As President Trump garners headlines and comment for his meetings with – potentially erstwhile – allies in Europe and President Putin, his administration is courting serious danger in Asia with the US leader firing the first salvos in his economic war against China.
The markets seem sanguine so far about what China has called the largest trade war in economic history and the $34 billion tariff package – with tariffs on a further $200 billion worth of goods in the pipeline – has seen immediate retaliation from Beijing.
The overwhelming majority of economists and trade experts question the wisdom of Trump’s tariffs. Their main objection being there is no clear end game, so this could easily escalate into a full-blown trade war damaging the US and China, and everyone else into the bargain.
More widely when it comes to China, none of Trump’s moves seem to be thought through – and here the China experts in the US are not really helping.
Trump campaigned on a belligerent anti-China ticket and as we have seen since he took office his governing style is not far removed from his campaigning style – marked by stoking grievances among his base with hostile rhetoric, shot through with lies.
After his first meeting with President Xi, it seemed he was softening – as an authoritarian leader, Xi seemed to appeal to Trump and the US also needed China’s support to ratchet up pressure on North Korea, but all that early warmth has gone.
In its new National Defense Strategy, the Pentagon has clearly identified China as its number one threat and is ramping up naval activity in the South China Sea by increasing the number of vessels it sails through the 12-mile nautical zone around Chinese-held islands in a belated attempt to push back at China’s increasing military presence and power there.
Since his election, Trump has also flirted with strengthening support for Taiwan which is particularly provocative.
Beijing regards Taiwanese independence as a red line that would trigger military action to achieve national reunification by force.
A scenario which would almost certainly also entail war with the US.
So, does Trump want war with China or is he blundering around with gesture politics without heed to the consequences?
You would expect Trump with his Sinophobic trade adviser, Peter Navarro, and his apparent willingness to let the Pentagon set military strategy, to act provocatively towards China, but despite the growing risk of conflict, the acknowledged China experts in the US are not offering much of a counter to this.
There has been a lot of soul searching of late among the American foreign policy establishment who have finally woken up to the fact China is not liberalising as it gets richer
A debate is underway among think tankers and academics about how the US should respond to China’s re-emergence as a great power.
Given this debate is ongoing and there is no clear conclusion to it yet, it would be wiser to adopt a policy of “do no harm” in the meantime and advise caution on the Trump administration.
Instead, a large number of them are urging US to push back against what they see as Chinese expansionism, rather than seek compromise with Beijing given China’s growing power is a reality and its behaviour is notably less bellicose towards its neighbours than say the US was when it was emerging on the world stage.
I had an interesting exchange with one of the younger China experts at the recent Chatham House London Conference. When I suggested the “do no harm” approach, the response was “What? And let the Chinese take over the South China Sea?”
The idea that China’s neighbours in ASEAN should deal with China on their own terms – with discreet US backing – seemed unthinkable, yet this would be a less provocative approach that recognises these countries have their own interests and agency.
Now, it is possible – even likely -Trump would not listen to such advice, but by endorsing an aggressive response to China, these experts are giving intellectual cover to the administration’s actions that appear to have no clear objective beyond the raw assertion of US power.
Donald Trump may think Thucydides is the name of a local Greek restaurant, but these experts know better.
Many have written of the need to avoid the eponymous trap as the US faces up to a rising China.
And yet – in urging push back on a bellicose, impulsive, ill-informed President, they risk bringing about a confrontation the Ancient Greek historian would instantly recognise.
They should be urging President Trump to accept the changing geopolitical landscape and advising him – in the words of one the most prescient China experts, Lyle Goldstein – to “meet China halfway”