The dan­ger­ous naivete of Trump and Xi

Tri-City Herald (Sunday) - - Tri-city Forum Opinion - BY NI­CHOLAS KRISTOF

Pres­i­dents Don­ald Trump and Xi Jin­ping are a bit alike, and that presents a dan­ger to the global or­der.

The Amer­i­can and Chi­nese lead­ers are both im­petu­ous, au­thor­i­tar­ian and over­con­fi­dent na­tion­al­ists, and each ap­pears to un­der­es­ti­mate the other side’s ca­pac­ity to in­flict pain. This dan­ger­ous sym­me­try leaves the two sides hurtling to­ward each other.

The 10 per­cent tar­iffs al­ready im­posed in the trade war are sched­uled to rise to 25 per­cent in Jan­uary, but there’s also a broader con­fronta­tion emerg­ing.

Trump and Xi may well be able to reach a cease­fire in their trade war when they meet for the Group of 20 in two weeks. Even if a deal is reached, though, it may be only a tem­po­rary respite that doesn’t al­ter the dy­namic of two great na­tions in­creas­ingly on a col­li­sion course.

Each side mis­cal­cu­lates by see­ing the other as likely to give in. China per­ceives a wild man in the White House who talks big but who ul­ti­mately climbed down off his high horse on trade with Europe. Bei­jing doesn’t seem to re­al­ize that Trump’s chal­lenge to China arises from core be­liefs and re­flects a broad dis­il­lu­sion­ment with China in the United States.

I’m an ex­am­ple of that. I stud­ied Chi­nese and lived for five years in China; my wife and I wrote a largely up­beat book about the coun­try’s prospects called “China Wakes.” But Xi has dam­aged China’s brand just as Trump has dam­aged Amer­ica’s, and to­day it’s hard to find ei­ther Democrats or Repub­li­cans ea­ger to speak up for China.

For its part, Wash­ing­ton mis­judges as well. It sees China’s econ­omy as vul­ner­a­ble and doesn’t ap­pre­ci­ate that China can wage a trade war with weapons other than tar­iffs. It can play a na­tion­al­ism card so that it be­comes un­pa­tri­otic for Chi­nese cit­i­zens to buy McDon­ald’s burg­ers, drink Coke or wear Nike shoes. Safety in­spec­tions can close Amer­i­can ho­tels; tax in­ves­ti­ga­tions can tie Amer­i­can firms in knots; and cus­toms de­lays can hold up parts and idle Amer­i­can-owned fac­to­ries.

Chi­nese tourism to the U.S. can slow, stu­dents can be di­rected to Aus­tralian uni­ver­si­ties over Amer­i­can ones and rare earth min­er­als needed by

Amer­i­can com­pa­nies may de­velop short­ages. China can fur­ther ease sanc­tions on North Korea, buy more oil from Iran or be­come more ag­gres­sive in the South China Sea. It can can­cel Chi­nese trade­marks owned by Ivanka Trump – that might get the pres­i­dent’s at­ten­tion – and it can dump U.S. Trea­sury bonds.

Trump is right (I can’t be­lieve I just wrote those three words!) that China has not played fair. The best re­sponse would have been to work with al­lies to pres­sure China si­mul­ta­ne­ously from all sides; in­stead, Trump an­tag­o­nized al­lies so that we are fight­ing this bat­tle alone.

Why have I and so many oth­ers soured on China?

This is larger than Trump and Xi. China’s ad­mis­sion to the World Trade Or­ga­ni­za­tion in 2001 was meant to in­te­grate the coun­try into the global trad­ing sys­tem as an in­creas­ingly re­spon­si­ble world power. But af­ter mov­ing mostly in the right di­rec­tion un­der Deng Xiaop­ing and Jiang Zemin, China stalled un­der Hu Jin­tao and has moved back­ward un­der Xi.

China has stolen tech­nol­ogy and in­tel­lec­tual prop­erty even as it has be­come more ag­gres­sive mil­i­tar­ily in the South China Sea and curbed free­dom at home. Xi of­fends global val­ues by de­tain­ing more than 1 mil­lion Mus­lims in the Xin­jiang re­gion, ar­rest­ing lawyers and Chris­tians, and steadily squeez­ing out space for free thought. I used to re­port from China each year but now find the lim­its on a jour­nal­ist visa so oner­ous that it’s not worth­while. And I’m sup­posed to be the lao pengyou, or old friend, of China.

There are other grounds for Amer­i­can con­cern about China’s ir­re­spon­si­bil­ity that haven’t re­ceived much at­ten­tion: I es­ti­mate that around 20,000 Amer­i­cans die each year from over­doses of drugs orig­i­nat­ing from traf­fick­ers in China. In par­tic­u­lar, twothirds or more of Amer­ica’s fen­tanyl, a syn­thetic opi­oid far more lethal than heroin, ap­pears to come from China.

In fair­ness, China has made some ef­forts to crack down on the drug trade, but this hasn’t been a pri­or­ity so long as the traf­fick­ers mostly ex­port their fen­tanyl rather than sell it at home. If the Chi­nese gov­ern­ment pur­sued drug smug­glers the way it crushes dis­si­dent Chris­tians, la­bor ac­tivists, lawyers or fem­i­nists, those drug ex­ports would end.

Amer­ica’s busi­ness ex­ec­u­tives used to be strong sup­port­ers of a pro-China pol­icy, but they, too, have cooled. Hank Paul­son, the for­mer Trea­sury sec­re­tary, has long been a vig­or­ous ad­vo­cate of close ties with China, so I was struck by a sober warn­ing he gave to the Asia So­ci­ety in New York the other day.

“Eco­nomic ten­sions are reach­ing a break­ing point,” Paul­son cau­tioned in his speech. He con­cluded, and I think he’s right, that if the U.S. and China don’t re­solve their prob­lems, the world will face “a sys­temic risk of mon­u­men­tal pro­por­tions.”

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