Will Trump 'Go to China'? A Deal Would Benefit the World - And Sideline Russia
The last right-wing US President with personality issues produced one great achievement before being ejected from the White House. Richard Nixon took advantage of the Sino-Soviet split to bring about a rapprochement with China. His initiative shifted the Cold War balance of power in favour of the democratic West and ultimately helped to enhance peace and freedom across much of the world.
It may be searching too hard for a silver lining to expect Donald Trump to repeat Nixon’s achievement. Trump, after all, seems much more intent on provoking a confrontation with China than coming to an arrangement with it. But he is nothing if not capricious and the phrase “Nixon going to China” has become a metaphor in US politics for doing something completely unexpected.
If logic plays any part in Trump’s decision making - a big “if”, I grant you - then there are good reasons why he should seek to detach China from Russia once again and to build a closer relationship between China and the US. In particular, both countries have a strong common interest in preserving the prevailing international security and economic systems.
The Chinese and Americans are quietly trapped in a Mexican stand-off. China has vast amounts of its national wealth tied up in investments and loans in the US, which in large part provide the funds Americans use to buy the goods China makes. Neither can afford to make the other fail without bringing itself crashing down too.
Rather than making a virtue of its mutual dependence with the US, China is currently locked into a pact with Russia to block any international political action that might benefit humanity. This alliance is particularly evident in their voting coordination at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). Both countries are permanent UNSC members who regularly and jointly exert their veto powers to stop any international action in support of human rights, peace and genocide prevention. Their shared motivation is a fear of precedents being set that might restrict their ability to repress their own populations.
But China’s shared interests with Russia end there.
Economically, Russia is a minor player on the global stage, particularly in relation to its size, and is only relevant at all as a (declining) source of raw materials. China, by contrast, is the world’s biggest beneficiary of globalisation. Global trade has enabled it to emerge from poverty to become the world’s second largest economy - with viable aspirations to become the largest.
Continuing to increase its peoples’ prosperity through trade is the ruling Chinese Communist Party’s best hope for holding onto power for the foreseeable future. It is also the means through which the country can fulfil President Xi’s “Chinese Dream” of “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” by restoring it to the leading position it occupied earlier in its history. This means China shares the US’s fundamental interest in ensuring global stability, albeit perhaps with a greater Chinese say in how the system operates.
Trump appears to have personal reasons that would make it tricky for him to cut his ties to Russia
Russia cannot offer China any assistance in achieving these objectives and is, in fact, a hindrance. Russia is intent on disrupting the international order by military and covert means to weaken the West, which President Vladimir Putin sees as the main threat to his grip on power. Causing upheaval abroad also usefully distracts domestic attention from the Putin regime’s misrule and corruption. Unlike China and the US, Russia has little stake in preserving the prevailing multilateral, rules-based international security and economic system.
Trump appears to have personal reasons that would make it tricky for him to cut his ties to Russia. But casting off Russia in favour of a better offer from the US would not necessarily be a difficult decision for China. The only tangible benefit Russia provides China is supplying the natural resources its industry needs, which does not give Moscow any leverage over Beijing. Russia does not really have the option to cut off these supplies because doing so would be more harmful to its own economy and the personal power and wealth of its ruling elite.
The biggest remaining obstacle to engaging the Chinese government in a deal with the US would be the need to offer them a guarantee not to interfere in their country’s internal political affairs. Trump’s unusual lack of interest for a US President in advocating freedom, democracy and human rights might actually be an advantage in this regard. The Chinese are more likely to believe such an offer if it comes from someone like Trump.
If the new President were able to overcome his Russian links and isolationist instincts, he could surprise us all with a “Trump in China” deal to preserve the current international order. This would benefit both countries and the whole world. Well, almost. As a handy side effect, the only losers would be the people who are the biggest threat to international stability - the malign and newly marginalised Russian regime.
About the author
Paul Knott began his working life in a hut on Hull's King George Dock before globetrotting for two decades as an unlikely British envoy. His "instructive and funny" (Alan Johnson MP) book about his experiences, "The Accidental Diplomat", is out now.
He is also the Chief Foreign Correspondent for the Sabotage Times and contributes to publications such as The Telegraph, Forty-20 and When Saturday Comes.
All that travel has failed to shift Paul's inherited old Labour instincts.
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