China is doing its best to win the competition, if not a war — trade, diplomatic, political or even military — with the United States. And it’s succeeding on a number of fronts.
On Monday, the Chinese Foreign Ministry warned it was fully prepared to respond to any and all tariffs, a brusque response to President Donald Trump’s threat on Friday that he’s ready to level additional duties on virtually all Chinese imports to the US — $267 billion over and above the $200 billion already planned for Chinese products.
Meanwhile, China is bringing thousands of troops to join the more than 300,000 assembled by Russia and Mongolia for what Russia is calling the largest war games since the fall of the Soviet Union.
General Sergi Shoigu, supreme commander-in-chief of the Russian armed forces, said the exercise would be at an “unprecedented scale both in territory and number of troops involved.”
The games in the Far East of Russia began on Tuesday, coinciding with a summit meeting between Presidents Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping where “several agreements would be signed,” according to the state press agency TASS, which also pointedly observed that in the first half of 2018 trade between Russia and China increased 50% and is expected to reach $100 billion by the end of the year.
This suggests that China, digging in for the long haul against Trump, believes it can win any trade war he’d care to unleash.
Indeed, behind the scenes China is prepping for a long and dangerous fight, pulling out all weapons in its arsenal. Already, it has embarked on a big campaign to bring a large number of countries to its side, selling hard for its Belt and Road Initiative, the vast trade and development project involving some 68 countries, from its closest neighbors across Central Asia and onward to eastern Europe. It’s investing at least $150 billion a year in the project itself.
And now, it’s trying to garner support by setting this project to music. Recently, the People’s Daily — the Communist Party’s paper — released an extraordinary music video “I’d like to build the world a road” set to the music of the iconic Coke commercial of the 1970s “I’d like to teach the world to sing…”
The lyrics of the Chinese version (sung in English, clearly for a foreign audience) resonate:
I’d like to teach the world to sing, in perfect harmony
I’d like to tell the world a truth, and keep it in my heart
It’s the Belt and Road, what the world wants today
That’s the hope we will say, with the belt and road
It’s the Belt and Road, won’t you hear what we say
What the world needs today, it’s the real thing.
The video includes a diverse group of singers, women with their hair fully covered with scarves, though internally the Chinese leadership is cracking down on any devotion to Islam.
Such a crackdown is also being undertaken on millions of Christians in Beijing and a number of provinces where churches are being destroyed, bibles burned, and Christians forced to sign statements renouncing their religion. China has denied reports of such abuses.
The regime is compelling conformity at home at a time when it is finding itself facing potentially existential challenges abroad — particularly from Trump.
Abroad, Beijing is going to battle against Taiwan to cement its hold over the rebel island, while the President himself doesn’t seem to care very much about an issue that Xi sees as existential.
An indication of how important this matter is for China came at the Pacific Islands Forum on the tiny island nation of Nauru, one of Taiwan’s last remaining allies in Asia. Beijing’s representatives were refused their turn to speak by Nauru’s president, and stormed out in a huff.
With China anxious to maintain good relations in this region of the South Pacific as part of its effort to expand its naval military presence, the move suggests that China is prepared to defend its interests at all costs. All this plays into other regional fears: China is expanding its military presence in the South China Sea with artificial islands along key shipping channels. Australia even recently managed to block Beijing from funding a major military base on the Pacific island nation of Fiji.
But clearly, China is not giving up.
None of these are good signs for an America heading into what could be a trade war as damaging to the US as it is to China. While the Chinese autocratic system can stand a host of challenges, underpinnings of a democratic system are more fragile. So, China seems to think it is winning on all fronts, which could only prolong and intensify such a conflict.
Moreover, if Trump thinks that still-uncertain trade deals with Mexico, Japan and Canada can prompt China into negotiating more earnestly, he may have badly misjudged the will of Xi Jinping, who Trump concedes was once his bestie.
The Chinese theoretical journal Quishi, an authoritative organ of the Communist Party Central Committee, suggests Trump’s real reason for embarking on his tariff war is far more nefarious than simply balancing trade. Instead, it is designed to stymie China’s role as the principal challenger to America’s global leadership.
Whether such deep motives can be read into Trump’s apparent determination to provoke an all-out tariff war with China is doubtful. It is more likely an appeal to his base in Trumpland. Still, such an idea is no doubt an important vehicle for China to stiffen the resolve of its own people, and especially its powerful party ranks, to the prospects of a long trade battle and with it a prolonged dead zone for the Chinese stock market and slowing growth of its broader economy.
Donald Trump would do well not to ignore signs of such determination from a most adroit, inventive and resolute adversary.
By David A. Andelman