China-U.S. turmoil: Bigger than Trump, more than a trade dispute

Written by Charles Burton.

The unprecedented high-level delegation to Beijing led by the US Treasury Secretary and the U.S.’s hardest liners on China trade including Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, U.S. Trade representative Robert Lighthizer and Presidential advisor Peter Navarro is unlikely to leave China anyway satisfied.

On March 22 Mr. Lighthizer`s office produced a detailed 182 page document (Section 301 Report) with 1,139 footnotes and five appendices detailing China`s unfair trade practices regarding technology transfer, intellectual property and innovation. And the U.S. wants to see active measures on the part of the PRC to unconditionally reduce the U.S.’s $375 billion annual trade deficit by $100 billion with minimal delay. If not, the U.S. is committed to imposing tariffs on a total of $150 billion in Chinese imports starting next month.

In response China offers dialogue and hazy promises of further opening of the country’s automotive and financial sectors and tightening protections for intellectual property and proprietary manufacturing processes. There will be a banquet hosted by Xi Jinping. The U.S. concerns will be denigrated politely in person and ridiculed in print. A recent China Daily opinion piece penned by a China friendly Yale professor that concluded “the USTR case is an embarrassing symptom of a scapegoat mentality that has turned the U.S. into a country of whiners.” The delegation, Peter Navarro in particular, will not take kindly to this kind of thing. China may not fully appreciate that its conventional diplomatic countermeasures are unlikely to be effective with Trump’s team.

The main challenge with this negotiation is that China has no viable demands on the U.S. to exchange for U.S. concessions. So the Chinese Government’s assertion that “the dialogue must be held on an equal footing” and “will hardly work if the U.S. persists in pressing China to accept its conditions” does not bode well for success. As the Xinhua official news agency put it, China also requires that “the U.S. delegation has to come with sincerity,” China’s standard code for demands that foreigners humbly agree to whatever China offers. But by the Chinese definition “sincerity” will not be characteristic of the U.S. approach this time as it is seen as a diplomatic trap. Lack of principled determination in negotiations is seen by members of this delegation as the weakness that has led to the failure of past U.S. administrations to realise American interests in China.

China’s tried and true past techniques for managing and putting off foreign delegations seeking to persuade China for comply with the fair trade principles of the WTO and international convention are not likely to go very far this time. Mr. Ross indicated in an interview that the trade deficit is “too big, too continuing, too chronic and too inspired by evil practices.” A Global Times editorial avers that “China won’t abandon its principles despite pressure.” But the U.S. delegation’s ascription of “evil” to Chinese practices leaves no room for compromise.

Mr. Lighthizer commented during a meeting hosted by Mr. Trump with governors and members of congress whose constituencies are likely to be hit particularly badly by a trade war that “it is not my objective to change the Chinese system.” But it is evident that ultimately this is the implication of the U.S.’s demands.

The U.S. has tied this into concerns over cyber-espionage and concerns that Chinese telecommunications giants Huawei and ZTE acting as agents of the Chinese state threaten the national security of the United States including by violations of sanctions against Iran and North Korea. The U.S. is also concerned that China’s “Made in China 2025” policy to achieve global domination of 10 next-generation industries including biotech, aerospace, artificial intelligence and robotics will be built on purloined U.S. technology. To this end the U.S. is even considering enacting measures to deny Chinese scholars and graduate students access to U.S. labs engaged in cutting edge research in areas with military and advanced technologies.

So this U.S. delegation may ostensibly be negotiating trade but ultimately what the U.S. wants from China is a fundamental transformation to the way China engages internationally.  This is starting with the WTO but extending to all bilateral and multilateral obligations as far reaching as implementing Security Council resolutions to bring North Korea to bay up to China complying with the UN Convention on Law of the Sea which requires the China acknowledge that their land reclamation in the South China Sea is illegal and that China abandon its attempts to inhibit freedom of the navigation in these international waters. Essentially the U.S. regards the common principles that sustain the global order and peaceful relations between nations as good and China’s flaunting of them evil.

China’s move to establish a new global order “the community of the common destiny of humankind” based on non-liberal principles dressed up as “a new type of international relations based on win-win cooperation” is based on China’s deeply held conviction that the U.S. is in rapid decline as a global power. The community of the common destiny of humankind ideology is that China will “resume its rightful place” as the leader of global civilisation finally redressing what is characterized as China’s soul-felt deep humiliation by Western and Japanese imperialism in the 19th century. In effect under President Trump the U.S. seeks to stymie Xi Jinping’s enactment of this meta-plan for global domination which legitimises his Leninist régime with fervent nationalism in place of China’s failed Marxist utopian vision.

Of course there are alternative readings of Chinese history and culture which support a liberal democratic alternative path for Chinese development. But remaking the Chinese Communist Party-State paradigm will not come easily.

The U.S. trade mission will almost certainly fail. What follows in the engagement of China by the U.S. and its like-minded allies could be much more than a simple trade war.

Charles Burton is an associate professor of political science at Brock University in St. Catharines, and is a former Counsellor at the Canadian Embassy in Beijing. Image credit: CC by US State Department/Flickr.

Categories: China, China-US, EconomicsTags: , ,