8 January 2018   Leave a comment

Evan Osnos has written a very insightful essay for the New Yorker on how Chinese officials understand American foreign policy under US President Trump.  The essay is quite revealing as it navigates the transition from the Obama’s Administration to reducing American commitments abroad gradually to Trump’s desire to assert American sovereignty as quickly as possible.  Perhaps the best example of the difference in style and objectives was the treatment of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).  The Obama Administration assiduously crafted the agreement over a long period of time with eleven other countries–but not China–for the specific purpose of defining trade and investment rules that the Chinese would ultimately have to accept even though they had no voice in formulating them.  President Obama had to make many concessions to other countries in order to achieve this end, but he calculated that the losses suffered to the countries involved would be outweighed by the benefits the US would secure by coercing Chinese acceptance of the rules.

Three days after he was inaugurated, President Trump pulled the US out of the Agreement without offering a substitute.  Despite the non-participation of the US, the eleven other countries have continued to forge an agreement without the protections Obama had secured for workers’ rights and environmental safeguards.  And China is formulating its own grand trade and investment agreement–the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership–without US participation.  At this point it is impossible to assess whether the US will be better or worse off with these new arrangements, but it is probably safe to assume that these new arrangements do not take into account specific American interests to any great degree.

The TPP is but one example of how different the world is now under the new role the US is evolving under Trump’s leadership.  But it seems safe to say that the American withdrawal under Trump is likely more advantageous to Chinese interests than the planned American withdrawal under Obama.  Osnos argues that the Chinese clearly interpret the world in these terms:

“For decades, China avoided directly challenging America’s primacy in the global order, instead pursuing a strategy that Deng, in 1990, called ‘hide your strength and bide your time.’ But Xi, in his speech to the Party Congress, declared the dawn of ‘a new era,’ one in which China moves ‘closer to center stage.’ He presented China as a ‘new option for other countries,’ calling this alternative to Western democracy ‘the zhongguo fang’an, the ‘Chinese solution.’”

“During the Mar-a-Lago meetings, Chinese officials noticed that, on some of China’s most sensitive issues, Trump did not know enough to push back. ‘Trump is taking what Xi Jinping says at face value—on Tibet, Taiwan, North Korea,’ Daniel Russel, who was, until March, the Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, told me. ‘That was a big lesson for them.’ Afterward, Trump conceded to the Wall Street Journal how little he understood about China’s relationship to North Korea: ‘After listening for ten minutes, I realized it’s not so easy.’

“Russel spoke to Chinese officials after the Mar-a-Lago visit. ‘The Chinese felt like they had Trump’s number,’ he said. ‘Yes, there is this random, unpredictable Ouija-board quality to him that worries them, and they have to brace for some problems, but, fundamentally, what they said was ‘He’s a paper tiger.’ Because he hasn’t delivered on any of his threats. There’s no wall on Mexico. There’s no repeal of health care. He can’t get the Congress to back him up. He’s under investigation.’

“After the summit, the Pangoal Institution, a Beijing think tank, published an analysis of the Trump Administration, describing it as a den of warring ‘cliques,’ the most influential of which was the ‘Trump family clan.’ The Trump clan appears to ‘directly influence final decisions’ on business and diplomacy in a way that ‘has rarely been seen in the political history of the United States,’ the analyst wrote. He summed it up using an obscure phrase from feudal China: jiatianxia—’to treat the state as your possession.’”

I find Osno’s interpretation of the Chinese perspective to be highly persuasive.  I suspect that the Chinese will find their road to greater global influence significantly more difficult than they anticipate despite the American disengagement.  The Chinese have yet to demonstrate that they have a better understanding of how to manage an extraordinarily complex world any better than the Americans had.


The Mekong River runs through three provinces of China, continuing into Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam before emptying into the South China Sea.  It supports about 60 million people and is the world’s largest inland fishery.  It begins on the Tibetan Plateau and is being increasingly harnessed by dams to provide hydroelectric power and irrigation.  Control over the river is an incredible source of political and economic power and there have been attempts to coordinate the use of the river through a variety of international agreements.   On Wednesday, a meeting will be held of the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation forum which is one of several commissions trying to regulate the resources of the Mekong River.  But true cooperation is difficult since China controls the headwaters of the River in Tibet.  What seems to be clear is that the river resources are being taxed beyond sustainable limits and that the people downriver are the ones with the most to lose.



Posted January 8, 2018 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

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