Breaking Up is Hard To Do?
Remarks on the US-China War
Do do do down dooby doo down down, indeed.
It doesn’t seem that hard. It’s not usually in the headlines like wars used to be. No one is talking about it except the people who are paid to. I can hardly engage anyone in conversation about it.
I have no credentials to write about the US-China Trade War. Neil Sedaka didn’t have any credentials to sing about human relationships either, but he didn’t need any. He had comma comma down dooby doo down down. All I have is the words.
The United States has the world’s largest economy and the world’s largest military. It has been considered the world’s unquestioned super power at least since the fall of the Soviet Union, about a thirty year run.
What does US dominance mean? It doesn’t mean the US can win every war; in fact, it hasn’t decisively won a single conflict during its time of unquestioned dominance. It doesn’t mean an economically robust home front, since both income and asset inequality is growing.
What US dominance does mean is that US business and cultural interests are pervasive. Some of the strongest believers in ‘America’ are the ‘Americans’ whose dreams US dominance has crushed. Strengthening belief in a constructed concept is one way people find meaning in loss.
China is the first and only legitimate threat to US dominance. It is a threat to US business and cultural interests. Some representatives of US business and culture see the Chinese threat as existential, which it is — an existential threat to US dominance. Not necessarily to the US, but to US dominance. To some representatives of US business and culture, that threat level is unacceptable.
From the creation of the Chinese Communist State on October 1, 1949 through Richard’s Nixon visit to Beijing in February, 1972, the US and China were not engaged. Ping-Pong Diplomacy paved the way and engagement began in earnest when Deng Xiaoping opened the door to business in December, 1978.
I was in Beijing in 2001 when China was admitted into the WTO. I was with a group of technology-oriented Chinese grad students who said they were happier than they had ever been. They were right to be. Some of them are probably gazillionaires now.
All the WTO meant to them was more opportunity, period. Very few people I have met anywhere, China or the US, understand that the WTO is about more than just growing trade. It is also a set of rules that follow logically from an underlying philosophy about business and the state — the US philosophy — that the state exists to protect private property rights and commerce.
In the US, the state does not exist to plan, shape or control private property rights or commerce. It exists to help implement plans formulated by commercial interests and to maintain and extend their social and economic position. In China, the state makes the plans and the state permits commercial interests to thrive insofar as their interests are aligned with the state’s.
Being in the WTO is supposed to mean doing it the US’ way. Except China has been in the WTO for well over a decade and it still isn’t doing it anything like the US’ way. From a certain perspective, that’s not fair. Sounds like playground talk doesn’t it. International relations haven’t progressed all that far.
The US sets the rules for playing in the playground. What does the playground ruler do when a rival begins to emerge? Discuss working together to accommodate everyone? Or try to limit the rival’s growth? Maybe the rival is interested in accomodation, maybe not. Maybe it’ll be too late when the intentions become clear. Maybe the problem began when the ruler saw someone as a rival in the first place. Or maybe they always were.
The current US administration has individuals in key positions who are clear on their own answers to these fuzzy questions. Peter Navarro, Gordon Chang and Michael Pillsbury, among others, have defined their careers around an absolute certainty that China is a rival, an existential threat, and a force that must be contained by any means necessary.
Former advisor Steve Bannon, another well-known ‘China Hawk,’ recently stripped the current US-China Trade War down to its essentals in an exclusive intervew with the South China Morning Post:
US President Donald Trump’s strategy is to make the trade war with China “unprecedentedly large” and “unbearably painful” for Beijing, and he will not back down before victory.
In the same interview, Bannon also stated it was the ‘Made in China 2025’ plan that convinced the playground ruler to act. Announcing the initiative in such a bold and integrated manner turned out to be a provocative move. ‘Made in China 2025’ is a plan for elevating China to be the self-sufficient leader in everything that matters. It doesn’t signal accommodation. It makes it easier for the playground ruler to see an emerging force as a rival.
On the other hand, the last time China tried to speak in human terms to the playground ruler about accommodation, it got punched in the nose and repeatedly forced into unfair trade and territorial agreements.
Lin Zexu’s ‘Letter of Advice to Queen Victoria, written in 1839,’ is on my top ten list of most amazing documents ever written. I don’t know any other example of a smart and confident representative of a proud national government speaking so frankly to the global playground ruler. Here is brief excerpt from the introduction:
there appear among the crowd of barbarians both good persons and bad, unevenly. Consequently there are those who smuggle opium to seduce the Chinese people and so cause the spread of the poison to all provinces. Such persons who only care to profit themselves, and disregard their harm to others, are not tolerated by the laws of heaven and are unanimously hated by human beings.
His Majesty the Emperor, upon hearing of this, is in a towering rage. He has especially sent me, his commissioner, to come to Kwangtung [Guangdong], and together with the governor-general and governor jointly to investigate and settle this matter.
It didn’t work. The Opium Wars happened instead. China was thoroughly defeated and carved up for economic exploitation by outsiders. Many Chinese people consider their nation to have suffered a century of humiliation. The Chinese Communist Party maintains power in part by promising it won’t happen again and so far it hasn’t.
‘Made in China 2025’ announces that promise to the world in no uncertain terms. China won’t need nuthin’ from nobody. There will be no vulnerabilities. Supply chain vulnerability as the US recently used to shake up ZTE? China will be its own supply chain.
There are many ways to interpret ‘Made in China 2025’ and one of the easiest is as a statement of intent not to play by someone else’s rules. That is a very understandable goal. There is no way of knowing if Xi Jinping and the rest of the Party leadership intended to throw down a gauntlet, but it should have been easily predictable that at least some people would understand ‘Made in China 2025’ that way.
According to Steve Bannon, the playground ruler and his henchmen believed only one strategy would put the rival in its place and create a situation that would keep it there — a massive unexpected haymaker punch. Shock and awe, not exactly original. Not exactly a strategy with a great recent track record either.
The world is now three months into the largest economic war in history. There are casualties, like the soybean famers in Kansas. And winners, like the soubean farmers in Brazil.
Despite Steve Bannon’s certainty, it is unknowable what the results of the trade war will be. One outcome is certain, though. The two economies, the two nations, are disengaging.
Breaking up. Can we really go back to pre-Ping Pong?
Former Google CEO Eric Schmidt recently predicted not only separate economies but separate technology worlds, separate Internets. That’s a pretty safe prediction since the world effectively has two Internets now. It’s possible to breach the great fire wall of China from the inside but it’s a hassle and why bother? Most Chinese netizens are quite content with the experiences available on China’s Internet.
Similarly, most US Internet users rely on Amazon, not Alibaba, the gigantic Chinese equivalent. One Internet has Twitter, the other has Weibo. YouTube, Youku-Tudou.
Two cultures that have been entangling for almost 50 years are disentangling. Joint exercises are called off. Bureaucratic delays escalate. Confucian Institutes established in western nation for years are questioned. Accusations are tweeted.
As an unqualified commentator, I see these as manifestations of breaking up. What I don’t see is the ‘hard to do’ part. I don’t see anyone saying ‘I wish we were making up again.’ Yet. Is wishing we were making up again the same thing as crying Uncle?
The US and China were never lovers, not even friends with benefits. The two states had a commercial relationship. It is currently in the process of being severed and I think it will be harder to make up than break up since there really is no love lost between the two states.
People are different than states. I have a relationship with China and that’s the only thing I am qualified to comment on. I was swept off my feet by China. I traveled, did business, made friends, saw a few of the many aspects of China. But my relationship is more than that. I’ve read Chinese philosophy, learned Chinese history, did introductory training in Mandarin.
I don’t want to break up. If Richard Nixon hadn’t gone to Beijing when I was 24, China might still be as inaccessible to me as it effectively was up until then. State relationships affect the way indviduals, like me, can have relationships with the entire place and its people and culture.
There are wheels within wheels.
China’s rise has come at a cost to some people in the US, but it has been very beneficial to others. Before he was President, Donald Trump and his family enjoyed a special and profitable relationship with China, being allowed to operate in ways most outsiders could only dream. The Trump family and China really have been Friend with Benefits.
Of course that raises question: What were the benefits? To the Trump family? Did they need money? Probably. But more importantly, what are the benefits to China?
It is not easy to see how the Trade War serves the Trump family interests, but it is clear that it plays well to his political base, which has been trained for years to blame China for their lost jobs. Beyond that, we should bear in mind Donald Trump’s long association with professional wrestling and other scripted Reality TV.
Pro Wrestling, like President Trump, is designed to be provocative. It gets under your skin, right now at this moment. But that’s just the obvious beginning. The real craft of pro wrestling, and all successful Reality TV, is building conflict over a series of episodes before resolving it.
I am suggesting the WWE is a good lens for viewing the current, monumental Trade War of the Titans. It is not scripted. No Illuminati wrote the screenplay. But it is scripted in the sense that all the characters in the drama will behave predictably, which enables everyone to move freely toward an unstated pre-ordained outcome.
Xi JinPing will allow the US President to look like he won something. He will not say ‘Uncle’ but he will acknowledge his opponent’s tactical skills. He will appear to acquiesce, slightly, as he continues the drive to invulnerability with new motivation.
Every WWE fan ever knows Trump is going down, they just don’t know which match is The One. Cool how that works. Buys as much time as China needs before the inevitable transfer of a Championship Belt. China’s fanbase cannot be denied.