At the dais of the U.N. General Assembly this week, Trump renewed his attacks on China, decrying Beijing’s “economic model dependent on massive market barriers, heavy state subsidies, currency manipulation, product dumping, forced technology transfers and the theft of intellectual property and also trade secrets on a grand scale.”
In a briefing with reporters, Trump suggested that the increased pressure of his trade war was costing China jobs and sending Chinese supply chains “to hell.” The two countries are preparing for the next round of talks in October, with the threat of new U.S. tariffs on hundreds of billions of dollars worth of Chinese goods still hanging over proceedings. Trump welcomed recent Chinese moves to increase purchases of U.S. agricultural products but probably won’t relent on tougher U.S. demands regarding how China administers its economy.
“You know they want to make a deal and they should want to make a deal,” Trump said, indicating that he believed the United States has the upper hand. “The question is: Do we want to make a deal?”
For their part, the Chinese cautioned Trump from pushing too hard. “Seventy years on, it is important for the United States to avoid picking another misguided fight with the wrong country,” Foreign Minister Wang Yi said at a business event in Manhattan, referring to the advent of the communist People’s Republic in 1949. He said the United States had little reason to see China as a rival superpower and claimed his government had “no intention to play the game of thrones on the world stage.”
Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong is hoping cooler heads will prevail. But he’s not sure they will. Both China and the United States “have hardened their positions,” Lee said in an interview with Today’s WorldView this week. He suggested the maximalist view of the dispute — seeing the tensions as “a conflict between two systems, almost two civilizations” — seems prevalent and is “very worrying” for the world.
“This is not a struggle which can end up with one loser and one winner,” said Lee.
Yet, that’s precisely the way Trump and some of his hawkish allies have framed their confrontation with the Chinese. Talk of a “decoupling” between the world’s two biggest economies — once a fantastical notion — appears to be gaining traction. Even in a divided Washington, antipathy to China and an eagerness to curb its rise has essentially become a bipartisan position.
“You wanted an open-door policy on the Chinese,” Lee said, gesturing to a rosier period in Sino-U.S. relations. “Now, if the U.S. does not want an open-door policy anymore, where is your part of the world, and who will be in your system?” Lee asked. All of the United States’ partners and allies “are so deeply enmeshed with the Chinese,” he argued, that forcing them to “disentangle” from Beijing would be “a very challenging strategic stance to take.”
For Lee, whose country does roaring business with China and maintains close military and economic ties with the United States, the situation is “sad” and “troublesome.” He worries the hostility toward Beijing that’s widespread among the American foreign policy establishment is “overblown” and could become a “self-validating narrative,” deepening a climate of tensions that some analysts already cast as the 21st century Cold War.
“I think it is very unlikely that you can treat the Chinese the same way that you treated the Soviet Union,” Lee warned, referring to decades of an official American policy of Soviet containment. “Even in the case of the Soviet Union from 1946, when you had George Kennan, to 1989 when the Berlin Wall fell, it was 40-something years before their system collapsed.” He added that “the Chinese have looked at the Soviet example. They studied it minutely and are absolutely determined not to go in that direction.”
But the Singaporean leader argued the Chinese, too, ought to reconsider their approach. China needs to recognize it’s no longer the enfeebled nation wronged by 19th-century European colonial powers or even the waking giant that was brought into the World Trade Organization in 2001.
“They have to take their share of responsibility upholding and supporting the global system,” he said. “That requires a reset of their status, a reset of their mind-set to know that while they may not be a fully developed country yet, they already have to take on responsibilities and make adjustments which may well be politically difficult to do, but are necessary if they are going to live peacefully and to be seen as a constructive player in the world.”
Lee acknowledged that neither Trump nor Chinese President Xi Jinping have much room to maneuver. Trump wants a fundamental rebalancing of the U.S. relationship with Beijing and won’t want to concede much to Chinese negotiators amid a reelection campaign. Xi, meanwhile, is grappling with a slowdown and “very difficult structural problems within the economy,” said Lee. The political unrest in Hong Kong — and other challenges to “internal cohesion,” as Lee delicately put it, including the detentions of possibly millions of Turkic Muslim minorities in the far-western region of Xinjiang — further complicate matters for Beijing.
Lee Kuan Yew, Lee’s late father and Singapore’s founding leader, was widely admired by a generation of political elites elsewhere as a venerable 20th-century statesman and a clear-eyed thinker on world affairs. Now, his son wants to see “statesmanship, consistency, perseverance and wisdom” from both the Americans and Chinese, though he’s circumspect about the present ability of either side to find a shared “modus vivendi.”
“I think, from America’s point of view, you will be right to conclude they are not going to become like you,” Lee said. “But on the other hand, you have to ask yourself: Is it better for them to be like this and quite powerful, or is it better for them to be like they were when, during the days of Mao [Zedong], when they were much less prosperous or powerful but much more hostile and troublesome?”
“You have to find the right combination of pressure and negotiation, of action and talk, which will lead to a calibrated and constructive outcome,” Lee advised. “It cannot just be maximum pressure and hope for total collapse of the other party. It will not happen.”
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