Trump, China and India

We have come to expect – and, truth be told, hope for – false modesty and at least the appearance of self-restraint from our political leaders; President Trump turns these expectations on their heads. He has all the self-restraint of a junkyard dog. Feed him and he will love you; step onto what he sees as his territory and he will try to feed on you. In Freudian terms, he’s all id.

Those who have accused Trump of having committed crimes or of being something reprehensible – a racist, most commonly – he taunts. He doesn’t buy those theories, thinks the people who have propagated them are the worst and tells the world exactly that, often in vividly colorful and grammatically creative language. Our elites – and many ordinary people – see him as uncouth or worse.

He also exaggerates compulsively and, if he thinks doing so will advance whatever goal he is pursuing, is not above flattering those who he knows do reprehensible things – Kim Jong Un, Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin being the best examples. Whatever he says should be interpreted not in terms of the literal words spoken or tweeted but based on an understanding of whatever he’s trying to accomplish by saying or tweeting them. As often as not, he’ll tell you exactly what he’s trying to do; subtlety and self-restraint are not his greatest strengths.

These traits cause consternation and anger among his many detractors. Trump-haters focus ferociously on his manners, which they claim reveal his hypocrisy and egomania. That they ignored the innumerable hypocrisies and egomanias of many of his recent, well-regarded predecessors reinforces the impression that their hatred for Trump is based more on social class, for which manners and language are the most powerful markers, than on actual concerns about his character. Trump-haters also ignore the fact that he has endeavored to do pretty much exactly what he said he would, which, in a sense, makes him one of the most honest politicians I’ve seen in my forty years as a voter. With Trump, what you see is what you get.

***

Trump’s unwillingness to be constrained by others’ expectations extends to matters far more consequential than his personality quirks, manners and language; he also frequently disdains the conventional wisdom of America’s elites. Two pieces of previously unchallenged governing-class dogma are the premises that free trade is always mutually beneficial and that China’s economic rise will benefit all. Trump buys neither assumption, and the result of his acting on his beliefs is a trade war between the world’s two most important economies.  

Which I, a formerly dogmatic free-trader, applaud.

China’s rise is not necessarily benign. I don’t begrudge the Chinese their increasing prosperity, and in a better world, that should be something to be celebrated both for its own sake and as being generally beneficial for the world at large, but China’s regime, it has become increasingly clear, represents a growing threat to its own people, its neighbors and our nation’s prosperity and position. Through its “social credit system” – built with the help of American technology companies that should be ashamed of themselves – China’s government has established a comprehensive ability to spy on and control its own people that mirrors Orwell’s worst nightmares. It has imprisoned roughly a million Uighurs in an effort to wipe out their (Muslim) culture. Its military is in the process of seizing control of strategic locations in the western Pacific in clear violation of international law. For decades it has used North Korea as its very own attack dog – supporting that benighted country while it impoverished – and starved – its own people and acquired the weapons with which it has blackmailed and destabilized the world, all the while disavowing any responsibility for those outcomes. Most pertinently, it has used trade – and our society’s openness – to steal technology that only strengthens its ability to challenge America’s prosperity.

I have come to think of China as a presently successful example of fascism in action. It’s a country led by a small, self-selected clique. It tolerates private enterprise only insofar as businesses within its borders all ultimately serve the state. (“Everything within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state” – Benito Mussolini).  Its leaders think their national destiny is to run the world. They will do anything to maintain control (see: the Tienanmen Square massacre, the “social credit system” and their bullying of and, perhaps, an upcoming imposition of martial law in Hong Kong). I have no doubt, too, that they intend to force Taiwan into submission, or invade it as soon as they can. (Why should anybody doubt that, as they regularly imply it themselves?).

Actually, I think Trump is quite clever to use trade as a weapon to challenge China’s bad behavior. By shutting down many of their exports to the US,  Trump is hurting the Chinese economy much more than he is hurting ours – and if that country’s government can’t deliver prosperity to ever-larger numbers of its own citizens, it will feel pressure from them. Perhaps the Chinese regime will be forced to behave in a more responsible and less lawless and aggressive fashion or face the wrath of its own people – it’s worth a try. Worst case, we slow the growth of a determined and dishonorable competitor.

***

With respect, I have a suggestion for President Trump on a related matter. He should make a h(“y”)uge initiative to turn India into a full-on ally. He should go to New Delhi bearing gifts – trade openings, substantial investments, military technology and above-all symbolic affirmation of that country’s importance to our nation’s – and the world’s – future. If Nixon could go to China, Trump can go to India.

India has roughly as many people as China. It is a functioning democracy and a natural strategic counterweight to China – but far behind that country in economic and military terms.  If India’s government gets its policy act together, as seems to be happening, but too slowly, it will soon become one of the world’s most important markets – and producers of goods, and military powers.

Trump has been squabbling with India over that country’s import restrictions. He should change the dialog – and ignore his own mercantilist predilections – in view of the longer term strategic imperatives.  

If Trump manages to help nudge China’s behavior into line with international norms and helps India come into its own he will go down in history as a great president, no matter what else he does or doesn’t do.

Even if he is a bit rude sometimes.

M.H. Johnston              

3 comments to Trump, China and India

  • AJT  says:

    Great post, Mark. Agree about India. “Trump-haters also ignore the fact that he has endeavored to do pretty much exactly what he said he would, which, in a sense, makes him one of the most honest politicians I’ve seen in my forty years as a voter.” Amazing, isn’t it? As I said to a Trump-hating cousin in the course of an exchange about (what else?) politics, Trump may just be the cleanest man in Washington. Strange times. But interesting.

  • YL  says:

    As a Chinese immigrants who spend a few weeks summer break in China each year, it is sad to see that political atmosphere has been going backwards under current leadership. While I am hoping the trade war can press Chinese government to change its bad behavior, I am not optimistic to the outcome at all. Yes, the trade war would hurt the economy, but the people being hurt the most are the people without voice — the common factory workers and traders. And as the articles pointed out, those people are under heavy surveillance and rally dare not to do much against the government. Even worse, the government is successfully using trade war to fuel nationalism in order to solidify itself. After all, the information in China is heavily controlled by the government. While small portion of city elites and upper-middle class Chinese have their open channel to the outside world, vast majority of Chinese world view is still largely influenced by government direction. We will see what happens next.

    • M Johnston  says:

      Your pessimism about the direction of events and your concerns about who is being most immediately hurt – working class people in China and, to a lesser extent, here – sadden me. You are undoubtedly right about the costs of a trade war being imposed first on those who have least, which is tragic. Even so, I don’t see any alternative but to re-set the terms of a trade and foreign policy relationship between the two countries that I believe has been leading in a truly dangerous direction. As I see it, Trump is trying to do just that in an entirely peaceable manner, and I truly hope he succeeds.

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