THE shape of the world, or more specifically the world’s mess, would start to come into focus around the first quarter of 2019.
Britain’s relationship with the EU, and vice-versa – otherwise known as Brexit – is due to be formalised by March 29. The prospect of other EU member countries also considering an exit may likewise become clearer then.
Even more significant would be the US-China relationship, or what would remain of it by then.
When Donald Trump met Xi Jinping at the G20 summit in Buenos Aires on Dec 1, what was optimistically touted as a cessation of hostilities in their trade war was widely misleading.
It was just an informal agreement for them to pause, regroup and recalibrate before launching into an ever heightened conflict over a multitude of disagreements in their complex relationship.
Policy analysts are no more confident than policymakers about the prospect of a successful and lasting deal. Part of the problem may be that for both the United States and China, the conflict is about far more than trade.
US-China relations operate on multiple levels, of which trade between the world’s two largest economies represents only one.
The two countries are also the world’s largest strategic powers whose mutual rivalry can only grow more intense. Even if a workable trade deal can be found within three months, however unlikely that seems, the growing intensity of their rivalry as global powers will continue to set off disputes in other areas.
Some analysts regard this rivalry as inevitable, resulting in not only a trade war but also a new cold war. Some others across the political spectrum from left to right see a hot shooting war between the United States and China as a logical outcome.
The United States has been the unequalled global superpower for seven decades, and it very much intends to remain unchallenged. Its national security doctrine does not permit or accept any other country to even come close.
China has been on the rise for some three decades, following a full decade of Deng Xiaoping’s emphasis on growth and opening to the world.
That strategy has taken on added momentum after morphing from a “peaceful rise” to a “harmonious rise” with a rapidly widening group of international trading partners.
Today’s China is no longer just a country bedevilled by the communist bogey; nor a nation of bicycling commuters; nor a society of low-wage labourers; nor an economy dependent on manufacturing for export.
It is a country that repeatedly defies popular expectations of what a large, overpopulated Asian developing nation should be. Few observers in the West, and fewer still in the United States, are able or prepared to understand what China is.
President Xi’s preference is for an unabashed China that no longer under-declares its global stakes and its rightful place in the world. Gone is Deng’s low-profile “hide your strength, bide your time” approach.
To President Trump, his close advisers and many among his electoral base, China figures prominently as a formidable challenge and even a threat.
Washington’s zero-sum mindset forged by decades of the Cold War with the Soviet Union now “naturally” regards a proud and robust China as its biggest threat in the 21st century.
To those already poised to assume the worst of an unapologetic foreign power with global ambitions, Xi’s China cannot possibly be anything else. And Xi’s style has played right into these inhospitable perceptions.
The result is that anxieties confound misapprehension which then compounds fears from basic insecurities. Even when China only wants to sit at the same high table as the United States, its often feisty way of going about rearranging the furniture has drawn some anxious or unwelcome responses.
Today’s White House is not just prone to misperceptions, dangerous enough as that already is. It is also virtually positioned to rebuff an altogether unfamiliar China-the-challenger too impatient to hide its strength or bide its time.
There are more than enough points of departure for disputes between the United States and China. There are also at least enough points of convergence, if greater cooperation is jointly seen as a priority.
However, the personalities of Trump and Xi – of ego and pride – may well be more prone to dispute than given to collaboration.
Trump came to the presidency with zero political experience or public service, but instead with a working lifetime of being the undisputed boss in business. He also seemed to relish his bossy attitude on his Apprentice television reality shows.
The glamour of the US presidency has spun the notion of the US President as the biggest boss of all, quite detached from the reality of the chief public servant working for the national interest while constrained by various national institutions of a democratic system.
Thus Trump’s entry into politics at the top came with an attitude problem for many quite unprepared for his style of leadership. And the more they criticised him, the more he hit back in turn.
When his maverick style turned on US global strategic interests, including devaluing global alliances and questioning the usefulness of Nato, influential security institutions became alarmed.
The US security establishment, or the deep state, began to operate on their own in West Asia or over Russia, quite at variance with Trump’s own personal preferences. But occasionally he would have his way, as with the pullout from Syria.
Since he had already famously opted to work with Russia on issues of common concern, he could not also “play nice” with China and hope to survive unscathed for another two years – let alone entertain chances of re-election.
Enter Xi’s activist China, with myriad roles in Asia, Africa and Latin America, plus intercontinental ambitions in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), as well as plans to elevate China globally with “Made in China 2025”.
To a United States whose nerve endings had seemingly been left raw already by China on several fronts – intellectual property, currency valuation, trade deficits, the South China Sea – the perceived challenges China posed were magnified further.
The return message to China may have been slow or delayed. Only recently has Beijing realised that its showy style of international engagement can have its drawbacks.
A current debate in China’s policy circles concerns the advisedness of its high-profile, unapologetic foreign and trade policy. Should it trim some of that feisty and uncompromising character?
Doing so could contribute to the beginnings of a solution to the trade conflict at least. But would Beijing deign to consider any compromise?
The answer reverts to Xi’s character and whether or how well it can work with Trump’s.
The US President has already shown he is not too bothered about human rights issues as some of his detractors evidently are. That would be his form of compromise in dealing with China.
Other countries are not just passive observers to the relations between these two economic giants. Dozens of countries are potential partners of the BRI and even more are stakeholders of the booms or busts of US-China relations.
Bunn Nagara is a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ISIS) Malaysia.
Today’s column concludes ‘Behind the Headlines’, a weekly/fortnightly independent analysis of international issues that has spanned more than a decade.
Did you find this article insightful?