More than just a trade war


  • Behind The Headlines
  • Sunday, 16 Dec 2018

Nobody is supposed to win any war, and the US is anxiously proving that true in skirmishes with China over IT, trade and ‘national security’. 

CHINA will not have Ivanka Trump arrested if she were to transit through Hong Kong airport, even now.

Beijing does not have the intent or capacity for that – nor the recklessness required for it, particularly in the throes of a trade war.

But US authorities had Sabrina Meng Wanzhou arrested while transiting through Vancouver airport. Ivanka and Sabrina are prominent businesswomen, but there are also differences between them. Ivanka is the daughter of President Donald Trump. In China and elsewhere, Sabrina is the daughter of modern China and its historic rise.

Critics of Sabrina’s arrest call it a kidnapping. The charges against her are unclear, the intent lacks transparency, and the action itself is unprecedented even for US double standards and a maverick president.

British politician George Galloway condemned Sabrina’s arrest as piracy, a death wish and an act of war. Prof Jeffrey Sachs calls it almost an act of war on China’s business world exposing Washington’s “supreme hypocrisy.” He finds the official pretext lacking credibility. Sachs says that in the past nine years alone, the US penalised 25 other companies from almost as many countries for violating unilateral US sanctions on doing business in third, fourth or fifth countries.

Yet in all these cases the US held the company responsible rather than an individual officer of the company. The case against Huawei had taken an unprecedented and disturbing character from the start.

Jack Ma says the trade war itself is only part of the complicated and now troubling relationship between the US and China. It is so messy that he sees any resolution only in another 20 years.

At one level, today’s US phobia about doing business with China relates to what Washington calls security concerns. Huawei founder and Sabrina’s father Ren Zhengfei was reportedly an elected official of the Communist Party of China (CPC) in 1982.

What would that mean for Ma of Alibaba, confirmed only two weeks ago as a current card-carrying member of the CPC? Nobody outside Washington seems too bothered.

Business, especially international trade, is supposed to be above petty political differences in a very diverse world. But apparently, pettiness matters in a trade war scenario veering towards a cold war. The trade war mindset and the persecution of Huawei are situated within global superpower and geopolitical rivalry between the world’s two biggest economies.

China is still a developing country despite its many achievements, and is determined to press ahead with more growth to develop its poorer regions. Huawei is in the forefront of this national resurgence.

The US remains the world’s technology leader and sole superpower – and intends to stay that way. Since a hyper-competitive international environment does not always favour it, it has resolved to block any challenge while complaining about trade with China.

Owing to China’s population size, significant GDP growth per capita would mean development on a massive scale. And because of reliance on international markets and global supply chains, connectivity makes infrastructure and IT vital.

The current US position on China consists of the phobias and manias of senior administration officials around Trump.

Among the most prominent is economics hawk Prof Peter Navarro, head of the White House National Trade Council. The author of Death By China was conspicuously left out of Trump’s cordial visit to China last year.

Since then, Navarro has moved closer to the Oval Office. So have other hawks circling China.

John Bolton is a Bush-era neo-conservative savouring entry into Trump’s inner circle. That did not happen in the first year, but now he is National Security Adviser. Bolton is notorious as instigator of the Iraq invasion. Now he has focused his foreign aggression on a trade war, indicating he had more to do with Sabrina’s arrest than Trump himself.

US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer is another hawk eager to target Beijing. He regards China as a “trade threat” and has grown personally close to Trump.

The Economist called US Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross a protectionist, and he has submitted to the hawkish trend against China. His shares in some China companies are no longer an issue, especially after he has turned his China experience to serve US nationalist interests.

Yet for all their devices, the attack on China by targeting Huawei will not dampen – much less stop – China’s rise. It will teach China to be more vigilant about trade partners, steel it for future pitfalls, and redouble its efforts to grow stronger.

Already there are signs of Sabrina’s arrest being counter-productive, with other forms of blowback against US interests virtually assured.

First, Beijing’s support for Chinese firms like Huawei operating internationally will grow. Even greater state-industry collaboration in China’s national interests, particularly when abroad, can be expected.

Second, China’s corporate sector will offer even greater support for the Government and the CPC in return. As this happens at multiple levels, China’s international competitiveness can only heighten.

Third, public support in China for Chinese companies has also grown, fuelling the rise of Chinese nationalism. Even before Sabrina’s arrest, a nationwide survey found majorities in 300 Chinese cities would boycott US companies.

Fourth, public support for the Chinese state and the CPC continues to accumulate. Whenever the national interest is threatened, all sectors close ranks against the common foe.

Fifth, the action against Huawei has provoked China and triggered its people’s national pride. The extent to which this will multiply is still uncertain, but a clear sense of it is evident in social media.

Sixth, international support for China and its campaign for free trade are set to grow. This involves more than just companies fearful of similar actions for violating US sanctions, since the US has alienated itself from even its allies.

Seventh, the Chinese diaspora in Canada has come out in support of Sabrina and other unfortunate Chinese nationals caught in such a situation. It has become more than just a national or criminal matter.

Eighth, Chinese Americans may also feel the racist pinch of US policy and act similarly. Will they then become suspects to their own Government?

Malaysian entrepreneur and Harvard MBA Tan Hock Eng’s Singapore-based Broadcom was supposed to take over California-based Quallcom in the biggest IT deal in the world. But in March this year the US scrapped the deal in the name of “national security interests.” To many ethnic Chinese that was a racist move.

Ninth, while some countries may sympathise with China over Huawei, others may just be put off by the US action and attitude. The result would be a net loss for US standing and prestige.

To provoke a rising China and get away with it requires consistently deft handling and masterful strategies. Both are lacking in Washington.

Trump has not been focused enough to even make senior administration appointments after two years. Melania Trump has also been pressuring her husband to dismiss the Deputy National Security Adviser.

The departure of senior staff has already been peaking on its own, many for personal reasons. Then Robert Mueller’s continuing investigations and indictments will add further to the dismissals.

All this is what comes of a “trade war” that is about more than just trade, involving more than any conventional notion of war.

  • Bunn Nagara is a Senior Fellow at ISIS Malaysia.
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