United States President Donald Trump.  (Andrew Harrer - Pool/Getty Images)
Snapshot
  • In these uncertain times, China has a reason to reconsider its relationship with India and its policy of keeping up a hostile, damaging posture.

    It may be time for China to start looking for cooperation and mutual benefit everywhere it can, while it tries to find a sure footing to grapple with the American sumo.

China’s economic growth and its rise as an industrial powerhouse have been nothing short of staggering. What is vital to note is that China became a powerful rival to the United States (US) without bothering with democracy, human rights, freedom of speech, intellectual property rights, or political dissent.

When China opened itself for business, arranging labour, infrastructure, subsidies, and policies to make Chinese labour a hugely scalable export commodity, American companies got busy thumping the Bibles of free trade and globalisation, shipping off their manufacturing to China and raking in bonuses for chief executive officers (CEOs) and the profits for Wall Street. The American government got busy borrowing money from China to finance American spending on everything from Chinese-made consumer electronics to its wars without end.

The control that China established on America’s freedom to act has been quite breathtaking. American companies have compromised on essential values such as state censorship to keep the profits flowing. Many have handed over crucial intellectual property rights to Chinese government-backed firms as the price for doing business in China. The profitability of vital American companies is now fundamentally dependent upon manufacturing operations in China.

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American college towns are full of wealthy Chinese undergraduates driving eye-wateringly expensive sports cars. American university professors tell of having to censor their lectures to not offend Chinese students with talk of democracy and human rights: their universities don't want these young Chinese nationalists to take their money somewhere else. A number of American universities have opened campuses in China, where they are busy selling American intellectual horsepower to the highest bidders.

In the meantime, China has been waging military and industrial cyberwar against the US, stealing top secret data on the latest military hardware, for example, and miraculously producing advanced cutting-edge weapons such as the J-20 stealth fighter, a remarkable achievement, considering that the state of technology in China is such that it hasn’t yet been able to perfect jet engines without imported technology and knowhow.

For decades now, China has been testing American resolve and finding it weak. From military provocations to intellectual property theft and currency manipulation, China has routinely and deliberately caused anguished hand-wringing in Washington about the untenability of the situation, but also the compulsion to avoid any action against China for fear of rocking the globalisation boat. America has been compelled to moderate its response to China's behaviours, effectively to the point of complete paralysis, despite the threat to American economic vigour and socio-political values that China presents.

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China has made everyone believe that America no longer had the ability to tackle China. US President Donald Trump has, however, now put China on notice that the game is up. China has gotten the message that Trump is willing and able to take things where the Chinese have spent decades training the Americans to not go.

Trump is banking on the one truth that the Chinese have tried to make everyone forget, which is that the modern world is built on American technological ingenuity and the American cultural paradigms of free thought, free inquiry, opportunity for the talented, an obsession with driving the state of the art forward, and taking all humanity along for the ride.

Undemocratic China can put millions to work, cause vast power projects and whole cities to spring up in no time, set and change policy with totalitarian clarity and ease, share the spoils with Wall Street to get it to dissolve American political resolve. But it cannot invent the iPhone, Facebook, Twitter, Google, Intel microprocessors, Android, self-driving cars, artificial intelligence, or really anything at all that the Chinese economy depends on getting from America to fuel its own labour machine.

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Trump made sure China got the message when the US Department of Commerce targeted the Chinese telecom giant, ZTE. The department banned any American business from selling products or services to ZTE. The multibillion dollar giant was forced to shut down most of its operations within days. It couldn’t buy components and software for its networking equipment and smartphones from Qualcomm, Broadcom, Intel, SanDisk, for example. ZTE phones running Android wouldn’t be allowed access to the Google app store, and it couldn’t have American apps in its own app store.

At the forefront of the Chinese imagination would be the peril of Trump arranging an international coalition to corner China. Trump has already demonstrated his ability to get Europe to fall in line. He opened a trade war with the European Union (EU), threatening the crucial automobile industry of Germany, which is the economic and political stabilising centre of the fractious and unstable EU. Just as the EU was starting to bravely voice defiance of Trump on that front, he dumped on the EU the unilateral announcement that the Iran nuclear deal was dead.

On the campaign trail in 2016, Trump had announced his opposition to Barack Obama’s Iran deal. The virtually uniform response had been that it was a done deal. The Europeans would now never agree to a return to the pre-deal posture on Iran. Investments had been made and large long-term business deals with major economy-anchoring European businesses were in full swing. The US could withdraw unilaterally, but undoing the deal was politically and diplomatically impossible. And yet, here we are in 2018, the deal is dead, with little noise of defiance from European capitals.

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America is done playing the liberal game of internationalism, where its friends and enemies all enrich themselves while American vitality is drained away by a cabal of liberal leaders and totalitarian regimes, all living off the global economic engine that America drives, and in the world order that the US preserves.

American foolishness in Iraq and Afghanistan after 9/11 gave Europeans a validation of their sense of moral superiority over a compulsively war mongering, oil drinking America. Obama’s benign androgynous liberalism signalled to them the sunset of American power in this interconnected, globalised, multicultural world. Trump has shattered the illusion.

It has dawned on Europe’s parliaments that Western civilisation will stick together under American leadership, whether it likes it or not. Trump has cracked the whip, and the major North Atlantic Treaty Organization countries know they’re going to get in line.

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Leaders of countries that have for decades relied on American policy paralysis have all got the message. North Korea, for example, announced that it was renouncing its nuclear weapons programme, and made peace with South Korea. A development that had seemed impossible for decades suddenly materialised out of nowhere as Pyongyang decided not to risk having its bluff called by Trump.

China, which had enabled North Korea’s regime for so long, and had put on such a convincing act of being the only restraint on Kim Jong-un’s nuclear madman routine, suddenly found itself with no seat at the table, even as major Chinese technology companies, ZTE and Huawei, were facing catastrophe.

Trump later spared ZTE, but the message has been received loud and clear in Beijing. While China too can put the hurt on American companies and the American economy, the Chinese understand they are now in uncharted waters. They don’t know how things could go. And they are aware that while America could – after a bloody, damaging economic war – find and build manufacturing capacity and raw material sources, China’s economy cannot survive being starved of access to the technologies, innovations and the socio-cultural dynamics that America is driving in the world.

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Trump is clearly a dangerous foe, and it would be perilous for China to rule out anything he might do that would profoundly disadvantage China. It’s hard to imagine what might be arranged between India and the US that would seriously disadvantage China, but that is precisely what makes Trump so dangerous. What has been unimaginable hitherto can be a quid pro quo next month.

All this puts China on very uncertain ground. It needs to be cautious and flexible as it faces Trump’s determination to end China’s free run at the expense of American vitality and influence. But there is really no telling what might happen and what might be the right course of action.

In these uncertain and unnerving times, China finally has a reason to reconsider its relationship with India and its policy of keeping up a hostile, damaging posture with India. It may be time for China to set aside its post-1962 policy on India and start looking for cooperation and mutual benefit everywhere it can, while it tries to find a sure footing to grapple with the American sumo.

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The probability that India will get Aksai Chin back is virtually nil. Its importance to China is too great. Beyond that however, China would be assessing which of its postures inimical to India are worth keeping up at a time when it is going to be buffeted by economic and policy crises.

India has traditionally dealt with major global events by keeping to itself and minimising its involvement and commitments on the world stage. What Indian mandarins see as India’s fierce independence from the influence of the selfish powers is seen by those powers as the knowledge that they can’t count on India to play on the team or even be clear about what teams it’s on.

Although India craves a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council, it's been mostly a craving for prestige and stature. India has had very little cultural, social and political will to take a prominent role on the world stage, which would mean committing to strong positions and seeing them through, in intense conflict or deep cooperation with the other countries of the world.

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What is most likely in the era of Trump is that India will continue to seek to navigate the waters with as little incident as possible and try to stay on the best possible terms with both the US and China. It is in China’s interest to encourage India, with offers of friendship, to keeping sitting out the game without picking any team. Hence the recent the meeting between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping at Wuhan.

India has had its own tense moments with Trump. India has been reminded about the BMW and KTM motorcycles built in India that have found a big market in the US, and it has been rattled on that most cherished dream of its vast middle class: children settled in America on H1 visas.

But it is also possible that after Iran, Trump will train his guns on Pakistan with an intention to wreck its never-ending game of state-sponsored jihad. It might come with pressure on China to stop enabling this rogue state, and an opportunity for India to reap the fruits, if it does its part.

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As a liberal democracy, built on the freedom of citizens, who are ruled by leadership of their own choosing, it is in India’s interest that the US prevails in this ‘clash’ of civilisations. A sustained but uneasy peace with China still only means living in the shadow of powerful, undemocratic autocrats. That is a place that India has been in for far too much of its long history.

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