United States

Chinese checkers

Print edition : March 03, 2017

U.S. President Donald Trump with Jack Ma, executive chairman of Alibaba, after a meeting on January 9. Photo: MIKE SEGAR/REUTERS

The first freight train directly connecting China to the United Kingdom arrives in east London on January 18. The train demonstrates Beijing’s desire to strengthen commercial links with western Europe by reviving the ancient Silk Road. Photo: NIKLAS HALLE'N/AFP

Hua Chunying, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman. Photo: Ng Han Guan/AP

China’s leaders seem ready to face the headwinds likely to emerge from the U.S. in the coming months and turn them into opportunities.

Unwilling to be swayed by the rhetoric, mostly negative, in the mainstream media regarding Donald Trump, the Chinese have begun to make a clinical assessment of the possible fallout of the policy outlines emerging on the watch of the 45th President of the United States.

The purpose of this holistic exercise is to determine, with as much precision as possible, the pressures that the Trump presidency is likely to impose on the fundamentals that define China’s economic rise. These include the continuity of access to the U.S. market, which has played a major role in China’s export-led growth in the decades following Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms. Similarly, there are concerns regarding a possible change in rules that would make it more difficult for China to acquire economic assets in the U.S. These acquisitions are arguably necessary for Beijing to leapfrog into an advanced industrial economy status, thus escaping what has been called the “middle income trap”.

Although Trump has shown no signs of pursuing an ideology-driven agenda, such as the so-called promotion of democracy pursued by his predecessors, the Chinese are vigilant towards any moves the U.S. might make that would challenge China’s one-party political system or its self-perception of national territorial sovereignty.

The Chinese have already made it demonstrably clear that they completely reject Trump’s questioning of China’s sovereignty over Taiwan under the “One China” principle. Similarly, the Chinese are expected to reaffirm, without any doubt, that Beijing’s authority over Tibet and Xinjiang, the perceived fault lines supposedly prone to secessionist appeal, is cast in stone. Beijing’s claims in the South China Sea, and the North Korean issue, could also become points of friction between the two countries.

The Chinese have begun to view Trump through the prism of their own historical experience. Thus, comparisons with Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, the iconic leaders of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), have become pervasive in state and social media. Chinese think tanks are also engaged in drawing comparisons between Trump and the PRC’s foremost leaders. This was most visibly highlighted in an article in Global Times, a tabloid affiliated with the flagship People’s Daily, run by the Communist Party of China.

“Every man sees this world according to his own experience. And Chinese people’s political experience is largely based on his or her interpretation of Mao and Deng’s legacies,” the daily quoted Jin Canrong, associate dean of the Department of International Studies at the Renmin University of China, as saying.

He added: “Trump’s dissatisfaction toward bureaucrats and interest groups and his direct call [on Twitter] for the public to rebel against the establishment does remind Chinese people of Mao. But his focus on economic development, his lack of interest in ideology, and his drawing back from global input bear some similarities to Deng.”

Some of Mao’s supporters, as seen in an article in Canghaishibei, a WeChat microblog account, praised Trump’s inaugural speech as “no less than the Declaration of Independence”. The article, as quoted by Global Times, lauded Trump’s address as an illustration of “class struggle” at its core. On the contrary, Mao’s critics in China slammed the speech, deeming it an evocation of the disastrous Cultural Revolution that lasted for a decade and ended in 1976. On Sina Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter, Trump was photoshopped into Cultural Revolution-themed posters. The American President was shown dressed in a Mao-style suit, standing against a background of proletarian workers, peasants and soldiers waving the red flag. Instead of the Little Red Book, the posters showed Trump holding the book he had authored: The Art of the Deal.

But many others perceive Trump in the image of Deng. “If we look at Trump without pre-established impressions, we can see that a theme of Trump’s beliefs is to focus on [the country’s] own affairs.… From this perspective, Trump is truly a student of Deng Xiaoping,” reads a paper released by the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies under the Renmin University of China in November.

It called on people to rise above discussions of populism or other questions defined by the West. Instead, it stressed the necessity of analysing Trump from an original new perspective. “Both Trump and Deng are at a historic crossroads where they want to bring about major changes in domestic and foreign affairs for their countries,” the article read.

In dealing with the Trump presidency, the Chinese seem to be quickly grasping the new rules of economic engagement with the U.S. Consequently, unlike the previous period of reforms, the Chinese appear to impart greater focus on pushing investments in the U.S. in order to support Trump’s agenda of creating more jobs at home. The focus on outward investments by Chinese companies, a theme advocated with considerable vigour by Chinese President Xi Jinping, was most evident in the meeting of Trump with Jack Ma, the head of the Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba. Following their talks in New York, Ma announced that the Alibaba group would create one million jobs in the U.S. over the next five years. Trump described his interaction with Ma as “a great meeting”. “He loves this country and he also loves China,” Trump said. “Jack and I are going to do some great things.” He called Ma “a great entrepreneur, one of the best in the world”.

In Beijing, the meeting in New York raised expectations that Trump could indeed be a guest at China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) summit slated for May. “Though this visit [by Ma] was at the outset a business visit, it will no doubt help improve China-U.S. relations. We are, in fact, looking forward to welcoming Trump’s participation at the international cooperation summit on the Belt and Road this May,” Wang Yiwei, a professor at Renmin University, told Frontline.

In December, Foreign Minister Wang Yi announced that the Belt and Road summit and a meeting of BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) countries would top Beijing’s diplomatic calendar in 2017. “The international cooperation summit forum on the Belt and Road initiative… will be a strategic measure to boost the world economy,” he said at a symposium on December 3.

The BRI is China’s mega-connectivity project, with the ancient Silk Road, which connected Asia with Europe, as the touchstone. Through this project, China visualises the industrialisation of the whole of Eurasia and Africa through infrastructure development, including cyber connectivity, energy pipelines, expressways, railways, airports and ports.

As Trump toys with protectionism, and possibly isolationism, at least on a selective basis, and questioning if not demolishing some of the pillars of globalisation, the Chinese appear to have emerged as the leading champions of globalisation. However, Beijing’s version of globalisation with Chinese characteristics has the BRI as the vanguard. This was evident during Xi’s keynote address at the 2017 World Economic Forum in Davos.

In his address, Xi stressed that over 100 countries and international organisations had given a warm response and support to the BRI, which was initiated three years ago. He highlighted the fact that Chinese companies had invested over $50 billion and launched a number of major projects in the countries along the routes, spurring the economic development of these countries and creating many local jobs. Xi also said that the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation in Beijing in May would discuss ways to boost cooperation, build cooperation platforms and share cooperation outcomes. “The forum will also explore ways to address problems facing global and regional economies, create fresh energy for pursuing interconnected development and make the Belt and Road initiative deliver greater benefits to people of countries involved.”

Simultaneously, with Trump terminating the free trade agreement of 12 countries of the Asia-Pacific, minus China, under the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), China has stepped in to fill the breach by reinforcing its call for the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).

“The TPP, in any case, was an unrealistic initiative as it excluded China. After all, China is the biggest trading partner with 128 countries and has unique comparative advantages,” Prof. Wang of Renmin University said. Instead of the TPP, Wang backed the RCEP, which has the 10 countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) as the core of the proposed free trade agreement. Besides, India, China, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand are also part of the proposed arrangement. “The RCEP is an inclusive proposal. The U.S., if it wants, can also join as partner in the future,” he said.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying had said after Trump dismantled the TPP that Beijing would back further negotiations relating to the RCEP, which had already made substantial progress and should be completed at an early date. She also advocated the formation of the Free Trade Area of the Asia Pacific (FTAAP), especially because leaders of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) had already agreed on the vision and a plan to implement this initiative. The urgency to formalise the RCEP is also being shared by other countries in the Asia-Pacific.

Reuters quoted New Zealand Prime Minister Bill English as saying that the U.S. was ceding influence to China and the region’s focus could switch to alternative trade deals. “We’ve got this RCEP agreement with South-East Asia, which up until now has been on a bit of a slow burn, but we might find the political will for that to pick up if TPP isn’t going to proceed,” he said. The report also pointed out that former U.S. President Barack Obama had framed the TPP without China in an effort to write Asia’s trade rules and establish U.S. economic leadership in the region as part of his “pivot to Asia”.

In Beijing, Hua Chunying, when asked whether China could play a bigger role or even assume leadership, stressed that the word “duty” was more accurate than “leadership” to describe the situation. While actively seeking new global opportunities as the U.S. turns inwards, the Chinese have made it clear that any calls from the U.S. that question the “One China” policy in Taiwan are off limits and non-negotiable. China went ballistic when Trump took a congratulatory call from Tsai-Ing-wen, the President of Taiwan, and later sought to turn the “One China” policy into a bargaining chip for concessions from China. To this, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lu Kang asserted that the “One China” policy was the political foundation of bilateral ties and was “non-negotiable”. “It must be pointed out that there is but one China in the world, and that Taiwan is an inalienable part of China,” Lu said in a statement. “We urge the relevant party in the U.S. to realise the high sensitivity of the Taiwan issue and abide by commitments made by previous U.S. governments to the ‘One China’ policy and the principles of the three joint communiques,” he added.

Going beyond diplomacy, China reinforced the depth of its commitment to the “One China” policy by making it plain that nothing was off the table, including nuclear weapons, in the defence of the fundamentals of its territorial sovereignty. An op-ed in Global Times cited media reports from Hong Kong and Taiwan that showed pictures of China’s Dongfeng-41 ballistic missile. The references to the DF-41 missile were not accidental. The Dongfeng-41 is a nuclear solid-fuel road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missile. According to Chinese estimates, it has a range of 14,000 kilometres. With that reach it can target any part of the world with its devastating payload of 10-12 nuclear warheads. The pictures were apparently taken in Heilongjiang province in north-eastern China. The daily quoted military analysts as saying that this was perhaps the second Dongfeng-41 strategic missile brigade and that it should be deployed in north-eastern China. The write-up cited “reports” as saying that “the Chinese military intentionally revealed” the Dongfeng-41 and connected it with Trump’s inauguration.

There were two other missile launches, speculative or real, with an unambiguous message for Team Trump. On January 31, The Washington Free Beacon, an American news website, reported that in January China had tested a new version of the DF-5C intercontinental ballistic missile which was capable of carrying 10 manoeuvrable warheads. In a somewhat ambiguous response to the article, China’s Defence Ministry said that it was “normal for China to carry out scheduled scientific research and tests within Chinese territory and the tests don’t target any specific country or object”. But in a specific message to the U.S. and its allies, chiefly Japan, Taiwan and the Philippines, the Defence Ministry, during the Chinese Lunar New Year celebrations in January, posted a video on its website that showed deployment of the 1,000-km range DF-16 missiles deep inside a forest during military exercises. The weapon can strike Okinawa, home to several U.S. bases, the Japanese home islands, as well as Taiwan and the Philippines. It extends China’s firepower over what is called the “first-island chain”—the sea space that Beijing intends to control.

Towards the end of December, the Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning and its carrier strike group sailed towards the West Pacific through the Miyako Strait between Okinawa-hont and Miyako-jima, the Japanese Defence Ministry said in a report released on December 25. The Japanese daily Asahi Shimbun claimed that this was the first time that a Chinese aircraft carrier had sailed to the West Pacific and said that its purpose was to “break through the first island chain comprised of Japan, Taiwan and other islands”. China’s naval assertion, which dovetailed into the display of its nuclear deterrent on land, was also seen as a counter to Trump’s tough stance against Beijing on Taiwan and the South China Sea issue.

Some analysts said that Liaoning’s voyage was also meant to fulfil some of the long-term plans of the People’s Liberation Army (Navy) or PLAN. For instance, by sailing into the West Pacific, the Chinese carrier strike group aimed to familiarise itself with the maritime environment and hydrological, meteorological and other conditions in these waters. Besides, PLAN sought to improve its long-distance operability, overall training and combat capability by undertaking the voyage.

China’s naval manoeuvre followed Trump’s accusation of China building a “fortress” in the South China Sea. However, there are early signs that tensions with the U.S. in the South China Sea may be easing. China claims most of the South China Sea within the parameters of what it calls is the nine-dash line. But its claims are contested by most of the littoral states, including Vietnam and the Philippines, notwithstanding the rapid improvement of ties between Beijing and Manila following the election of Rodrigo Duterte as President of the Philippines. Duterte is set to visit Beijing for a second time during the BRI conference in May.

Backtracking from some of the tough talk on the South China Sea, the new U.S. Defence Secretary, James Mattis, struck a conciliatory note. At a press conference in Tokyo in early February, Mattis stressed that open diplomacy was the best path forward to resolve the issue. China quickly welcomed his observation, with Lu Kang lauding recourse to diplomacy as “worthy of affirmation”. “We hope that countries outside of the region can respect the joint interests and wishes of countries in the region” Lu said. Even as China, fixated on its goals of realising the “Chinese dream”, adapts to the Trump presidency, it has not lost sight of avoiding a cold war with the U.S. in the coming years.

With the help of Russia, its key ally, China has latched on to the long-term objective of a globally defining partnership among Russia, China and the U.S. In late January, it signalled its willingness for a trilateral partnership with Russia and the U.S. following Moscow’s advocacy that the three countries should jointly develop their relations. On Twitter, photoshopped pictures emerged of Xi, Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin replacing Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin in the famous picture of the Yalta conference taken towards the end of the Second World War.

To a question regarding Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s remarks in Russia’s lower house of parliament, where he proposed a trilateral partnership, Hua Chunying said that China had taken note of Lavrov’s “positive comments. She explained: “China, Russia and the U.S. are all major countries with worldwide influence and permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. For world peace, stability and development, we share a great responsibility. We aim to build a generally stable and positive major country relationship; with Russia, we [wish to] deepen our comprehensive strategic partnership of cooperation and we also work to promote the major country relations with the U.S. So, we are willing to work together with Russia and the U.S. to address the problems and challenges facing the world today.”

During his address, Lavrov had said: “We would like to see Russia, the U.S. and China develop relations together. This triangle should not be closed and directed to projects that will alert other states.” He also said that the development of Russia’s relations with any country of the world “will not challenge Russian-Chinese strategic partnership”, Russia’s Tass news agency reported. Lavrov’s statement acquires importance in the wake of a debate in China on whether Beijing would be marginalised in the wake of closer ties between Moscow and Washington.

Anticipating a substantial, if not fractious, dialogue with Washington, Beijing appears to be prepared with a basket of options that it can exercise in tune with the mixed signals likely to emerge from the White House in the months to come.

China’s leaders seem ready to face the headwinds that are likely to emerge from the U.S., and wherever possible, turning them into opportunities to promote its rise as a new-age great power.

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