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The China puzzle

Bannon reflects a basic tension in Trump administration: whether to challenge China or work with it

NYT 

Steve Bannon. Photo: Reuters
Steve Bannon. Photo: Reuters

Steve Bannon, the former presidential confidante, was as apocalyptic as ever about on the eve of his trip to Hong Kong. The man who had all but declared “economic war” with in earlier interviews said to a Times reporter, “A hundred years from now, this is what they’ll remember — what we did to confront on its rise to world domination.” On arrival, in a speech to a big investor conference, he seemed to have softened a bit, praising China’s leadership and offering hopes that a trade war could be averted.

Mr. Bannon reflects a basic tension in the Trump administration: whether to challenge (and if so, where and when) or work with it. There is, on the one hand, huge resentment toward Beijing — which Mr. Bannon shares — among those who believe that has grown its economy at the expense of the working and middle classes. (The focus of his speech was instructive: “American economic nationalism and the populist revolt and Asia,” the three intertwined in his mind.) And then there are those who believe that without China’s help there can be no serious deterrent to North Korea (which fired off another missile near Japan last week), no lasting stability in the South Sea and the Asian rim as a whole.

This much is true: For the foreseeable future, no relationship is more crucial than that between these two nations. Together, they have a combined population of more than 1.7 billion people. Their economies dwarf all others, they both have nuclear weapons, they both have veto power in the Their appetites and ambitions shape the globe: Together they can make for a more peaceful world; as adversaries, they can make a mess of things.

To some extent, President Trump seems to understand all that. He engaged early with President Xi Jinping, at his Mar-a-Lago resort, and has sought to regularly consult the Chinese leader, including a recent exchange that the president described as a “very strong phone call.” Yet, at the same time, he has failed to articulate a coherent strategy toward or to achieve significant progress on the many consequential issues. He seems also to lump all China-related issues into one big, menacing ball — trade, tariffs, North Korea — rather than dealing with them separately, and this has added more complications.

Additionally, the administration has been slow to get experts into senior posts at the White House and State Department; for good or ill, Mr. Bannon was one person with Mr. Trump’s ear who took a big interest in Now there is no senior person with close ties to the president to oversee policy, which does little to foster a consistent policy or reflect well on American leadership.

Against Mr. Trump’s impulsiveness and his espousal of an America First agenda of isolationism and protectionism, Mr. Xi projects a steady hand as he tries to remake the global economic and political order and entice nations into Beijing’s orbit.

Chinese trade is undeniably a big draw for many countries. So is Mr. Xi’s promised, though perhaps quixotic, $1 trillion investment in his One Belt, One Road initiative, an ambitious network of trading routes and development projects — roads, ports, pipelines and the like from to Africa and Europe — that seems also to have drawn Mr. Bannon’s admiration. Having long operated quietly in Russia’s shadow at the United Nations, the Chinese are also speaking out more forcefully and engaging more robustly across multiple regions, a trend that has accelerated under Mr. Trump.

Meanwhile, Mr. Trump, unlike his predecessor, Barack Obama, who worked to expand American influence in Asia, has ceded significant ground to China, especially by withdrawing from the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership and thus allowing Beijing an opening to set trade rules in the region. The American president will share the world stage with Mr. Xi for the first time this week when both men address the annual United Nations General Assembly.

Can there be robust cooperation? In 2005, when President George W. Bush was in office, Robert Zoellick, then a deputy secretary of state, encouraged to become a “responsible stakeholder” and help strengthen the Western-designed postwar system from which it benefited. Yet today more officials and experts are putting in the adversary category, or leaning toward doing so, not least because of Beijing’s decision to expand its military capability and project it further into the South Sea.

Still, to anyone who steps back from the immediate conflicts over territory and trade, there is no alternative to cooperation on major challenges, even if interests aren’t always aligned. Mr. Trump is supposed to make his first presidential trip to Beijing in November, and Mr. Xi will certainly want to demonstrate that he can work with and manage the mercurial American president. The meeting is a natural forcing mechanism for getting some things done.

Here’s one thing that is not much talked about: counterterrorism. Mr. Trump worries about the Islamic State, Mr. Xi about Muslim Uighurs in China’s northwestern region of Xinjiang. Beijing could benefit from American intelligence about militants returning from the Middle East to Xinjiang; Washington would be interested in China’s help in persuading Pakistan to crack down on the Taliban.

On trade, there may be an opportunity for progress on a bilateral investment treaty, with American investment offered in exchange for broader access to the Chinese market for American companies. On intellectual property, now that is putting energy into developing its own technology instead of just stealing America’s, the two could work together on stronger protections.

And then, of course, there is North Korea. Mr. Trump has insisted far more strongly than Mr. Obama that China, as the North’s main supplier of food and fuel, could single-handedly resolve the North Korea nuclear crisis if it wanted to. can do a lot, and it did support the in passing tougher sanctions last week. But it has no interest in seeing North Korea collapse, and doubts remain about whether it could force the North to negotiate.

There is a template for cooperation, and while it involves an issue in which Mr. Trump has no interest, it provides a glimpse of a way forward. The issue is climate change. A combination of arduous negotiation by Secretary of State John Kerry and the Obama White House, plus China’s own horrible air pollution problems, brought Beijing around to signing the Paris accord and making a major commitment to stabilize greenhouse gas emissions. Self-interest and patient diplomacy: a combination that could work to the benefit of the entire world.

First Published: Sun, September 17 2017. 15:46 IST
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