trump that is being witnessed over the Helsinki meeting is fuelled by an urgency to ensure a rollback of the trade war with China, a commercial contest which could impact the balance sheets of several companies in US and cost Republicans US House and Senate as a consequence of skilful retaliatory moves made by Chinese side. Should Beltway succeed in closing gate to reconciliation with Moscow, that capital will have no other option but to get ever closer to Beijing. A Chinese Century may yet come, not as a consequence of Trump but despite him.