How can America become more like China
USA and China : "Trump's path to re-election leads through Beijing"
Walter Russell Mead is the James Clarke Chace Professor of Foreign Policy and Humanities at Bard College, New York State. He previously taught American foreign policy at Yale. He also does research at the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington D.C.
Professor Mead, you recently wrote in a column in the Wall Street Journal that the most likely route to Donald Trump's re-election would be through Beijing. What do you mean by that?
Of course, a lot can change before the election, especially with Trump. But as it stands at the moment, his best chance is to run as the president who first came to know the truth about China and who toughly defies China. His political recipe is to appear as an anti-establishment candidate. It's difficult when you've been in office for four years. The China problem, however, gives him the opportunity to turn against a mainstream foreign policy.
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Trump can say: Look, for decades establishment presidents have told you that we have to trade with China. They told you it would make Americans rich and China democratic. And what is the situation now? China is more authoritarian than ever. And not we, but China has become rich through free trade, so that we now have to wage a new Cold War with a new "Evil Empire". Besides, your jobs have been relocated to China and I'm the only one who saw it coming. That is his story - and it will go down very well with his electorate.
How much truth do you think there is in this story?
He's exaggerating something I think. It was certainly right that the United States under Nixon and Kissinger began to develop relations with the People's Republic of China. The USA benefits from the fact that China has become part of the world market. On the other hand, it must be said that American governments did not manage China's admission to the World Trade Organization very well. The conditions under which the country was admitted in 2001 were not strict and clear enough, the sanction mechanisms were too weak and not used adequately. The West's central political strategy of democratizing China through trade has not worked. For the average American who doesn't have much time to study foreign policy, this is a plausible tale.
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In fairness it should be said that presidents like Barack Obama have used instruments very similar to Trump's to try to discipline China. Obama, too, once failed to fill the WTO arbitration tribunal and issued tariffs on Chinese goods. But you think that wasn't enough?
Yes, I think so - and not just me. In the Obama administration, there were some people in the State and Defense departments who felt that the administration was not doing enough. Hillary Clinton was a hawk when it came to China - and policy on China might have been different if she had remained Secretary of State in his second term. In retrospect, the “Pivot to Asia”, the turn to Asia that Obama proclaimed, was not strong enough. For example, there was no effective answer to building man-made islands in the South China Sea. But Trump is not only directed against Obama, but also against the Republican establishment. From his point of view, George Bush's China policy was also wrong.
Does Joe Biden's stance on China offer Donald Trump a target?
Joe Biden is a full member of the American establishment. He was a member of the Senate for 30 years and voted for many elements of the policy that Donald Trump is now about to attack. He also has the problem that his son, Hunter Biden, has business relationships with China. I don't know them in detail, but Trump's campaign team will certainly take a close look at it. Even in the Ukraine affair, Trump mentioned that Hunter Biden was on the board of the Ukrainian gas company Burisma for $ 50,000 a month. And it's actually hard to understand why he got the job - if not in the hope that he would be able to exert some form of political influence.
You also write that an election campaign heavily focused on China could divide the Democrats. How?
Many Democrats are China hawks. The investor and philanthropist George Soros, for example, has emphasized in many of his speeches over the past three years that China poses a threat to open society worldwide. Others in the Democratic Party are very afraid of a new "Cold War," what that would mean for arms spending. Many fear that Trump's over-aggressive treatment of China will provoke a xenophobic reaction in America. Joe Biden puts this in a difficult position. On the one hand, he has to show that he is at least as tough on China as Trump. And at the same time he has to explain why things are not quite as bad as Trump portrays them.
This game has already started. Both campaign teams have published videos accusing the other side of touching China too gently or not understanding it. Will that affect American foreign policy too?
This is very difficult to predict, especially since the coronavirus is shaking everything up. Trump doesn't want to go to war with any country. But if he perceives anything China is doing as provocation, he won't want to look weak. We are likely to see American warships securing free navigation in the South China Sea, and other diplomatic and military activities designed to show strength. At the same time, Trump won't want China to pull out of the trade deal he negotiated. The agreement stipulates that China will purchase American agricultural products - from American farmers in states that support it. How all these different dynamics relate to one another becomes interesting.
The coronavirus has intensified the "system rivalry" between China and the West. A sign of this is that China is running a massive PR and disinformation campaign in the US and Europe to make the western fight against the crisis appear bad and itself in a good light. Do you worry - does China have the power to turn public opinion in the West?
So far we can say that most of what the Chinese government has done so far has been counterproductive. The aggressive foreign policy that we are partially observing is supposed to work more internally than externally. No country in the world plans to attack China. But inside, the Communist Party is very much in danger - which is why it is trying to quell the debate about the virus. China is sacrificing its global rank to save itself at home. This is a government that is afraid.
Many European countries, not least Germany, take a much milder stance towards China than the USA. The New York Times has just reported that a report by an observatory of the EU Foreign Service on Chinese disinformation campaigns in Europe has been toned down - under pressure from China, even if the Commission denies it. How do you see Europe's role in the “systemic conflict”?
What struck me most of all was how many different and also angry reactions the story triggered about the changed report. This once again reflects the great diversity of attitudes towards China within the EU and also within the individual member states. But even so, if you take a step back, I have the feeling that many Europeans are slowly but surely becoming more concerned about China's actions, for example the fact that China was delivering aid to Italy at an early stage of the Corona crisis brought. The EU is generally moving very slowly, but overall I see a trend of increasing vigilance and concern. In this respect, China has been successful in generating a global consensus - albeit a consensus against itself.
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