The ceiling in Washington, D.C. seems to have shattered, and the new president-elect hasn’t even moved into the White House yet. Donald Trump hasn’t spent much of his lifetime in the low-built city that is the American capital. He prefers to stay high up in his golden tower in the heart of Manhattan. From his remote position, he can look down upon humanity. From the high floors of Trump Tower, the noise of earthly life seems quieter — more distant. From where he is, he can hardly hear any reaction to the bombs he drops on the world below.
Most of the time, it is impossible to comprehend what the president-elect thinks — what lies behind the monosyllabic expressions that he uses to depict the complex contemporary world.
So when the world order seemed to crash to the ground after he answered the phone call from Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen last week, Trump could not hear it. Instead, the president-elect added to the chaos with yet another one of his tweets:
“Interesting how the U.S. sells Taiwan billions of dollars of military equipment but I should not accept a congratulatory call.”
It’s fascinating. One does not expect that this disruptive and erratic figure would manifest such a level of coherence on what many consider to be the most important issue concerning the U.S.’s future international relations. And yet Trump’s logic sounds pure and simple: how can one oppose a conversation between the leaders of two countries that have been heavily involved in arms deals for decades? Before an arms deal, I assume that both sides have to exchange intelligence, consult each other on the international security situation, do training of military personnel and so on and so on. All this requires regular contacts, Trump seems to say when he defends his phone call.
In contrast with the most panicked commentaries claiming that Trump has crushed the existing world order just by talking with the Taiwanese leader over the phone, there are some analyses out there that are more objective about the situation. Among them are a piece by Isaac Stone Fish in Time and another by James Palmer in Foreign Policy. Both Fish and Palmer are the so-called “old China hands” — longtime correspondents to the country. They both know China very well, and their observations are accurate without being too pessimistic. A decade ago, when I was writing from China, I would say similar things to what they are saying now. I guess. Even now, my jaw dropped when I first saw the president-elect’s tweet about talking to President Tsai Ing-wen. I asked myself if Trump was crazy. My memory went back to the mid ’90s, when Berlusconi openly invited the Dalai Lama to the Palazzo Chigi, the prime minister’s office in Rome. Overnight, the the Italian ambassador at the time was summoned to the foreign ministry in Beijing, where he was handed a protest note that basically said, “Trust takes years to build and only seconds to shatter.”
I pointed out the similarities between Berlusconi and Trump before. While the incident with the Dalai Lama was resolved after a short briefing for the political novice, the provocation of Beijing seems to be of a different nature in Trump’s case. There are several sources that indicate that the call was planned with the intention of showing that the Trump administration will have a tougher, more determined attitude toward China in the future. Both the Washington Post and the New Yorker illustrate this point.
If this is true, then Trump’s move might actually be an interesting chip on the long-awaited negotiation table. I think, if played well, this strategy might bring positive results for both sides — and for the world in general. I am far from saying that Trump is a visionary or a strategist. Let’s say that he is an outsider who has lent himself to politics for a brief, transitional period of time to disrupt the status quo with some out-of-the-box thinking.
In China’s case, Trump could do well. But if played badly, his strategy could have two radically opposite outcomes. It depends on the implementation of the plan, whose first step was the collect call from Taipei to Trump Tower.
The history of the relationship between China and the United States has always been more about trade than ideas, philosophy or cultural exchange. Except for a short period of time right after the collapse of the empire, when China was craving modernity and any sort of new idea that would be useful in rebuilding the country, which had defended itself from “barbarian” outside influences for many long centuries. It was during that short period of time, while the country was without any protective filters (China was even thinking of replacing its native language with Esperanto) that China also imported some American culture — namely, the socialist ideas of American philosopher and educator John Dewey and a passion for Hollywood movies, which the Chinese called electric shadows(dianying), as the first movies that arrived in Shanghai were still without a sound. It was the most incredible and dynamic period in China’s long history. Dewey’s socialist ideas had a very strong impact on one young student of political science, Li Dachao, who later introduced Marxism to China and co-founded the Chinese Communist Party in 1921. The Chinese film industry, on the other hand, produced its own starship system, and anticipated in the ’30s what became known in the ’40s as Italian neorealist cinema, the genre that appeared in post-Mussolini Italy.
The flourishing of the Chinese modernism and culture ended when anti-Japanese war broke out, followed in turn by civil war and then the dominance of Maoism.
Before and after this brief period of cultural aperture, the United States and China were always just trading partners. John Pomfret’s book recently reminded us about the first trading contacts between the two countries in the early 19th century, when American merchants were getting rich by selling animal skins to China while importing Chinese tea. This and other profits from Chinese trade bankrolled America’s industrial revolution, Pomfret claims, adding that the influx of Chinese labor during the California gold rush contributed to America’s phenomenal growth.
After Mao Zedong prevailed by copying Li Dazhao’s ideas on the role of the peasant in the Chinese Revolution, China became increasingly isolated. There is a long and very interesting chapter of Chinese history that tells us how Mao’s isolated regime inspired Western leftist movements to propose apparently new social practices and ideas, like an alternative economic system that would no longer feed the center of the capitalist economy in the West. But in China, millions of people died because of Mao’s social experiments.
With President Richard Nixon’s visit in 1971, China opened a little crack in its wall of isolation. By then, China was shattered by the Cultural Revolution and menaced by the Soviet Union. Or at least, this was the story that Henry Kissinger sold to the Chinese in exchange for help getting Washington out of Vietnam. When China finally opened its gates to America in 1979, Washington threw Taiwan under the bus. It was a calculated mistake. The U.S. opted for a bigger market that the little big man, Deng Xiaoping, promised to deliver. Just one month after Washington and Beijing established a relationship, Deng Xiaoping visited the U.S. It was a triumph for both sides, and success came fast. After initial reforms, American companies started to invest in China and its cheap labor. China rose out of poverty and America got really rich. Outsourcing production to China became the predominant model of the global economy. Until the crisis in 2008, China’s economy was growing exponentially. China became the number one world factory. The country was flooded with cash, and it had endless currency reserves. All this has been achieved with a very well-defined plan and a national consensus for the rebirth of the new Chinese empire.
Not everyone is lucky enough to be able to observe the construction of an empire. I missed the Roman one, but I am amazed by China’s capacity to plan and project. I have been watching this project grow for at least 30 years. Its success is measured with well-defined national interest that tolerates high levels of authoritarianism. There is no blueprint to build the empire, but it is deeply rooted in the Chinese nationalistic minds. It becomes palpable during every event organized by the central authorities.
So how does the president-elect of the United States want to deal with this problem? We do not know if he hates China, like Berlusconi did. I know for sure that aside from being a white supremacist, Berlusconi also does not like communists or people who smell of garlic. This, of course, is ridiculous. But from high above in Trump’s ivory tower, these kinds of things sometimes seem important.
So how does the small, lonely Trump want to confront the collective giant called China? Did he start to poke Beijing in order to see what kind of reaction China would have? Trump does not think geopolitically — he does not see or understand the game that China is playing in the South China Sea. He does not comprehend the deep roots of the Chinese hatred for Taiwan or anyone that dares to confront the authorities that reside in the ancient Tiananmen Square, surrounded by modern architecture. Tiananmen is the link to antiquity, a continuity of the mandate of heaven, received by the communist dynasty in 1949.
What does Trump know about this or about anything that Fish and Palmer write? Nothing. And he does not need to know any of this. He wants to make a deal and to leave the Chinese to their spiritual seances. He wants American money back. And not necessarily just the money that the Chinese took, according to him. He wants American industries back and wants to make sure that they will return with their money. Like Apple, with the entirety of their production outside of the U.S. and hundreds billions of dollars outside of America’s reach. Trump wants this. And knowing business, he is convinced that he can do it.
Personally, I can hardly wait to see the beginning of negotiations between China and the U.S. This would be the first time after many years that someone stands up to China. I am very curious to see whether Trump — with his team of generals and billionaires — will keep pace with the tough Chinese, or whether he will consent to Chinese power and accept Beijing’s favors, as many have before him.