The media and the foreign policy “experts” went ballistic recently over President-elect Donald Trump’s phone call with Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen. With one brief call, which the Trump team says was only a congratulatory call initiated by Ms. Ing-wen, Trump blew up our longstanding “One China” policy and precipitated a dangerous collision with Beijing.
While this reaction was somewhat overwrought – not surprising, given the media’s adversarial relationship with the PEOTUS – there is indeed good reason to find this worrying.
I say this because Trump’s view of China, and especially the stance taken by Peter Navarro, one of his economic advisors, is dangerously wrong. While it is true that China has flooded our markets with cheap goods that easily out-compete US products, in reality China is an economic disaster waiting to implode on itself – and the regime’s hold on the populace is increasingly precarious.
Navarro, a professor of economics at the University of California at Irvine, is a protectionist whose view of China as a rising military power is based on nothing but scare-mongering. His most recent book,Crouching Tiger, is a compendium of myths and pseudo-facts which posit that Chinese “militarism” is a real threat to the US – a nonsensical idea with no basis in reality. China spends about 2% of its GDP on the military, while the US spends almost double that. China’s army consists mostly of conscripts, and exists largely to control the borders and put down internal strife.
Much is being made of China’s claim to most of the South China Sea, but even a cursory look at the map shows the objective observer that their concern is defensive.
The preoccupation of the Communist Party of China continues to be with maintaining its increasingly precarious hold on power: from their perspective, the main danger to the status quo comes from within, rather than from any external threat. However, Donald Trump could change that mindset, with ominous consequences for all concerned.
Taiwan is a sore point left over from the cold war era that could not only spark a conflict between the US and China, but could also cause an internal eruption in China itself – which is why Beijing is none too eager to make an issue of their breakaway province. As long as the formality of “One China” is preserved, the official fiction is enough to tamp down nationalist fervor on the mainland. However, any challenge to that arrangement is bound to have major consequences for the Chinese leadership internally, and therein lies the source of a potential conflict.
So far, the leadership has kept a lid on all this social tension, but the one thing that could unleash the storms that have wrecked Chinese society in the past is increased pressure by the West. If the Trump administration presses the Taiwan issue, the sleeping tiger of Chinese nationalism could be awakened – and this is the possibility that the Communist leadership fears the most.
Although the Cultural Revolution is seen in the West as a ‘leftist” movement, the reality is that it was infused with a radical xenophobia: in the months before the phenomenon took on a mass character, Chinese students rioted in major cities over the presence of foreign students, mainly from Africa, who were getting better accommodations than native Chinese. Several foreigners were injured, and some were killed, until the authorities moved in. Nationalism was always a major strain in the ideological fulminations of the “Gang of Four,” who led the Cultural Revolution until their downfall after Mao’s death. Soviet influence was denounced as “foreign domination,” and the “foreign devils” who had picked at the old China’s decaying carcass were revived as hate objects.
This strain of ultra-nationalism has only grown more powerful now that no one believes in the old Leninist ideology anymore: indeed, it is implicit in the concept of “socialism with Chinese characteristics.” Those students who initiated the Cultural Revolution – and the Tiananmen Square rebellion – haunt the nightmares of the Chinese leadership: a crisis with the West over Taiwan could bring them back into the streets. And that is what China’s rulers – who prize stability above all else – want to avoid at all costs.
Add to this the economic disaster waiting to happen, and we have the ingredients of a massive implosion that could make the fall of the Soviet system look like a soft landing.
In short, China is a paper tiger that is likely to go up in the flames of its own overheated export-driven inflationary boom. Its present course is unsustainable, and the Chinese leaders know it. It’s only a matter of time before the whole thing goes ka-blooie.
Economic chaos – including the bursting of a real estate bubble that makes ours look like a minor matter– the rise of ultra-nationalism, and a renewed crisis in the straits of Taiwan – these are the elements that, added together, spell trouble ahead, not only for China but also for the US.
Which brings us back to our original question: can a single phone call from the President of Taiwan to Donald Trump upset the delicate balance of power in Eastasia? The answer is clearly yes.
There is nothing inevitable about a Sino-US confrontation: the problem is that the military buildup – and accompanying trade war – proposed by the Sinophobes would create the conditions for a self-fulfilling prophecy. The current regime in Beijing is inward-looking, relatively pacific, and poses no real threat to our legitimate national interests: however, an ultra-nationalist replacement, one that comes to power due, in part, to our poking at the Chinese tiger’s soft underbelly, would be quite a different story.
Do read the entire essay, here.