Trump and China: The Art of Deal or Clumsy Bullying?

By Haider A. Khan
DENVER, May 13 2019 (IPS-Partners)

With the most recent spat between China and the US—not uncharacteristically if unintentionally engineered by Trump’s announcement of increasing tariffs from ten per cent to twenty five percent unless China agrees to his “deal”whatever that may be we seem to be back to the drawing board in the ongoing US-China trade war. Last week I received news from many experts including our own China watchers that a deal was imminent. Although my esteemed colleague Prof. Zhao was also in this group, he sagely pointed out even such a deal and seeming end of the trade war will not resolve the fundamental rivalries between US, the status quo power and China, the rising power. Now it seems that he had left out of the equation the unpredictable nature of Trump’s behavior.

Haider A. Khan

James Massey, a former FBI crisis negotiator, may be closer to the truth than my academic colleagues in this instance. Massey is not convinced that US President Donald Trump has the ‘discipline or patience, or an appreciation for the strategic instruments that successful international relations require’ I confess I am only an economist. But unlike many other economists I have made the well-confirmed findings of the rapidly advancing field of cognitive science and cognitive psychology the cornerstone of my microanalysis of human economic behavior. Although this new 21st century science is no guarantee for certainty—quite the contrary, in fact— a cognitive analyst would point to the tendency of Trump to bully people into submission. But what may work with relatively powerless underlings will almost certainly not work with even an opponent in the international arena much weaker than the US in economic and military terms. The crucial factors on the other side are minimum defense capability and political will to withstand pressure.

China is not a weak opponent. It also has more than a minimum defense capability and plenty of political will to withstand pressure from bullies like Trump and his cronies. Trump and his gang may have met more than their match in Chinese leadership under Xi. Such is also the verdict of experts in psychological warfare.

According to them Trump’s default negotiating style that consists of bombast, threats and litigation domestically may be largely ineffective internationally against leaders like Xi. All evidence also points to another major difference between Trump and Xi. While the latter seems to be good at focused listening that may be the key to dealing with tense negotiations, Trump seems inattentive to details, narcissistic and intent on humiliating his adversaries. That is not the surest path to global leadership when the relative power of the US is nowhere near what it was immediately after WW2. A reality-check should suggest working multilaterally with other global leaders in mutually respectful and beneficial partnership. Unfortunately, that is not the art of the deal that Trump administration cares about very much.

So, what is likely to happen? I am not so eager to predict possibilities especially in light of how wrong my colleagues have been in this fraught area. But if I had to bet, I would put my money on the proposition that China will keep the doors open for negotiation, but will never submit to bullies like Trump. There must be analysts in Washington and in the US universities and think tanks who have read the history of the Chinese revolution and the role both nationalist and anti-imperilalist ideas played in this process. The Chinese fought patiently a long political and military anti-imperialist war to liberate their country. Whatever differences may exist among the leadership and within the people, they will be united against foreign bullying and pressure. Meaningful negotiations with China can begin only if the US and other powers recognize this historically based cognitive reality.