Trump’s China policy at a cul-de-sac

US President Donald Trump (R) and Chinese Vice Premier Liu He (L) after signing the US-China trade deal, Washington, Jan. 15, 2020  

This past week has been a catastrophic seven days that shook America. Some of the debris may have inevitably fallen on President Donald Trump too. Most important, the Trump administration has lost the plot on China. 

The tragic Memorial Day murder of an African-American George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota highlights that as much as racial violence and the targeting of non-whites in incidents of police violence signals the surge of the most backward and reactionary layers of American society, the latent class oppression under the Trump presidency lies exposed. The victims of police violence—black, white, Hispanic or Native American—are invariably the poor and the most vulnerable segments of the population. 

Internationally, there has been a show of solidarity with the protests that erupted following the murder of George Floyd. Demonstrations took place in Trafalgar Square in London and at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin. The Russian Foreign Ministry commented on it.  

Europe’s alienation from Trump’s America can only deepen now. Already, this past week highlighted the schism that is brewing in the transatlantic alliance. Three vectors appeared. 

Trump’s carefully timed initiative to host a G7 summit in Washington on June 25-26, ostensibly to look beyond the Covid-19 pandemic, crash-landed for lack of enthusiasm among the US’ western allies. This was dramatically brought home with German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision not to accept Trump’s invitation, pleading, ironically, her preoccupations over containing the pandemic. 

But Merkel’s dissent goes far deeper. She publicly remarked that in whatever form the G7 meeting takes place, “whether as a video conference or otherwise, I will definitely fight for multilateralism. That is very clear, both in the G7 and the G20.”

Sensing that his leadership has come under serious challenge in the western world, Trump quickly switched tack to propose that the G7 group of advanced economies has become “very outdated” in a changing world and should transform as the “G10 or 11 vs. G1.” Which is to say, Trump wants an expanded G7 – with Russia, India, Australia and South Korea added on — and such a reformed club to unite against China.  

This brainwave is quixotic and will further hurt US diplomacy and leadership. The other six members of the  G7 — UK, France, Germany, Italy, Canada and Japan — remain sceptical about the inclusion of Russia, which was disinvited in 2014 over its annexation of Crimea. 

Besides, Europe wants to know first as to what Trump would do to the American leadership of the post-World War II liberal international order. It is not only that the other members of G7 will feel annoyed over Trump’s unilaterally proposed formal enlargement, but Europeans are also determined to maintain cooperation with China. Japan, South Korea, Australia and Russia also have interest in deeper economic regional integration involving China. 

The schism over relations with China within the western club was highlighted by Merkel in remarks last week when she insisted that European countries have “great strategic interest” in constructive engagement of China even while robustly pursuing an equal partnership. In a major speech addressing the Konrad-Adenauer Stiftung, a think tank with ties to her Christian Democratic Union, in Berlin on May 27, Merkel said China will be a top priority when her government takes over the six-month rotating EU presidency on July 1. 

Merkel stressed, “We Europeans will need to recognise the decisiveness with which China will claim a leading position in the existing structures of the international architecture.” She added that even as European governments cast a critical eye on China’s assertiveness, she’ll aim to maintain a “critical, constructive” dialogue with Beijing. 

Merkel reiterated her aim to complete an investment accord with China, as well as finding common ground in fighting climate change and global health challenges. Merkel’s remarks spell doom for Trump’s hopes of using the G7 (or what he is now calling the G10 or G11) to build a coalition to put pressure on China. ,

Simply put, Trump’s unilateral announcement regarding a G7 expansion is perceived in Europe simply as a continuation of his ill-judged steps in the past three years of his presidency to undermine the rules-based multilateral world order that American presidents of both parties have painstakingly built up for more than 70 years.

Trump’s last pugnacious act to withdraw the US from the World Health Organisation drew forth a dissenting statement by the President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen and High Representative / Vice-President Josep Borrell on May 30. The statement openly chastised Trump: “As the world continues to fight the COVID-19 pandemic, the main task for everyone is to save lives and contain and mitigate this pandemic. The European Union continues to support the WHO in this regard and has already provided additional funding.” 

The EU has urged Trump, “Actions that weaken international results must be avoided. In this context, we urge the US to reconsider its announced decision.” 

Equally, while the EU has disagreements with China over its recent legislation over Hong Kong, Brussels and the major European capitals distance themselves from Washington’s diatribes against Beijing. The US ultimately had to be content with issuing a statement with a clutch of Anglo-Saxon countries in regard of the situation in Hong Kong. 

As for the EU, it issued a brief statement of its own regarding Hong Kong. While expressing “grave concern at the steps taken by China on 28 May,” the EU estimates that Beijing’s move “risks to seriously undermine the ‘One Country Two Systems’ principle and the high degree of autonomy of the Special Administrative Region of Hong Kong.” 

The statement concluded by saying that “EU relations with China are based on mutual respect and trust. This decision further calls into question China’s will to uphold its international commitments. We will raise the issue in our continuing dialogue with China.”

The bottom line is that Trump’s unilateralism on the G7 and the ever deeper rift he is creating between the US and its NATO allies may eventually prove to be profoundly debilitating for America. Transatlantic spats are nothing new, but this time around, a veritable chasm is developing. Trump’s actions are calling into question the fundamental unity of the West that has been a steady feature of world politics since the Cold War began in the late forties. 

In the attempt to perpetuate its global hegemony, the US is still travelling on the path of the past seven decades with its eyes trained on an “enemy image” that helps generate business activity for its military-industrial complex and in turn fuels dreams of a New American Century. The stuff of dreams is seldom borne out of realities. The concerns of the US’ principal allies are increasingly at variance with America’s.

Thus the sort of decoupling from China that Trump espouses has no takers in the West where the mainstream opinion upholds global economic cooperation. The groundswell of world opinion is that societies which are able to rebuild themselves the most successfully are those which are able to work together across countries and across regions to assist their economic recovery. 

In the immediate context of the Covid-19 pandemic that is casting the shadow of a possible world economic recession amidst the lurking fear that the shadow of the pandemic may last long, it is inevitable that an Asian-led recovery holds attraction. Over the past four months, ASEAN has become the largest trading partner for China, replacing the EU.

Trade between China and ASEAN economies touched $85.32 billion in January and February, despite the trend of falling trade with most other trading members as a result of the pandemic, which generates incipient hopes of a gradual resumption of the supply chains.

China and the Asian countries strongly believe in multilateralism and cooperation, which is helpful in times when the global community needs to deal with an economic crisis. Globalisation, in effect, is acquiring new traits of “regionalisation”. This was also what Merkel had in mind in her Berlin speech last Wednesday. 

Indeed, Trump’s statement on Actions Against China on May 29 hints at some degree of awareness that the US is beating a dead horse by demonising China. Trump was very tough in rhetoric, but probably as cloud cover. Trump’s statement laid out a long list of issues with China, which makes it look like a“China carnage” statement. But in their totality, they do not add up as a coherent strategy.

He blamed China for a “pattern of misconduct” mostly in trade, and IPR theft and also mentioned Beijing “unlawfully claim[ing] territory in the Pacific Ocean” and breaking “their word to the world on ensuring the autonomy of Hong Kong.” But he reserved most of the time to blast Beijing for the COVID-19 pandemic — a “cover-up of the Wuhan virus.”

Trump said the US is studying what to do about US-listed Chinese firms; US will restrict “certain” Chinese students and researchers from studying in America; special treatment for Hong Kong will end; Chinese officials involved in the Hing Kong situation may be sanctioned; and, US is terminating its membership of the WHO.        

Curiously, US stock markets shot up after Trump’s comments; it looks like investors are relieved that the measures Trump outlined are not as bad as one would have thought. And the language he used certainly leaves wiggle room for timing and implementation.  

Most important, Trump did not say a word in his statement about the fate of the US-China trade deal. Presumably, it is work in progress and Trump is conscious that trade with China can be critical for the US’ post-Covid economic recovery. A Reuters analysis today is wryly captioned, ‘Lemon’ or not, Trump is stuck with Phase 1 of the China trade deal.