My articles here harp just short of ad infinitum on America’s changing place in a changing world. No apology. Our leadership, and I include most of the media and most of the foreign-policy elite, consistently refuses to adjust its thinking to these changes. It is essential we understand the consequences of this resistance to emerging new realities so long as we do not force political change and so a change in foreign policy. Hubris extracts a price, as does a broken political process, as does indifference, as does compulsive contempt.
This thought leads me once more back to President Trump’s swing through Asia earlier this month, specifically to his exchanges with Xi Jinping. The returns are in now: Trump was seduced by state grandeur in Beijing. Trump got nothing done. Trump had no dignity. Trump fawned. The Chinese president played him like a yo-yo. This is what you read, and you read some of it in a previous piece.
But there is one claim amid these many that is too pernicious to go unremarked. We can call it the zero-sum power claim. Notably, it is consistently advanced by senior officials who worked for Barack Obama. One would think such people would avoid drawing attention to the Obama administration’s record with China, lamentably ill-considered as it was. But let us not forget that Obama’s foreign-policy crew greatly favored the Edward Bernays repetition tactic: Say it often enough, and failure or miscalculation will eventually enter the record as success or wisdom.
Trump “is ceding ground to China,” Anthony Blinken, a deputy secretary of state under Obama, asserted. “The world is not self-organizing…. By abdicating the leadership role it has played since World War II, the United States is giving the terrain to others who will do the organizing on the basis of their values, not America’s.” Susan Rice, Obama’s national-security adviser, furthered the argument with many particulars. Trump did not press China on the security role it claims in the South China Sea. He “failed to extract new concessions or promises” with regard to North Korea. Rice took great exception when Trump “blamed his predecessors rather than China for our huge trade deficits.” He called Xi “a very special man,” which seemed to be the living end in Rice’s book.
What is being said here?
A number of things, obviously, but they all fall under the same heading: America is not to accommodate China’s rise by making any adjustment to 70-odd years of US primacy in the Pacific. Even gestures of respect or friendship are now suspect. This is the baseline assumption Blinken and Rice do an excellent job expressing. It is zero-sum. There is either American supremacy or Chinese, and there is little to discuss between these two. All Chinese gains are US losses.
Blinken’s frame of reference is the easy giveaway: It is all about the postwar decades, and the task is to shape the future in conformity with them. Here I will state my case and cross my fingers as to what may come in the mail: Next to thinking this creaky and primitive, Trump’s approach in Beijing, whether or not by design, stands as the first glimmer of an enlightened Asia policy at least since I began covering the region 30-odd years ago. He seems to look ahead, not back. It is a modest start.
Removing the fun-house mirror Rice, Blinken, and many others hold up to Trump’s China visit, what did the president actually do? We do not know everything, given administration officials carefully distinguished between Trump and Xi’s public displays and what transpired in private conference. What was the substance of his case so far as we know it, then?
Dedicated to national interests, Trump made it plain that he admired China’s performance on the trade side. This was merely the deal maker complimenting China for its deal making and falls far short of significant, in my view. A current account surplus that equals roughly 2 percent of gross domestic product at this point and foreign reserves almost as large as Germany’s GDP may be problematic for the larger world economy, but they are nonetheless marks of accomplishment, which it is a simple courtesy for the leader of an advanced nation to note. Trump’s substantive point was plain: We will be back to you on the trade questions, he effectively told Xi. That is about right. Asserting that Trump got no specific agreements governing multinational investments, or that he should have blamed China for the trade imbalance, is nothing more than the grousing of out-of-office officials with little to show for themselves. Complex technology-transfer accords do not customarily figure in summitry. Any suggestion that the United States was not eagerly complicit in accumulating a bilateral trade deficit that now runs to $350 billion annually is ridiculous on the face of it. It is precisely the errors in Washington that produced such numbers—not least during Obama’s watch—that Trump appears intent on trying to correct.
Trump did welcome “a rote recitation of China’s long-standing rejection of a nuclear North Korea,” just as Rice said. I still puzzle why this was on her list of complaints. I suppose he ought to have said, “How dare you stand for a nuclear-free peninsula!” It was rote for a simple reason: Xi endlessly repeats this point because the United States refuses to address the Korean question seriously and now waves “the nuclear option.” It is not Xi’s fault that US officials plow on insisting Beijing exercise more leverage than it has in Pyongyang, or threaten to induce a collapse in Pyongyang that sets off a humanitarian crisis. Trump is a hard read at this point, as is the administration’s foreign policy across the board. He may have limited his remarks on Korea to a flick because it is sinking in that negotiation is the only plausible route to resolution. This would be progress. On the other hand, the administration announced yet more sanctions last week, while putting Pyongyang back on its terrorism list. That makes the prospect of talks even more remote.
Trump has never had as much to say about the South China Sea as Hillary “Let’s call it the American Sea” Clinton or Ash Carter, Obama’s secretaries of state and defense respectively. Again, the president’s downplay on this question while in Beijing comes over as shiningly wise by comparison. There are conflicting maritime claims in the region, plainly. But the drift among East Asians is toward bilateral negotiations—Asians solving Asian problems—and the drift is right. One does not miss Clinton’s counterproductive belligerence and the spectacle of Carter grandstanding on the decks of aircraft carriers offshore of disputed atolls. Rice, with her pronounced taste for cliché, wants us to believe Trump in Beijing “sent chills down the spines of Asia experts and United States allies.” I believe it in the former case: Our “Asia experts” are typically there to cheerlead people such as Rice. Quaking Asians? Nonsense. This is transparently a fiction recited to justify defense secretaries’ cruises on carriers.
I wrote in this space after Trump was elected that we had a peculiar messenger on our hands. Here was an objectionable figure in more ways than one can count, but he had a few ideas of considerable merit. Trump’s apparent acknowledgment that Xi Jinping’s dynamically emergent China is to be accommodated rather than resisted or “contained,” Cold War–style, is a case in point. We will have to see where this goes, given the Trump administration’s discombobulations. But the point holds: It is the song, not the singer. (I once had the same argument about Sinatra.) We ought to listen on those occasions it sounds good.