Back in March when President Donald J. Trump imposed the first of his threatened anti-China tariffs, he tweeted that “trade wars are good, and easy to win.” Six months later, as we enter the third round of the trade war with new tariffs announced late September, Trump is discovering not only that trade wars might be bad and difficult to win, but that the bad feelings they create migrate to other parts of the relationship too.
In the past few weeks, for example, tensions have ratcheted up between the United States and China on military and political fronts. America complained about the Chinese purchase of military equipment from Russia and China protested against American B-52 bombers flights over its South China Seas airspace. The White House accused Beijing of interference in the upcoming midterm elections and China outraged at – what else? – Taiwan’s purchases of weapons from the United States.
NEW: Pres. Trump alleges at #UNGA that "China has been attempting to interfere in our upcoming 2018 election…against my administration."
— ABC News (@ABC) September 26, 2018
I don’t like to point fingers, but it is clear that President Trump and his China hardliners threw the first stink bomb. Last week, Trump mused out loud to reporters that Chinese president “may not be a friend of mine anymore but I think he probably respects me.” I hate to see friendships fall apart, so, in the spirit of good fellowship, I would like to offer Trump some advice. Just like my advice in April, it comes from Sun Tzu, author of The Art of War: Know your Enemy.
China Has Yen for Good Relations
Number one on the list of things Trump needs to understand about China is that the Chinese people, especially those who were born in the 1950s, have always considered the U.S. as their friend. They sincerely want good relations with the country. Xi Jinping and the current crop of Chinese leaders belong to that group. Unlike Japan who occupied China for over 40 years, it was the Americans that helped China kick the detested Japanese invaders out during World War II. From the waning days of the Qing dynasty, it was Russia who seized large pieces of land from China while America took not even an inch. Instead, it built hospitals and colleges, one is them being China’s top Tsinghua University.
Allow me another foray into my past. In the mid-1980s, when I taught college students about business, I encouraged them to “buy American.” This was at a time, mind you, when the Chinese market was being flooded by Japanese-made products from TVs and tape decks to washing machines and toys. Naturally, as American-made goods were not only less plenty but also more expensive, my students seldom followed my advice.
Despite the pinch my wallet took, I kept on “buying American.” When I moved to America, the first car I bought was a used Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme, manufactured in Detroit by General Motors of course. True, that Oldsmobile and the successive American-made automobiles I’ve since strapped myself into, consumed more gas and required more minor repairs than the Toyotas, Nissans, and other Japanese-made vehicles favored by friends and relatives. Yet, I stick to my “buy American” motto and persist in encouraging others to do the same.
My point? That my particular way of expressing the positive feelings towards America instilled in me as a child may be a questionable addiction to gas guzzlers, but this same attitude exists among China’s leadership which, like their entire generation, have always considered the U.S. their friend. They genuinely want good ties with the nation whom they call Mei Guo, the “beautiful country.”
This is why I believe that Xi’s comment to Trump at their 2017 Mar-a-Lago meeting that “we have a thousand reasons to get China-U.S. relations right, and not one reason to spoil it” was more than empty rhetoric. It expressed the sentiment of the post-World War II generation as a whole.
Showing Respect is Crucial
Another critical lesson from Sun Tzu for Trump: if your enemy happens to be a Chinese leader, allow him to save face by not embarrassing him. Giving “face” – that is, making an outward showing of respect no matter how ugly or hostile the true situation – is paramount in Chinese culture.
However, the Trump administration seemed to go out of its way to insult Beijing by imposing its latest, most stringent round of tariffs just as it had agreed to send another delegation to Washington for trade talks. Do you invite someone to dinner just before you kick them in the shins? No. By failing to acknowledge the Chinese need for face (forget about common sense), Trump has put Xi in an untenable position. And, needless to say, the hoped-for talks are now in abeyance.
Allied with giving the other party face is that Chinese never offer verbal apologies. Instead, they acknowledge contrition indirectly. For example, when an old Chinese couple has a fight, and the offender wants to acknowledge guilt, instead of a Western-style “I’m sorry,” they might proffer a delicious meal or invigorating shoulder massage.
The same goes for communication from Beijing to other governments. In public, the Chinese leadership swore to fight the tariffs to the end. Behind the scenes, in the last month, it has not only lobbied for a second visit of Chinese trade officials to Washington but brought Wall Street titans to Beijing to discuss strategy. Most notably, last week it issued a 71-page white paper which appeared to accuse Washington of bullying tactics. However, if you read between the lines, you will surely find out that they are so eager to work with the U.S. and solve the trade war issues.
The United States is seeking fair trade. The Chinese know that the Americans will fight to the end. Beijing also knows that Washington has the better hand of cards. Quantitatively, China will suffer more in an economic war, but Americans will still feel pain. Those who will feel it most will be ordinary Americans with stagnant wages and limited resources. They will be hurt the most when they are no longer able to afford formerly cheap Chinese-made cell phones, clothes, and appliances. The decline in their living standards will undeniably be qualitative and word will undoubtedly get back to Washington.
Common wisdom has it that America will prevail in this economic fight because “China can’t afford to go to war.” Don’t believe that. American General Douglas MacArthur said exactly the same in 1950, just before the Chinese communist revolutionary Mao Zedong sent hundreds of thousands of soldiers to North Korea. That war has yet to be declared over, and so the U.S.-China trade war may be harder fought than any of us suspect. Fewer Americans are of an age to recall the Korean War, but Chinese of all ages know it as the first conflict fought by Americans in which the United States did not emerge victoriously.
Harsher tactics from Trump’s trade hardliners will only increase nationalism among Chinese, weaken the forces in Beijing supporting working with Washington, and put Xi in an even more difficult situation. Chinese are tough. Older Chinese like myself who were “educated” in the remote countryside are well steeped in enduring difficulty. Younger Chinese, for their part, were schooled to react in almost Pavlovian fashion to any hint of insult to China’s dignity. Trump’s escalation of his trade war will harden Beijing’s resolve to fight back.
Loss is loss. And pain is pain. The Chinese leadership is girding its people for a long war. If I were President Trump, I would pick up the phone to call Xi and tell him openly: “hi, my friend. I am being pushed into the corner. For the sake of both countries interests and our personal friendship, please help me for what I requested. I do believe that what I request is very fair and we both are fair people.”
Doing so, however, requires self-knowledge and self-confidence. That brings me to the second part of Sun Tzu’s advice: “Know thyself.”