By M D Nalapat
Trump’s aim is to reverse Xi’s drive to overtake the US in technological innovation.
“America First, and Donald J. Trump first in America”, at least for the next six years. This is the evolving Trump Doctrine in a single sentence. No other US President during the post-1945 period has sought to so ignore the recommendations of the Washington DC bureaucracy as the nation’s 45th President has, although as yet the Beltway has prevented his plan of distancing Moscow from Beijing, thereby leaving the world’s second most powerful economy without the support of what remains a potential Great Power, albeit severely diminished since the Brezhnev-Gorbachev-Yeltsin years. However, he is trying to break free on North Korea in a manner not yet emulated by National Security Advisor John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, both of whom remain anchored to the establishment view that North Korea must render itself defenceless before any sanctions against it can be relaxed. As the practical New York businessman who is now Commander-in-Chief knows, such a policy would only snuff out any hopes that the DPRK would desist from going any further in accumulating deadly weapons, technologies and operations than is already the case. It is illustrative of why US policy in the 21st century has substantially destroyed the very countries it intervened to rescue (such as Afghanistan, Syria, Libya and Iraq) that the Washington Beltway sees it as “extreme and illogical” that Kim Jong Un would not agree to surrender his most potent defences against a US attack in the absence of a formal end of the 1950-53 Korean war. The present occupant of the Blue House in Seoul, Moon Jae-In, does not suffer from such delusions, and seems increasingly in a mood to ensure that conditions get created that would end in at the least a mutual non-aggression pact between Pyongyang and Seoul. The thought of Koreans killing Koreans, as happened during the blood-soaked conflict 68 years ago, has entered the Korean psyche with such force that public opinion in South Korea would be thrown into violent protest and turmoil against the elected authority, were Moon to agree to join hands with Trump and Abe in a pre-emptive war on the DPRK. In any such war, the North would be almost completely obliterated, while the South would be damaged to an extent that would reduce it to something close to the pitiable condition that Syria is in today, after a “War of Liberation” was accelerated in 2012 against Bashar Assad by NATO and the GCC. And while Japan would suffer significant damage, the US is likely to escape relatively unscathed, barring perhaps Guam. It will take some more time for North Korean scientists to fashion bombs and projectiles sufficient to reach the US West Coast, and each time any policymaker in Washington demands full disarmament without any corresponding concession or even gesture on the US side, those North Korean scientists and technicians must be working at an even more feverish pace than usual. The North Korean regime has to feel confident that Kim will not meet the fate of Saddam Hussein or Muammar Gaddafi, and thus far both the words as well as the body language of the Pompeos and the Boltons (not to mention the “Attack North Korea” crowd in the US Congress) emanate no such assurance. It is only Trump who, on occasion, talks in a manner that could get results, but the North Koreans are as avid readers of the Washington Post and as eager viewers of CNN as the writers and anchors in these media outlets, hence, Kim Jong Un cannot be faulted for believing that Donald Trump may soon get deposed, so that all the promises and progress made through engagement with him would be lost.
In contrast to his policy towards both North Korea as well as Russia, which are still “work in progress” as a consequence of bureaucratic recalcitrance, President Trump seems to have secured sufficient support within the Beltway to ensure that he implement the first stage of his policy towards China, the aim of which is to ensure (through lower growth and stunted technologies) that Beijing remain well behind the US during the present century. In other words, Trump’s aim is to reverse Xi’s drive to overtake the US in technological innovation by 2035 and by 2049 make China the world’s leader in the manufacture of hyper-tech items now dominated by the US. The ten sectors specified by the Chinese leadership include aerospace, robotics and Information Technology. As Hiroyuki Akita has pointed out, Beijing is within reach of Xi’s tech targets. Recently, China—albeit briefly—even had a faster supercomputer speed than the US, while the PRC is second only to the US in the number of companies active in Artificial Intelligence and in the use of supercomputers. As for international patent applications, China is second only to the US and on track to catch up with the US within three years. Although Trump has talked about the mammoth trade deficit with China, it is not that figure which is creating anxiety within America Firsters, but the fact that tech breakthroughs such as the 5G technology rolled out by Huawei may be 30% cheaper than that of its nearest US competitor, giving the company a global edge sought to be blunted by recourse to “national security” prohibitions. The only credible way those seeking (naturally for reasons of “national security”) to prevent a Huawei 5G rollout in India will succeed is if they offer 5G alternatives that are cheaper and better. That seems much too big an ask at present. Given the slow pace at which India’s governance system operates, expecting the Modi-Abe Alternative Intelligence and Advanced Technology Tokyo partnership to challenge Chinese competitors seems a faraway goal. Given Trump’s “Can Do, Must Do” mindset, there is unlikely to be an end to severe US-China frictions until either the US succeeds in preventing Beijing from displacing Washington as the “Tiger on the global mountain of economy and technology”, or President Xi is able to beat back US attacks and succeed in his objective of ensuring Chinese leadership in cutting edge technologies within a fistful of years. Given that Trump is capable of using any means at hand, including possibly attempting to inflict a short but humiliating military defeat on China in air or sea in the Korea, Taiwan or South China Sea theatre so as to humiliate Xi, expect “interesting times” in the Sino-US dynamic. When America First meets China First, only one will prevail.