America and China–Managing the Possible

May 21, 2017

America and China–Managing the Possible

by Tan Sri  Dr. Munir

Image result for Trump and Xi

The  Go It Alone Eagle and The  Globalist Dragon

THE contrast could not be greater. While United States President Donald Trump raves and rants – and belts this or that person – China’s President Xi Jinping looks measured and assured as he offers an alternative global future to the world.

Xi is no angel of course, as his political opponents would know, but his system conserves and protects him, as Trump’s would not. If only Trump were the leader in a centrally controlled political order – but even then his temperament would blow it apart.

Leadership, like politics, is the art of managing the possible. Trump does not understand this, and does not know how. Xi does, knows why, and knows how.He has a growing economy too behind him, whatever the hiccups. Trump only promises one, without any clarity or logic.

His plan to boost the American economy, based primarily on slashing corporate tax from 35 to 15%, is likely to flounder in an American Congress seriously concerned about its causing the fiscal deficit to balloon.

Already Trump has had to climb down from trying to secure funds from Congress for his dreaded border wall with Mexico in order to avoid budgetary shutdown in September.

The stock market has fallen back from the boost to the price of banks and industrial products following his election. Interest now has returned to what might be termed “American ingenuity stocks” such as Google, Apple and Microsoft on Nasdaq – a proxy for much that is great about America, which Trump’s immigration and closed-door policies threaten to destroy.

Image result for belt and road initiative

Meanwhile Xi has been rolling out his “Belt and Road” plans – something he first envisaged at the end of 2013 – for greater world connectivity and development, committing funds from China and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, and engaging global financial institutions such as the World Bank.

Malaysia, for instance, will be an actual beneficiary with additional projects thrown in. China is Malaysia’s largest trading partner. But the US has not been a laggard, being Malaysia’s fourth largest trading partner. And indeed the US remains the largest foreign investor in Malaysia, both new investments and total stock.

A staggering statistic not often recognised is that total American investment in ASEAN is more than its investment in China, Japan and India COMBINED!

The point, however, is that this position is being eroded. Trump’s policies are hastening this process. Abandonment of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) means there is no American strategic peaceful challenge to the Chinese economic juggernaut in Asia-Pacific.

Balance is important to afford choice. Absence of choice means serious exposure to risk. Price, quality and after-service standards are affected, not to mention a new geo-strategic economic underlining.

Over-dominance by China in the region is a price not only countries in the region will pay, something that most probably is on Trump’s mind. It is a price that America too will sooner or later have to pay.

China’s Belt and Road proposition is not without its challenges, of course. India is deeply suspicious of the connectivity with Pakistan which cuts across India-claimed Azad Kashmir, about 3000km of it.

The link to the Pakistani port of Gwadar, in southwest Baluchistan on the shores of the Arabian Sea, is seen by India as a Chinese presence at the entrance to the Indian Ocean and a hawk eye on the Indian sub-continent. With the Chinese also in Sri Lanka, India is circumspect on China’s Belt and Road initiative.

There have also been commentaries on some uneconomic linkages which extend right across the English Channel.

All these reservations, however, do not take into account the benefit of connectivity to economies, the time it often takes to get those economic benefits and, most of all, the patience, persistence and long view of history of China and its leaders.

One of the most striking things about the Belt and Road map is that America is not there. Of course, Xi Jinping does not preclude America just as much as the US did not say that China was not permanently excluded from the TPP. And of course, in the Old Silk Routes and shipping lanes, the New World – America – had not been discovered.

But in their revival, led by now rising and then ancient China after 150 years of national humiliation to the present time, there is the irony that the last three quarters of a century of America world dominance is on course to be marginalised, if not supplanted, by the old Eurasian world centred in an ancient civilisation.

Trump does not seem to understand history. The art of the deal is purely transactional. Short-tempered and short-term gratification does not a strategy constitute.

Image result for make america great again

So we have leader, system and economic promise distinguishing the two leaders – and the two countries.

Instead of America first, what we are seeing is Trump hurrying America’s decline relative to a rising China. We are not seeing a world changed from people wanting to be like a kind of American to being people wanting to be a kind of Chinese. Actually, the Chinese people themselves want to be like a kind of American, with all that wealth, influence and power.

What we are seeing is China – not America – leading the way to that desired, if not always desirable, end. It is China that is driving the next phase in the evolution of world economic development.

Under Xi Jinping, China appears to be heroically moving towards an epochal point in its Peaceful Rise. With Donald Trump, America is being led backwards and inwards, with all the problems of its governance now all coming out. It is in grave danger of losing in the peaceful competition.

Not knowing how to play that game – certainly under its current President – there remains the danger of the status quo power lashing out against the rising one.

The Greek historian Thucydides observed: “It was the rise of Athens and the fear that this instilled in Sparta that made war inevitable.” A Harvard professor has studied what is now called the Thucydides Trap and found in 12 out of 16 cases in which this occurred in the last 500 years, the outcome was war.

There are many potential flash points against the background of China’s rise – the North Korean Peninsula and the placement of THAAD missiles in the south, the South China Sea – where Trump may temperamentally find cause to lash out. This is the trapdoor he might take the world down because of failure to compete peacefully.

3 thoughts on “America and China–Managing the Possible

  1. There’re some common misunderstandings of the Thucydides trap that need to be dispelled. Thucydides trap is not just about a rising power trying to overtake the dominant power thereby leading to conflict. That is only half of the picture, though it is now well-known, particularly in Western discourse, where most analysts believe that China, as the rising power, seeks to reform and revolt against the existing liberal international order. The other half of the picture is about fear’s role in the Thucydides trap scenario. The dominant power’s fear propels it to adopt a preventive strategy to stall the rising power, thereby causing conflict.

    US foreign policy is driven by two primary factors – honor and fear. On the one hand, the US is proud of the existing liberal international order and is determined to defend it at all costs; and the US is strongly interested in exporting its own values and systems to the rest of the world, though it has exhibited a mixed record of success and failure in this regard. Simultaneously, US-China policy is driven by unwarranted fear. Many American analysts worry and fear that China will try to kick the US out of Asia once it dominates the South China Sea. The US initial reaction to China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) project is evidence of this fear; the US feared that China would use it to erode American influence in Asia. Washington realized later that this was exaggerated and turned around to welcome the bank. Still, the overall tendency to worry about and fear China’s every foreign policy move, especially assertive ones, is one reason the US-China relationship remains unstable.

    To be fair, the honor and fear factors exist on the China side, too. Xi Jinping’s “China dream” could be seen as a manifestation of the honor factor in Chinese foreign policy, and it comes without the expansionist elements of the US version. The China dream is mostly about China returning to its once prominent position in Asia – not about exporting Chinese values and systems to other countries. There is also the constant worry and fear within China that the West is engaged in some kind of conspiracy against it, trying to contain and block China’s rise.

    If we better understand how the impulses of honor and fear shape decision-making processes, we’ll better understand the much-hyped Thucydides trap. Better understanding the factors that play into the trap will help the US and China escape from it. Given the nuclear weaponry today which assures mutual destruction would make US and China to seek for this better understanding. The Thucydides trap will not happen.

    As a matter of fact, an US-China dual leadership in Asia Pacific is already emerging. This trend represents the future direction of US-China relations. China, as a rising power, has begun to play a leadership role in both the economic and financial domains, which can be seen in the most recent development of the China-led AIIB and its One-Belt One-Road (OBOR) initiative. Meanwhile, the existing hegemon plays a leadership role in the security and political dimensions. It remains to be seen how US and China will extend this dual leadership structure into regional as well as global institutions.

    The emerging nature of this new type of relationship means that the transitional process is on-going and the situation has not yet stabilized. The fact that it is a dual-power structure, with both sides having sometimes different viewpoints and opinions on what should be done, also adds to this uncertainty. The dual leadership structure reflects recent trends and perceptions regarding China’s rise – namely China’s dramatic and persistent economic growth despite its recent slowdown, which, in turn, may momentously affect the global and regional power distribution, giving Beijing considerable new leverage relative to the one exercised by Washington.

    However, the dual leadership structure is distinct from the concept of bipolar or G2 structure because it reflects a fundamental asymmetry rather than parity. China has not moved into a position where it can challenge US leadership. Rather, China is merely starting to become more influential in the economic dimension. While this trend may eventually enhance Beijing’s power in the military and political aspects, the transition from economic to political influence will occur over a long period and is difficult to measure. Therefore, it is unlikely that China will replace US leadership in either the security or political domains, not only in global affairs but even in regional affairs, any time soon.

  2. Another piece based on dualism and comparison? Why not add in Judoka Putin?
    The world is much, much more complicated than this, methinks.

    Okay, let’s say Xi plays Go (圍棋), the ancient strategic Chinese board game which is about capturing more territory than your opponent. This game has more permutations than all the atoms of the universe.
    Putin plays Chess – tactical, strategic and confrontational with set pieces and checkmates.
    Drumpski plays with himself – and achieves instant self satisfaction.
    Jibros? Nah.., too vulgar for words.

    Who wins?

  3. //The Greek historian Thucydides observed: “It was the rise of Athens and the fear that this instilled in Sparta that made war inevitable.”

    In all honesty, Xi’s China looks more like Sparta than Athens, especially when most of us can verify the following statement is still true in China.

    //Chinese people themselves want to be like a kind of American, with all that wealth, influence and power.

    Sigh, really? How I wish we would be talking Sanders meeting LiKeQiang today.

    History tells us that both Athens and Sparta did not end well. Of course, that is another story.

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