Trump’s unclear outcome with North Korea and bad attitude toward friends and global institutions may weaken the US dominance on global narrative and give hawks in Beijing mistaken impressions that could mislead everybody to war
Just hours after the end of the historic summit in Singapore between US president Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, which apparently paves the way to a peace agreement in Korea, the United State slapped $50 billion in tariffs on Chinese imports.
This was after the failure to reach a bilateral trade settlement, in which the US required China to pry open its market for unfettered American access. Washington also threatened more tariffs in case of Chinese retaliation, but Beijing immediately retorted with new duties against existing US imports. These could come into effect in early July.
A US-China trade war has de facto started right after some kind of peace clearing with North Korea. It proves that the Korea meeting has nothing to do with improving US-China ties, which until a few years ago was the main goal of the talks. Now, conversely, while a small door to peace with Pyongyang opened in North Asia, a much wider gate of tension with Beijing has been unlocked. In fact, at the summit President Trump didn’t thank China for it efforts in bringing Kim to the table, although its good offices had been allegedly instrumental to the results of the summit.
Yet things are extremely complicated, and as a trade tussle is clearly underway, the Korea issue is far from resolved, and China is clearly still very much in the picture.
June Teufel Dreyer argued that «several Chinese analysts have opined that Beijing would serve as guarantor of the peace agreement, both in inspecting the progress of denuclearization that is so important to Washington and in providing assurances to Kim that if he gives up the nuclear card that he believes keeps him from being overthrown, his regime will be safe. Unspoken but clearly present is that this arrangement would allow Beijing to maintain its leverage over both Pyongyang and Washington».
In the same days Charles Parton pointed out that China didn’t lose out in the Singapore summit and Chinese interests were protected, as they managed «to avoid regime instability or collapse in North Korea, which would lead to refugees flooding into northeast China. Refugees would bring instability to a region already suffering economically, something that the CCP sees as a serious threat to its authority».
That is, to move things forward, it would be difficult to keep China out of the picture and also to ignore Japan’s concerns. Tokyo is still well within the range of North Korean missiles and the decades-long issue of Japanese abductees (dozens of people kidnapped in Japan to serve as language instructors in Pyongyang) is still unresolved.
Only Kim has clearly won, ending 70 years of political isolation and of being treated like the pariah of the world. The US has a shot at changing the political geography of Asia, but it is not clear in what way, whether by playing North Korea with China or against China.
In fact, it is not only trade issues heating up between the two largest economies in the world.
Tensions in the region are mounting. Last week China announced military drills in the disputed South China Sea to underscore Beijing’s territorial claim in the area, and some hardliners vouch that by 2019 Beijing should recover Taiwan by force. This saber rattling gives a more ominous twist to the US-China trade spat.
As diplomacy, trade, and military posturing are getting confused and intertwined, perhaps it is useful to pause and think about some of the possible consequences.
In ancient times, military victory in war was always also political victory. In modern times, political and military victory can be separated. A glaring example of a split between military and political victory was the Vietnam War. Clearly the United States won the military war; politically however America lost the conflict and was forced to withdraw. Wars in Iraq and in Afghanistan are also similar examples of military successes and political failures.
From this point of view, how can we assess the possibility of success of a Chinese war against Taiwan or in the South China Sea? It is indeed possible that Beijing may win the military confrontation, yet it is quite certain that it will lose with regard to the political outcome. In fact, from the outside, it is easy to see that China will come out of the conflict isolated and walled in by crippling sanctions in a world dominated by the US.
This should be an easy political calculation taking into account the wide web of alliances and partnerships stretching from the US nerve center. In comparison, China has no alliances (well, one, with North Korea), and two decades after its establishment, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization is still a lofty-sounding yet toothless forum.
If the US, with its huge influence on the world, its immense soft power, its decisive sway on global narratives could not dominate the political message and victory in Iraq or Afghanistan, what can China do in a clash on Taiwan or in the South China Sea with no way to influence the international plot-line?
However, the uncertain outcome of the summit in Singapore may cast a different light onto this whole equation.
A clear result of the summit was that China was pushed to the background and Trump and Kim got the limelight. Yet in this limelight, Kim got the best of it. Trump didn’t get a clear commitment on the dismantlement of the nuclear arsenal in North Korea, and Kim didn’t make any pledge on Pyongyang’s withdrawal of its long-, medium-, and short-range missiles that also threaten Japan and South Korea.
This outcome, where North Korean gains far outweigh American results, reinforces some strong opinions in Beijing about the fate of United States.
China is now fully realizing that America means business against China and trade controversies may be just the tip of the iceberg. They are coming to understand that America is wary that Beijing’s potentially immense internal market and its drive for technological and scientific modernization will tip China to be the country leading the world in the very near future.
This, coupled with China’s growing assertiveness, may scare the United States into some kind of action against Beijing. Beijing is therefore worried about a military clash or some kind of Cold War–style confrontation with United States.
Yet, there are divided opinions in Beijing about how to respond to these objective challenges. In China some believe that 1) Beijing needs to appease Washington with some minimal concessions, 2) others would like some kind of surrender, and 3) others believe there is no need to give in to any demand.
Those upholding option 1 are worried that with the its power, allies, and overall dominance of world affairs America could be easily crush China in any kind of fight, and thus they would like to drive some kind of small bargain win some time and see how things move along. These are the majority.
Others could be open to some grand bargain with America where China would be the US’s junior partner, become more open and democratic, and live with the United States happily forever. These are the minority.
There is also a third party, which was the majority until last year, went into decline, and then regained credence after the recent summit in Singapore. These people claim that Trump is America’s Gorbachev, the one man leading the United States to its demise, as the former Soviet leader brought down the USSR, according to the Chinese understanding of Soviet history.
These Chinese pundits find confirmation of their forecasts in the enormous grumbling in the world and in the United States about Donald Trump. They see that while cozying up to once arch-villain Kim, the US is apparently forfeiting many of its own creations and allies: the WTO, the G7, the TPP, the EU… But these are protections, reinforcements, and actual incarnations of American global leadership.
If the US sheds them, it would be like a soldier going to war without body armor and weapons because they are cumbersome and make him less nimble on the battlefield. This may be the case, but that soldier, no matter how strong and fast, will be easily killed, and his lack of defensive and offensive arms will definitely embolden his enemies.
Right or wrong, Trump’s aggressive posturing with countrymen, friends, and allies makes him look very isolated in America and in the world, and therefore cut off from America’s traditional strength: its ability to lead a wide coalition of countries against any enemy, i.e. the backbone of its soft power and the flesh and blood of its ability to impose a narrative.
This reading of the American reality leads to strategic choices. If America is declining in its web of alliances, then any recommendation for prudence in taking on the US in world affairs is also waning. This automatically opens a space for China to step up in general, replacing the US where it withdraws. More practicality it helps promote the idea of recovering Taiwan by force next year. The US may not react or even if it does will not be doing so by leveraging its greatest political switch – i.e. enforcing a global embargo against China, as many former US sympathizers will be antagonized by Trump’s general attitude.
That is, the US can be assertive with China, but if it does so alone, without the clear support of the global institutions it created, shaped, and led for decades, the impression from somewhere unfamiliar with the mechanics of these institutions may be that the America’s empire is crumbling. Then China may be better off holding its ground and awaiting the US’s demise.
The story of President Trump leading America’s decline may be wrong, and it may be a gross misunderstanding of what makes America tick in the world. This in fact goes beyond Trump’s personality. But typically wars start with misunderstanding and wrong assessments of one’s strengths and other people’s capabilities. Everyone goes to war thinking he will win – and typically one side is wrong.
President Trump being divisive, angry, and resentful to people in the United States and to its allies and friends in the world feeds misunderstandings and wrong assessments about the real situation. If things are not clear cut, as it was the case with North Korea, and tensions are rising in Asia and in the world, this objectively increases the likelihood of wrong moves by anybody.
 See https://www.fpri.org/article/2018/06/china-japan-and-the-singapore-summit-no-seat-at-the-table-but-very-much-present/
 See https://rusi.org/commentary/chinas-xi-jinping-will-sleep-more-soundly-after-singapore-summit
 See for instance https://www.global-review.info/2018/05/29/debate-can-china-recover-taiwan-within-1-year/
 I am indebted for this to General Fabio Mini.
 See also Evan Osnos https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2018/01/08/making-china-great-again