IT IS a question: who won in the trade conflict, China or the United States? The answer is as difficult as the question. Probably the outcome is still to be visible.
News of the Xi-Trump 80-minute meeting on the sidelines of the G20 Osaka Summit has already reached the news-hungry audience.
According to news reports, the two countries are going to restart trade talks. Trump has allowed Huawei to buy some ‘non-national security’ tech.
China has agreed to purchase ‘large amounts of agricultural product’ from the US.
Trump has admitted: big US tech was lobbying for the lifting of the ban.
The two sides, US president Donald Trump claimed in his speech, ‘were very close’ to reaching a trade deal right before ‘something happened where it slipped a little bit.’
Slipping a little bit — a meaningful description.
In his remarks, Chinese president Xi Jinping told Trump: ‘Cooperation and dialogue are better than friction and confrontation.’
Even, in absence of visible outcome — he won and he lost — of the meeting, one issue is clear: China held its position.
Since the beginning of the trade conflict, China had repeatedly told: Confrontation is not the approach; rather, the path is discussions; so, talk.
China was not making its proposal from a position of weakness. China said boldly: We shall fight to death, no compromise.
It was not a position of rhetoric and adventurism. Rather, China’s was a voice of responsible leadership.
On the opposite, there was miscalculation, adventurist step and rhetoric. Even, the rhetoric was incoherent. Its public image that emerged was one of mockery with a serious issue.
This happens at a time of decay. The same image emerges from other areas of competition or confrontation — Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Turkey, Ukraine, gas supply to Europe and sanctions against Russia. The flopped drama with Guaido is now a comedy.
The global stage is having acts by a decaying power. Miscalculations in terms of economic and political moves, over-reactions and ultra-stepping, dramatic retreats, non-committal promises, quarrels with allies, irresponsible utterances by responsible officials are present in the acts.
The art of diplomacy by the decaying power sometimes goes down to childish acts.
The acts are not an individual’s production. Very often, the acts are identified as by an individual. Even, sometimes, respected commentators follow the same practice.
A system is producing the acts. Hundreds of sharp brains are doing homework with sophisticated models, calculating, checking and re-checking words before thrown out for public consumption. Institutions are there. Elaborate mechanism built up over centuries work with the issues. Therefore, it is an error to judge the acts based on an individual.
In this case, the US-China trade conflict, this reality reappeared as in other cases.
The result: China held its ground in the conflict it tried to avoid. Even after flaring up of the conflict, China tried to avoid the conflict’s escalation.
After the Osaka meeting, Trump should ask his advisers, strategists and tacticians all of whom are bold and confident: how the battle plan was conceived?
China has not been brought down to its knees as was promised by the US leadership.
US companies operating in China had weak points. Other companies had fear: access to the fastest-growing market companies may get lost.
A People’s Daily commentary (‘China will not make concessions’, June 24, 2019) partly reflects China’s assessment of the situation:
‘Since the China-US trade friction began, some opinions have voiced that China should make concessions if it wants to buy itself more time for development. This belief is ridiculous and naïve.
‘The trade tensions between the two countries are not as simple as they look, and are not even all about trade itself. Data shows that the US benefited handsomely from the bilateral trade, while China profited from it at the cost of human resources and the environment. What is the root cause of today’s trade dispute? The reason lies in the fact that the US wants to force China to compromise on issues relating to its core interests. Core interests refer to China’s innovation-oriented development, which means achieving its economic growth using hi-tech innovation instead of cheap labor and without sacrificing environmental resources.
‘Against this backdrop, will China earn the time for development by compromising? The answer is “no”. Oregon, a state on the West Coast of the US, is a paradigm of environmental protection. The state achieved this by transporting 90 percent of its rubbish to China. The US hasn’t given China an alternative. The only thing it wants is to force China to give up its dignity and sovereignty, and to achieve development only by sacrificing its resources and environment.
‘Therefore, lying behind the trade feud is America’s intention to stifle China’s development. The US wants to be a permanent leader in the world, and there is no way for China to avoid the “storm” through compromise.
‘History proves that compromise only leads to further dilemmas. During previous trade tensions between the US and Japan, Japan made concessions. As a result, its political stability and economic development were adversely affected, with structural reform being suspended and hi-tech companies being severely damaged.
‘China, with a population of 14 billion, is the world’s largest manufacturing base. Industrial upgrading and hi-tech innovation are crucial to China’s economic development. China needs to leave more resources to its descendants by protecting the environment, and reaping the dividends of further opening-up. These are the core interests of China, and it will never give them up.
‘The only way for a country to win a war is through development, not compromise. To achieve development, China will open its door wider to the world and fight to the end.
‘For those who delude themselves that China will make concessions, it’s time to face reality.’
The commentary, although partly telling a position, tells a lot. To other countries, the incidents help find out ways to a better future. And, the issue — better future — includes dignity, not submission, sovereignty, not selling out.
Farooque Chowdhury writes from Dhaka.
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