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International relations

China rises as the US stumbles

Trump's chaotic presidency a godsend to Beijing's global ambitions

If the 21st century hinges on a contest between the United States, the world's reigning superpower, and China, its rapidly emerging rival, then it is reasonably clear which side is gaining the upper hand.

The early months of U.S. President Donald Trump's administration has seen the White House convulsed by a never-ending series of upheavals, some triggered by genuine scandals, others the result of sheer incompetence.

China has surely taken steely note of the chaotic fashion in which Trump has handled policy in areas in which Beijing has a direct interest. After initially suggesting he was willing to undo the sacrosanct "One China" policy by reaching out to Taiwan and also threatening across-the-board tariffs on Chinese imports, Trump has backed away on both counts.

Instead of politely holding his ground with Chinese President Xi Jinping at their only face-to-face meeting so far in April, Trump has gone out of his way ever since to express his liking for the Chinese leader and has spoken often of their excellent personal relationship.

Trump's ceaseless attacks on the impact of the "unfair" trading practices of foreign countries, especially China, were key to his victory winning the White House in last November's U.S. presidential election. In office, however, in a series of tweets, he has blithely linked ideas to give Beijing a "better trade deal" with a wholly unrelated issue -- getting China's help in curbing North Korea's nuclear program.

In contrast, China, after mildly panicking in the early days of the Trump administration over Taiwan and the new president's destabilizing unpredictability in general, is now quietly going about its business by strengthening its diplomatic position in the Asia-Pacific region and around the world.

The May conference in Beijing to launch a new "Silk Road," formally known as the Belt and Road Initiative, a master plan to bind the countries in China's western hinterland more tightly to Beijing's economic and strategic imperatives, has long been in the works.

A sharp contrast

With more than two dozen foreign leaders and scores of top officials from around the world in attendance, the contrast between Beijing's discipline and vision, however flawed, and Washington's introspection and instability could not have been more starkly drawn.

Beijing has also used the distractions in Washington to press ahead in securing its interests in the South China Sea, vigorously engaging the Philippines under its anti-American president, Rodrigo Duterte, while marginalizing countries that it deems offenders have offended it on the issue, like Singapore.

All this, and we are barely a few months into the Trump administration.

Although it is impossible to know what direction Trump might go in in future, few in Washington think that the current honeymoon between his administration and China can last.

Beijing is unlikely to be able to do anything to wind back Pyongyang's nuclear program, something which could provoke an angry backlash from the White House once Trump notices it.

More to the point, trade issues with China are not going away. The 100-day trade negotiations triggered by the Xi-Trump meeting produced some progress on access to the Chinese market for U.S. beef and financial services companies. But this is small beer.

As with Japan from the 1960s onwards, any serious negotiations with China over trade, covering everything from general market access to more specific Chinese demands for technology transfers as the price of entry to the mainland market, will go on for years, if not decades.

Hardliners

While Trump's White House is populated by many political amateurs, his appointee choice to take the job of U.S. Trade Representative, Robert Lighthizer, who was confirmed for his post in May, is anything but a neophyte.

Lighthizer is a veteran Washington trade lawyer who also worked at the USTR office in the 1980s, the era when America was locked in trench warfare with Japan over trade.

In response to pressure from Congress, the administration of former President Ronald Reagan, 's administration, despite being populated by ardent free trade supporters, forced the Japanese to restrain exports of cars to the U.S. and at one stage imposed 100% tariffs on Japanese semiconductors.

Until Trump came along, Lighthizer had been an isolated voice in a Republican party in which free trade had become the orthodoxy. Now the likes of Lighthizer, who is on the record as praising the Reagan-era measures against Japan, are firmly in the mainstream.

Lighthizer has no time for traditional free traders. As he noted in an op-ed in the New York Times in 2008: "Modern free traders see nothing but dogma, no matter how many jobs are lost, how high the trade deficit rises, or how low the dollar falls."

Any engagement with China needs to carefully and clearly thought through, with a strategy that takes full cognizance of the fact that the battles with Beijing will last a long time.

Although it is still early days, Trump has given no sign that he understands the long game, with all its giddy ups and downs, that engagement requires. Trump struggles to see beyond his latest tweet. The likes of Lighthizer, however, might be a different story.

Richard McGregor is a Washington-based journalist and author. His latest book, Asia's Reckoning: China, Japan and the Fate of U.S. Power in the Pacific Century, will be published in September by Viking Press.

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