Trump took a sledgehammer to US-China relations. This won’t be an easy fix, even if Biden wins



ROMAN PILIPEY/EPA

Hui Feng, Griffith University

Few would have thought a US-China relationship marked by relative stability for half a century would be upended in just four years.

But US President Donald Trump’s privileged tour of the Forbidden City in November 2017 by Chinese President Xi Jinping now looks like it happened in a bygone era, given the turbulence in the bilateral relationship since then.

The shift in the US’s China policy is no doubt one of the major legacies of the Trump administration’s foreign policy, alongside a renewed peace process in the Middle East.

When Trump’s daughter Ivanka said at the Republican National Convention that “Washington has not changed Donald Trump, Donald Trump has changed Washington”. This would certainly include its handling of China.

Trump was the first US president to be given a state dinner in the Forbidden City.
Andrew Harnik/AP

From strategic partner to competitor

Although China’s rise had been a concern of the previous Bush and Obama administrations, it was the Trump administration that transformed the entire narrative on China from strategic partner to “strategic competitor”, starting with its National Defence Strategy report released just one month after Trump’s 2017 China visit.

This read, in part,

China and Russia want to shape a world antithetical to US values and interests. China seeks to displace the United States in the Indo-Pacific region, expand the reaches of its state-driven economic model and reorder the region in its favour.

This new way of thinking deemed the US’s decades-long engagement strategy, deployed since President Richard Nixon in the early 1970s, a failure.

US President Richard Nixon and Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai toast in 1972.
Wikimedia Commons

Prior to Trump, the US had sought to encourage China to grow into a responsible stakeholder of a rules-based international order.

But the Trump administration believes such “goodwill” engagement has been exploited by China’s “all-of-nation long-term strategy” of asserting its power in the Indo-Pacific region.

According to the Trump administration, this is centred on “predatory economics” in trade and technology, political coercion of less-powerful democracies and Chinese military advancement in the region.




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Trump takes a unilateral, transactional approach

Trump’s sledgehammer approach to the US-China relationship has been problematic at best.

For one, Trump viewed the relationship transactionally, hardly scratching the surface of the deeper structural issues — such as state subsidies and labour standards — that exist between the countries.

He believed he could reduce the massive US trade deficits with China through a “big, beautiful monster” of a trade deal and this would be a silver bullet for both the economy and his re-election prospects.

This explains all the flip-flops during the drawn-out trade negotiations, during which Beijing largely managed to use the deal as bait to keep larger strategic issues off the table.

China and the US signed a trade deal in January, but relations have only soured further since then.
ERIK S. LESSER/EPA

Moreover, Trump’s policies toward China, at least on the trade front, were unilateral. Instead of finding common ground with allies, Washington angered and deserted its allies by invoking punitive tariffs (Canada), renegotiating trade agreements to the US advantage (Japan and South Korea) and reducing its security commitments under NATO.

At the same time, the Trump administration relinquished US leadership in global institutions dealing with trade, climate change and human rights. As a result, the US lost its allies when it needed them most and gave China a new platform on the international stage.




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The China-US rivalry is not a new Cold War. It is way more complex and could last much longer


China hawks get the upper hand

Trump’s China policy has been further mired by competing interests in his cabinet.

According to former National Security Adviser John Bolton, Trump’s team was “badly fractured” in its handling of the trade war against China and its wider China policy.

The spectrum of voices in the cabinet ranged from China moderates such as Treasurer Steven Mnuchin and senior advisor Jared Kushner to sceptics such as US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer to more radical China bashers such as Bolton, Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

China hawks like Mike Pompeo have become increasingly vocal in their anti-China rhetoric in the past year.
Andrew Harnik/AP

As Trump became increasingly frustrated with a recalcitrant Xi reneging on “the deal” in mid-2019, followed by the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, the China hawks in the administration gained the upper hand.

Although this led to a more coherent approach to addressing the strategic challenges posed by China, the result was more direct confrontations with Beijing and heightened tensions.

The past year has marked a low point in relations with tit-for-tat actions on a number of fronts, including

The China hawks in the Trump administration now advocate empowering the Chinese people to change the Communist Party’s behaviour — just shy of calling for a regime change in China.

China becomes more assertive under Xi

Beijing was largely wrong-footed in dealing with a maverick US president so different from previous administrations it had handled with ease.

However, it would be wrong to assign blame for the deteriorating relationship on Washington alone. It takes two to tango.

As Xi has consolidated his power, China has

The list goes on. And these were not provoked by the US.

China has increased its military exercises near Taiwan in recent weeks, including a simulated invasion of the island.
Taiwan Ministry of National Defense/AP

A new president won’t fix the relationship

It is extraordinary that what started as Trump’s petty complaints on trade with China eventually escalated into what many call “a new Cold War”.

Trump may not have succeeded in completely changing Washington, but his administration has at least shifted the public narrative and strategic view of China among the US elites.

Getting tough on China has become a source of rare bipartisan consensus in a polarised political climate. In fact, even if Trump loses the election to Democratic challenger Joe Biden, a fundamental U-turn in US-China relations is still unlikely.

China could face more challenges with a Biden presidency than another four years of Trump.
Carolyn Kaster/AP

The Democratic Party platform contains similarly harsh criticisms of China. Biden has also written:

if China has its way, it will keep robbing the United States and American companies of their technology and intellectual property.

However, Biden does suggest he would ditch tariffs as means in securing a fairer trade deal with China. And he wants to build a

united front of US allies and partners to confront China’s abusive behaviours and human rights violations.

So, if Beijing was hoping the upcoming election would fix its Trump problem by bringing someone new into the White House, it shouldn’t hold its breath.

The US-China relationship has been drastically changed by Trump — and this won’t be undone easily.




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The Conversation


Hui Feng, ARC Future Fellow and Senior Research Fellow, Griffith University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

‘Our own 1945 moment’. What do rising China-US tensions mean for the UN?



Eskinder Sebebe/ UN Photo

Melissa Conley Tyler, University of Melbourne

As the General Assembly’s 75th session wraps up on Wednesday, it’s been a dramatic time at the United Nations.

Usually, this is the time of year when world leaders come to New York to mingle and mix. There were also great plans for the UN’s 75th anniversary celebrations.

Instead, due to COVID, we saw most leaders address the assembly by video link.

The session also opened with UN Secretary-General António Guterres warning, “today, we face our own 1945 moment”, speaking not just of COVID-19 but “the world of challenges to come”.

China vs US on the global stage

Guterres specifically spoke of his fear of a “great fracture” between the US and China. This was quickly on display as the US and Chinese leaders delivered contrasting speeches.

United States President Donald Trump used his address to blame China for coronavirus, calling it, “the nation which unleashed this plague onto the world”.

US President Donald Trump addressing the UN in a video message.
US President Donald Trump once again referred to COVID-19 as the ‘China virus’ in his UN remarks.
Rick Bajornas/UN Photo

China’s President Xi Jinping tried for a more inclusive tone, with his comments framed in support of multilateralism.

We should see each other as members of the same big family, pursue win-win cooperation, and rise above ideological disputes.

We have been here before

The good news is, the UN has weathered dramatic moments and challenges before.

Indeed, in the history of fiery UN speeches, Trump’s tirade — largely aimed at the US audience — wouldn’t rate that highly.

In 1960, USSR General Secretary Nikita Khrushchev called a Philippine delegate a “toady of American imperialism” and famously brandished (but did not bang) his shoe.




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In 2006, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez called then US President George W Bush “the devil” and complained of the smell of sulphur. There was also a mass walkout in 2011, during Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s attack on Western “slave masters and colonial powers”.

What does the UN actually do?

When considering the future of the UN, we also need to think about what it is there for.

The role of the UN is to provide a space for countries which often don’t agree to take limited collective action. The UN’s main bodies include the General Assembly, with a seat for each member country, and the smaller Security Council for responding to threats to peace and security.

Alongside these are a range of specialised agencies that do mostly non-controversial work. These include the International Civil Aviation Organization, World Meteorological Organization, UNICEF and the World Food Programme.




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Countries approach the various parts of the UN differently. They use the bully pit of the General Assembly for rhetoric and bombast but cooperate in the Security Council, where it’s in their interests. For the most part, they let specialised agencies get on with their practical work.

During the Cold War, debate in the General Assembly was heated and the Security Council could not act due to the Soviet and US veto. But the UN survived.

As many, including former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright have noted, “if [the UN] didn’t exist, we would invent it”.

Expectations are key

The key to understanding the UN is having realistic expectations. At the height of the Cold War, then UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld famously said,

[The UN] was not created to take mankind to heaven, but to save humanity from hell.

What the UN can do, even when key members are at loggerheads, is keep the basics of international cooperation going. It has shown great resilience, even during the height of the Cold War, progressing important issues such as decolonisation, arms control, peacekeeping, racial discrimination and the rights of the child.

Sometimes members countries decide the UN should take a lead role on an issue, such as the Sustainable Development Goals.

At other times, they don’t. For example, COVID-19 has seen individual national responses more than coordinated action. But the continuing existence of mechanisms for information-sharing, like the World Health Organization, remains important.

What happens next?

What are we likely to see at the UN from now on?

We can safely assume there will be more combative rhetoric. The US and China didn’t have brilliant relations before this meeting and it is likely things will continue to deteriorate.

Chinese President Xi Jinping addressing the UN by video.
China wants more influence at the UN.
Mary Altaffer/AP

International organisations will be one of the many battlegrounds for China-US competition, where they will take different approaches.

Trump’s speech last week exemplifies the US turn away from multilateralism. During his administration, the US has withdrawn from the UN Human Rights Council, World Health Organization, the Paris Agreement on climate change and UNESCO (for the second time). If Joe Biden wins the presidential election in November, this may moderate the US approach, but American exceptionalism runs deep.

In contrast, China doesn’t question the legitimacy of the UN as the peak universal institution. Its approach is to redefine the UN’s conception of world order to its liking and to push for more influence within it.

Neither strategy is necessarily welcomed by other members. As International Crisis Group’s UN director Richard Gowan observes,

a lot of the UN’s members think the US is destructive and China is power-hungry. They don’t find either very appealing.

The UN’s job is to keep China and the US talking

In Guterres’ address this week, he warned the world cannot afford a future where “the two largest economies split the globe in a great fracture” — each with their own trade, financial rules, internet and artificial intelligence capacities.

Donald Trump talks to Xi Jinping with arms outstretched
The UN’s general secretary has warned of a ‘great fracture’ between China and the US.
Alex Brandon/AP

Make no mistake, the conflict between China and the US is a significant challenge for the UN. But it has 75 years’ of experience to handle it.

It now has to work to keep two contending great powers engaged in the international system, while progressing its mission to promote peace, dignity and equality on a healthy planet — at least as much as its members allow.

Maybe it’s always a 1945 moment.The Conversation

Melissa Conley Tyler, Research Fellow, Asia Institute, University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The China-US rivalry is not a new Cold War. It is way more complex and could last much longer



Susan Walsh/AP

Nick Bisley, La Trobe University

The author will be leading on online discussion through La Trobe University today on the threat of a new Cold War between China and the US, with former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and China Matters director Linda Jakobson. Click here for more information.


China-US relations have been sliding toward confrontation throughout the Donald Trump presidency. The “beautiful chocolate cake” shared by Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping at Mar-a-Lago in April 2017 seems from another era.

The competition that had started with tensions over trade and technology has moved beyond the economic domain.

Tit-for-tat consulate closures in Houston and Chengdu, the expulsion of journalists, ideological rhetoric from the likes of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and increased military manoeuvres in the East and South China Seas have led many to conclude the world is on the cusp of a second Cold War.




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Indeed, Beijing’s recent shredding of its treaty commitments toward Hong Kong has the air of Berlin about it — a free and dynamic city with a complex past suddenly engulfed by an outside authoritarian state.

The great power contest between the US and China has been steadily ratcheting up over many years. Washington’s long-term strategy in Asia — to ensure the region is not dominated by a hostile hegemonic force — is plainly threatened by the growth in Chinese power.

It is tempting to look back to the most recent geopolitical analogue to make sense of current conditions. The Cold War was, after all, a global contest between two superpowers who saw the other as an implacable foe.

But we are in uncharted waters. Sino-American competition, if it continues on its current trajectory, will be no Cold War. It is likely to be more complex, harder to manage and last much longer.

A protester shouts pro-China slogans outside the US consulate in Chengdu after its closure last month.
ALEX PLAVEVSKI/EPA

Risks of analogies

Using the Cold War to frame our understanding of the competition between China and the US is a risky endeavour. As Columbia University’s Adam Tooze put it,

For Americans, part of the appeal of allusions to Cold War 2.0 is that they think they know how the first one ended.

An overconfident reading of the past is accelerating the drive to confrontation in dangerous ways.

The point Tooze was hinting at is that the Cold War played out in different ways in both Asia and Europe. And crucially, in Asia, it ended in a much more ambivalent manner for the US and the West than many realise.

Asia’s Cold War

While the Cold War was a global contest, its dynamics were starkly different in Asia and Europe.

Most obviously, the first three decades of the contest were anything but cold in Asia. Indeed, the label seems like a cruel joke for a region that experienced several large-scale wars from the 1950s to the 1970s in Korea and Indochina, killing many millions of people. War and revolution was almost the norm.

Europe’s Cold War, by contrast, was an extended high-tension period, but one that was thankfully free of bloodshed.

As in the second world war, the timing and location of the end of the Cold War in Asia was also very different from Europe.

In Asia, there was no Berlin Wall moment, no “spring” tide of national liberation. Instead, the Cold War dynamics were subtly but significantly transformed in different places over different timeframes.

At one level, the Cold War ended in Asia in 1979 with the formal normalisation of relations between the US and China. This transformed the geopolitics of the region, at once marginalising the USSR, and establishing a four-decade period of great power amity between China and the US.

This, in turn, resulted in the greatest period of economic development in human history.

Elsewhere, however, the Cold War festered on long after the maps of Europe had changed. Korea remains divided and its border is among the most militarised parts of the planet. Taiwan’s uncertain standing — a state in all but name — is likewise a legacy of the Cold War’s early years.

The Cold War hasn’t ended at the DMZ separating the two Koreas.
JEON HEON-KYUN/EPA

But the most important difference between the two is that in Europe, communism was defeated.

In Asia, however, it lives on. The Chinese Communist Party has not gone the way of the Soviet Union; quite the contrary, it now oversees the world’s second-largest economy, retains a high level of internal legitimacy and runs a country that is tightly connected with the rest of the world.

During the 1990s, Western scholars and politicians argued that history had ended and their liberal democratic model had vanquished all comers for all times.

The lesson for the world seemed to be that there was no option but to open their markets, liberalise their politics and free the animal spirits of their economies — or be left behind.

Could the West really win a Cold War redux?

Even then, such claims seemed self-indulgent. But the risk we face today is that policy-makers in Washington and elsewhere still believe in this premise: that a Cold War redux can be won by the same strategy and virtues that knocked the Soviet parrot off its perch.

The language of many in Washington and its allied capitals reflects this belief. The West is inherently superior in the organisation of its politics, economy and society, while China is a bundle of malign contradictions.




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Squaring up to China in a full-spectrum competition should therefore be relatively easy. These Western leaders have the confidence of the sports fan watching a match they already know their team has won.

Beyond the fact that anyone who thinks the US model of politics and economics is particularly well-suited to the current moment is delusional, this outlook badly misunderstands the nature of the foe they have put in their geopolitical sights.

Perhaps the biggest failing of the Soviet Union was the communist party’s ignorance about the nature of the economy it ran and the people it led. The PRC is perhaps the most internally fixated great power yet seen. Party elites are acutely aware of the strengths and weaknesses of the system they have built.

Without doubt, China has a long list of significant challenges, from environmental degradation to widespread corruption, but the party has proven extremely effective at overcoming its internal difficulties. Moreover, it has shown economic and geopolitical success does not require conformity to a liberal model.

China has an increasingly robust military to match its enhanced position on the global stage.
Pavel Golovkin/AP Pool

A serious challenge still unrealised

The biggest problem of seeing the China challenge as a repeat of the Cold War is this: Western leaders appear not to be taking seriously enough the scale of the confrontation they are heading toward.

The Cold War was won in Europe — but only after 50 years. And that included the US having a significant economic head start in 1945.

There is no sign Washington and its fellow travellers have begun to think through, let alone prepare for, a similar multi-decade fight across all domains against the world’s most populous country.

Given China’s scale, its importance to the global economy and its technological sophistication, an escalation of the rivalry between Beijing and Washington could bring costs of monumental proportions. Rather than carelessly invoking the past, we should be doing everything we can to stop the competition between the two sides from spiralling out of control.




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The Conversation


Nick Bisley, Dean of Humanities and Social Sciences and Professor of International Relations at La Trobe University, La Trobe University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

How vulnerable is Xi Jinping over coronavirus? In today’s China, there are few to hold him to account



NOEL CELIS / POOL/ EPA

Rowan Callick, Griffith University

Brand “People’s Republic of China” is wobbling, as if the massive picture of Mao Zedong in Tiananmen Square was swaying with an earthquake tremor. But it can only actually fall if pushed from inside.

The handling of the coronavirus epidemic is undoubtedly sapping confidence in the Communist party and its formerly all-conquering general secretary, Xi Jinping.

Any country or ruling party would struggle if faced with a similarly massive challenge – exacerbated by the great annual domestic migration for Lunar New Year.

But the party and its leader shoulder especially great ambitions of entering a “new era” created by Xi to “realise the Chinese Dream of national rejuvenation.”




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National elders selected Xi as leader in 2012 to purge corruption and purify the party. He has replaced most senior officials, including in the People’s Liberation Army, with those who supported his rise through the provincial ranks in Fujian and Zhejiang.

Xi has restructured the party, personalised and centralised power. Leveraging the anti-corruption campaign, he has also built the central party’s vast surveillance and control powers.

Losing the ‘mandate of heaven’

The big question now is how this renovated party structure is holding up against the appalling coronavirus epidemic. Particularly as it compounds an economic slowdown already exacerbated by the trade-and-tech war with the US and Beijing’s struggles to subdue its troubled borderlands in Xinjiang and Hong Kong.

It would seem logical that since Xi claims all the glory for China’s economic rise and global influence, he would bear the responsibility for disasters, as well.

This would fit with the old imperial danger of losing the “mandate of heaven” – the notion that only a righteous ruler would retain the approval of the gods.

Medical staff at a makeshift hospital in Wuhan.
Stringer/EPA

But there’s a long history in China of people blaming local officials for problems, while retaining a belief in the power of the emperor or general secretary to resolve them. Hundreds of thousands still annually petition the central party leadership about regional and personal wrongs.

Many are still assessing where to pin blame for the current crisis and are reluctant to accept what they are told officially. People are adroitly downloading and re-posting censored messages on social media, causing the “net police” constant whack-a-mole grief.




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This is why the initial failings of the Wuhan authorities, which likely enabled the virus to spread rapidly, have aroused widespread anger in China. And why many rightly dubbed the whistleblowing doctor Li Wenliang, who died from the disease after being hauled in by police, a martyr.

In recent days, the central government has also blamed local authorities, replacing the party secretary in Hubei province. However, public anger and distrust of the authorities still burns.

Crises like the melamine-laced milk powder scandal that sickened more than 300,000 babies in 2008 and now coronavirus underline a basic reality: for all the vast sums spent on security in China, it remains fundamentally elusive for most people.

Alistair Nicholas, a Sydney-based business consultant with extensive China experience, told me his contacts in China have said

the poor initial handling of the crisis by the Chinese authorities has ‘left a bitter taste in the mouths of many Chinese.’ Trust with their own government has been broken and those who can will leave.

With hundreds of millions still staying largely at home, staring at smartphones, such sentiments seep out everywhere.

Reform remains unlikely

Xi will, of course, be aware it was in Wuchang, a district of Wuhan, where a rebellion began in 1911 that triggered the downfall of the Qing Dynasty.

Today, however, the extent of China’s online and offline controls almost rule out change – or even threat – coming from the “masses”.

They are not trusted to participate in their own governance. They are given no scope to organise. Since seizing power in 1949, the party has drawn a line under further revolutions.

In the last few days, two figures named Xu have challenged Xi, and suffered the consequences.

Xu Zhiyong, a civil rights activist and academic who called on Xi to resign over the virus response, has been arrested by security officials in Guangzhou.

And Xu Zhangrun, a famous law professor at Tsinghua University, has been placed under effective house arrest after posting a lengthy critique that said China’s political system

turns every natural disaster into an even greater man-made catastrophe.

There has also been sharp criticism of China’s response to the crisis overseas, but this, too, carries limited weight in Beijing.

Instead, China highlights and relishes the applause its governance receives, especially from agencies like the World Health Organisation. WHO Director-General Tedros Ghebreyesus recently thanked China for its “transparency” and heaped particular praise on Xi for his “detailed knowledge of the outbreak”.

There are, of course, questions about when Xi’s knowledge of the outbreak actually began.

But rather than claiming ignorance of the severity of the outbreak at the outset, Xi has decided to take a different course. He’s persisting with his customary claim of omniscience and blaming local officials, while insisting China’s “war” against the virus has been valiant, as attested by the WHO and other international voices.

Who is going to take credible issue with that?

In today’s China, it is not intellectuals or the general public, but the 90 million party members who will determine whether this epidemic demands substantial change.

And that will ultimately depend on the tiny circle of elite cadres surrounding Xi. Unless a convincing crack appears at the top, the crucial band of middle-ranking party managers will sit tight.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has urged the international community to focus on fighting the epidemic, not questioning China’s actions.
SALVATORE DI NOLFI/EPA

‘Not just a problem for China, but for the world’

The personalisation of the system, combined with Xi’s reluctance to groom a successor is, however, steadily raising party anxiety about the future.

Xi said recently,

the long-term sound fundamentals of our economy haven’t changed … The impact of the outbreak will only be short-term.

But the rippling effects of coronavirus threaten to derail Xi’s vision of “rejuvenation” – a Chinese century of power and affluence. Economists ponder whether China will now spring the “middle income trap” that has restrained the prosperity of other nations, risking a failure to “get rich before it grows old.”




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The almost certain postponement of next month’s National People’s Congress is a further mark of a government in crisis. Despite making good health sense, this move would create political risk by acknowledging that even pillar state events are now eluding Xi’s control.

Once eventually summoned, though, the NPC delegates will be expected to cheer to the red rafters Xi’s victory in the “People’s War” against coronavirus.

But what does it mean, asks Jude Blanchette, who holds the Freeman Chair in China Studies at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, for Xi to dominate a party and government

that appear unable to confront, diagnose, and effectively overcome complex domestic and international challenges? That’s not just a problem for China, but for the world.

Or as the stood-down law professor Xu Zhangrun asks, can a regime that cannot treat its own people well, treat the world well?The Conversation

Rowan Callick, Industry Fellow, Griffith University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Xi Jinping’s grip on power is absolute, but there are new threats to his ‘Chinese dream’



Wes Mountain/The Conversation, CC BY-ND

Bates Gill, Macquarie University

As China grows more powerful and influential, we’re publishing a series, The New Superpower, looking at what this means for the world – how China maintains its power, how it wields its power and how its power might be threatened.


Chinese leader Xi Jinping took power as head of the Chinese Communist Party – the most important position in China – in late 2012. Today, nearly seven years on, he is one of the most recognisable figures on the world stage.

Yet, while he already commands the destiny of some 1.4 billion Chinese people, and seeks to shape, in his words, “a common future for mankind”, he remains an enigmatic leader.

In a short period of time, Xi has concentrated power to himself and established a remarkably influential role, nearly unprecedented among Chinese leaders since 1949.

Yet, while he is certainly powerful, he is also vulnerable. He faces massive challenges on the grandest of scales: a simmering trade war with the US, slowing economic growth, increasing concern among China’s neighbours about his more assertive use of the country’s economic and military might.

Given these enormous internal and external challenges, the biggest question for Xi is how he will maintain his absolute grip on power and legitimacy in the eyes of the Chinese people.

He has promised them a better life in a stronger and more prosperous China. And he has gone a long way to deliver on those promises. But many challenges loom ahead.

From princeling to party leader

This year, the People’s Republic of China turns 70. And Xi, its paramount leader, turned 66 last month. No other Chinese leader’s life so closely parallels the life of the PRC – and that explains a lot about Xi’s mindset and his ambitions for China.

As the son of a vice premier and revolutionary hero, Xi was born into great privilege in June 1953. He was considered a “princeling”, the term for the children of the country’s most powerful elites. In his youth, he attended the August 1st School for the children of high-ranking cadres in Beijing and spent time inside the walls of Zhongnanhai, the seat of Communist Party power. He was destined for leadership.

Xi Jinping’s father meeting the Panchen Lama in 1951.
Wikimedia Commons

All of this came crashing down in 1962 when Mao Zedong purged Xi’s father from the party, accusing him of harbouring dangerous “rightist” views.

Xi Jinping (left) with his brother, Xi Yuanping, and father, Xi Zhongxun, in 1958.
Wikimedia Commons

When the Cultural Revolution descended on China in the late 1960s, the younger Xi was sent to the countryside. He spent seven formative years – from age 15 to 22 – in rural Shaanxi province, working with the local peasantry.

By 1979, when Deng Xiaoping launched China on its historic reform drive, Xi embarked on his own fast track to the top. Over the next 30 years, he ascended through party and government ranks, serving in increasingly senior postings, mostly in the rapidly growing eastern provinces of China.

In early 2007, he became the party chief of Shanghai, but was only in that post for seven months before he was elevated to the Politburo Standing Committee, making him one of the nine most powerful men in China. Five years later, he was installed as general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party and, the following year, became China’s president.

In those 60 years, Xi experienced China’s own coming of age, from its early struggles with nation-building, to the depths of Maoist excess, to its spectacular rise to great power status.




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This life experience has made him what he is today: a confident risk-taker who remains insistent on the communist party’s indispensable role in the country’s success and tenaciously focused on achieving China’s expansive national ambitions.

Surveillance, crackdowns and absolute power

Once in power, Xi moved to solidify his position. He saw weakness at the heart of the party, owing to lax ideological discipline and pervasive corruption. And so he launched attacks on both.

Much of his early popularity among the Chinese public came from his high-profile anti-corruption drive targeting the country’s elites. This campaign not only sent fear across ranks of the party and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), it also helped Xi remove rivals and roadblocks to his grand plans for national revival.




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Xi’s supporters also made powerful use of the party’s propaganda machinery to create an aura of wisdom and benevolence around Xi – one not seen since the days of the “Great Helmsman”, Chairman Mao.

And Xi set out visionary goals centred around the “Chinese Dream” and the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation”, which tapped into a deep reservoir of national pride and further solidified his popularity.

By 2015, he was able to launch a massive reorganisation of the PLA to transform it from a bloated, corrupt, untested and inward-looking military to one far more capable of projecting China’s power abroad and far more loyal to Xi and the party.

The new-look People’s Liberation Army.
Wu Hong/EPA

At the same time, he has also overseen the most sweeping crackdown on dissent since the Tiananmen protests in 1989, introducing all manner of surveillance, censorship, and other intrusions into people’s lives to ensure order and obedience to the party’s authority.

He also centralised decision-making authority ever closer to himself, eclipsing the authority of Premier Li Keqiang. Xi is now in charge of nearly all the key bodies overseeing economic reform, foreign affairs, internal security, innovation and technology, and more.

And, just to be sure everyone understands who is boss, Xi orchestrated the inclusion of “Xi Jinping Thought” into the party’s constitution to guide the country into a “new era” of national rejuvenation. He also saw to the removal of term limits on his presidency, in effect allowing him to stay in power for life.

Xi has been equally bold as a leader on the international stage, setting out an extremely ambitious foreign policy agenda.

His record includes launching the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, asserting Chinese claims in the South China Sea via massive land reclamation projects and an expanding military footprint, and, boldest of all, the Belt and Road Initiative, a geopolitical play connecting China through trade, investment and infrastructure across Eurasia and beyond.

Under Xi’s watch, China has greatly expanded surveillance over its citizens.
Roman Pilipey/EPA

Xi who must be obeyed?

It would seem Xi has had a remarkable run. But, strangely, his actions make it appear otherwise. A quick checklist of Xi’s moves in the past seven years suggests an increasingly nervous leader:

  • increasingly consolidating power to himself
  • imposing obedience within the party and public
  • reasserting party control over the PLA
  • blanketing the country with intrusive surveillance systems
  • demanding an obsequious and unquestioning media
  • imprisoning hundreds of thousands of Muslim Uighurs in “re-education” camps.

He surely has much to worry about. His reforms and crackdowns have created many enemies and much disgruntlement, especially among elites. Income disparity has grown as wealth has become concentrated in fewer hands. The pace of China’s economic growth is slowing. Localised unrest is common.

Analysts say much bolder economic reform is needed to avoid the stagnation of the “middle income trap.” China is also facing a perilous demographic future as the population ages and people have fewer children. And Xi’s ambitions at home and abroad are increasingly being met with push-back – not least from the United States – leading some in China to question whether he has over-reached.

Xi Jinping has sought to reclaim China’s status on the global stage, raising fears about its long-term objectives.
Alexei Druzhinin/Sputnik pool/EPA

But the biggest challenge is how to continue maintaining economic growth and social stability without losing the party’s absolute political control. It’s the same challenge every Chinese leader since Deng has faced.

Embarking on political and economic reforms would help ensure a more prosperous, stable and just future for the country. But doing so would surely undercut the one-party rule of the communist party.

On the other hand, foregoing these changes in favour of tighter control risks future stagnation and possibly instability.




Read more:
Rewriting history in the People’s Republic of Amnesia and beyond


Xi has chosen to double-down on the latter course. He clearly sees the party’s extensive system of ideology, propaganda, surveillance and control as absolutely necessary to achieving the Chinese Dream – the country’s re-emergence as a powerful, wealthy and respected great power.

From this perspective, we will likely see a continued tightening of the party’s grip on power for as long as Xi is in charge, which could well last into the late-2020s or beyond.

Whether or not the outside world ultimately respects Xi’s autocratic approach to power and leadership, he is convinced it is best for China and, by extension, benefits the world.The Conversation

Bates Gill, Professor of Asia-Pacific Security Studies, Macquarie University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

G20 summit bring a truce in US-China trade relations – but it’s likely to be temporary


Tony Walker, La Trobe University

The United States and China have arrived at a temporary truce in a trade conflict that was threatening to further destabilise world equity markets, entrench a global slowdown and cause more damage to a rules-based international order.

Agreement by US President Donald Trump and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, to allow further negotiations before threatened tariff increases on Chinese imports come into effect is a welcome development.

However, this is a temporary respite, a short-term fix, not a long-term solution to myriad trade and other tensions that have put the US and China at odds with each other.

For their own purposes and in their own interests, Trump and Xi have come away from the Argentine capital with a deal that papers over differences that extend from China’s activities in the South China Sea to its mercantilist trade policies.




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Much at stake as Donald Trump and Xi Jinping meet at G20


As far as we know, China’s ruthless assertion of its sovereignty over disputed waters in the South China Sea was not a material subject for discussion in Buenos Aires except, possibly, in passing.

China’s rise and America’s relative decline ensure these global economic superpowers will continue to bump up against each other.

So, what was achieved and what are the prospects for an accord reached on the sidelines of the G20?

In their efforts to lower trade tensions and prevent a further erosion of global confidence, Trump and Xi agreed to a 90-day extension on the imposition of additional US tariffs on some US$200 billion of Chinese imports.

Trump had threatened to increase tariffs from 10% to 25% on an initial batch of Chinese imports from January 1. He had also flagged his intention to impose levies on another US$267 billion worth of imports if progress was not made in resolving broad-based trade differences.

A joint statement laid out a timeline for continuing negotiations. It reads:

Both parties agree that they will endeavour to have this transaction completed within the next 90 days. If, at the end of this period of time, the parties are unable to reach an agreement, the 10 percent tariffs will be raised to 25 percent.

In return for these temporary concessions, China agreed to:

… purchase a not yet agreed upon, but very substantial, amount of agricultural, energy, industrial, and other product from the United States to reduce the trade imbalance between the two countries. China has agreed to start purchasing agricultural product immediately.

China also agreed to crack down on sales of Fentanyl by making it a controlled substance. The US is battling an opioid crisis in which Fentanyl is a lethal component.

In retaliation for US trade actions, China had imposed duties on US$110 billion of imports. A principal component of this is soybeans, effectively killing one of America’s more lucrative export markets.

Trump has been under huge pressure from his Mid-Western rural heartland over a collapse in the Chinese market for American agricultural products.

The two sides also agreed to address structural problems in the trading relationship. These extend to five areas – forced technology transfer, intellectual property protection, non-tariff barriers, cyber intrusions and cyber theft.

These are highly complex issues and unlikely to be resolved in the short term, if at all.

In the wash-up of the Xi-Trump discussions it appears China has got more out of the deal than the US – at least for now. It has secured a stay of execution for the implementation of tariff increases and forestalled, for the time being, tariffs on an additional bloc of Chinese exports.

In return, it has agreed to buy unspecified quantities of US products and to talk about differences.

Trump’s willingness to compromise after months of bombast reflects pressures from a shellshocked grain-producing constituency and alarm on Wall Street at prospects of a full-blown trade war.

From Beijing’s perspective, China has demonstrated that its growing economic heft has enabled it to avoid the appearance of yielding to US pressure.

If not a “win-win” for China – as Chinese officials are fond of saying – it is certainly not a “lose-lose”.

In a statement at odds with months of fire-breathing rhetoric over China’s allegedly perfidious trade practices, Trump hailed his understanding with Xi. He said:

This was an amazing and productive meeting with unlimited possibilities for both the US and China.

For their part, Chinese officials were more circumspect.

Foreign Minister Wang Yi said the talks were conducted in a “friendly and candid atmosphere”. The presidents:

agreed that the two sides can and must get bilateral relations right… China is willing to increase imports in accordance with the needs of its domestic market and the people’s needs.

Impetus for a face-saving deal in Buenos Aires has been prompted by growing concerns about the global economy. The signs of a slowdown are clear. Trade volumes had begun to moderate in the third quarter, heightening worries of a global retrenchment.

International Monetary Fund managing director Christine Lagarde at the G20 summit.
AAP/EPA/G20 handout

On the sidelines of the G20, the International Monetary Fund’s managing director, Christine Lagarde, noted:

Pressures on emerging markets have been rising and trade tensions have begun to have a negative impact, increasing downside risks.

In its October Outlook statement, the IMF warned about threats to global growth due to trade disturbances.

In their final communique, G20 leaders danced around contentious issues on trade to accommodate American objections to having the word “protectionism” inserted in the document.

In the end, participants settled on the need for reform of the World Trade Organisation to describe a world trading system that is falling short of its objectives. Washington has been agitating for a review of the WTO to strengthen its dispute resolution and appeal procedures.

The US has also objected to a continuing description of China as a developing country, with concessions that enable it to take advantage of less developed country status in its access to global markets.




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As tensions ratchet up between China and the US, Australia risks being caught in the crossfire


On climate change, Washington separated itself from the other G20 members. All, except the US, reaffirmed their commitment to the Paris Agreement. The US announced in 2017 it was pulling out of Paris.

Foreign policy specialists will be sceptical about a de-escalation of trade hostilities given the range of issues bedevilling the US-China relationship.

Reflecting a hardening of US attitudes towards China, and in contrast to the optimism that had prevailed for much of the past two decades, Ely Ratner in Foreign Affairs notes:

Even if tariffs are put on hold, the United States will continue to restructure the US-China economic relationship through investment restrictions, export controls, and sustained law enforcement actions against Chinese industrial and cyber-espionage.

At the same time, there are no serious prospects for Washington and Beijing to resolve other important areas of dispute, including the South China Sea, human rights and the larger contest over the norms, rules and institutions that govern relations in Asia.

A stiffening view in the US towards China is shared more or less across the board. In those circumstances, a temporary ceasefire in Buenos Aires is unlikely to be sustained.The Conversation

Tony Walker, Adjunct Professor, School of Communications, La Trobe University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Much at stake as Donald Trump and Xi Jinping meet at G20



File 20181127 76770 1czlorr.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
US President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping are set to meet again at the G20 in Buenos Aires, at a pivotal moment in world economic history.
AAP/EPA/Roman Pilipey

Tony Walker, La Trobe University

When US President Donald Trump meets his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, on the margins of the G20 summit in Buenos Aires between November 30 and December 1, nothing less than a reasonably healthy global trading system and continued economic growth will be on the table.

It is one of the more significant meetings between two global leaders in the modern era.

The encounter will recall the high-wire diplomacy between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev in the 1980s, which signalled the end of the Cold War and, as it happened, the disintegration of the former Soviet Union.

Or, before that, Richard Nixon’s visit to China in 1972, which resulted in the signing of the Shanghai Communique and an end to decades of hostility between the United States and China.




Read more:
The risks of a new Cold War between the US and China are real: here’s why


World markets unnerved by an evolving trade conflict between the world’s two largest economies will take their cues from this encounter between an unpredictable US president and a Chinese leader who will not want to be seen to yield ground. Or, to give it an oriental description, lose face.

This is a fractious moment in world economic history.

Billions of dollars in global equity markets will rest on a reasonable consensus in the Argentine capital. The two sides will reach for a compromise that will enable relative stability to be restored to an economic relationship that is threatening to unravel.

Since a ragged outcome, or even failure, is in no-one’s interests, it is hard to believe Washington and Beijing will not seek to calm legitimate concerns about the risks of a full-blown trade war and its impact on global growth.

US-China trade tremors are already having an impact on growth projections for 2018-2020.

In its latest World Economic Outlook, the International Monetary Fund reports the world economy is plateauing, partly due to trade tensions and stresses in emerging markets.

The IMF has scaled back its global growth projections from its July Outlook forecast for 2019 to 3.7% from 3.9%. It has marked down US growth by 0.2 percentage point to 2.5%, and China by a similar margin to 6.2%.

However, if trade disruptions persist, fallout will become more serious in 2020 with global growth projected to be down by 0.8%, and with it US and China growth down significantly.

Trade wars have consequences, including risks of a global recession.

All this invests the Trump-Xi encounter with more-than-usual significance. A bad outcome will heighten risks of an accelerating global slowdown.

In the lead-up to the G20, American and Chinese officials have been preparing the ground, with the Chinese side anxious to reduce tensions following a November 1 phone call between the two presidents.

But it is less clear that Washington is willing to ease pressure on China to liberalise further a foreign investment environment, seek ways to reduce a trade gap and make more conspicuous efforts to tone down concerns about Chinese pilfering of its intellectual property.

In a media briefing in Beijing, Chinese officials underscored China’s desire for a reasonable outcome in Buenos Aires. Wang Shouwen, a vice commerce minister, said:

We hope China and the US are able to resolve their problems based on mutual respect, benefits and honesty.

However, Trump is continuing to threaten further increases in tariffs on US$200 billion of Chinese imports now set at 10% but due to increase to 25% from January 1. He told The Wall Street Journal this week:

The only deal would be China has to open up their country to competition from the United States.

Trump also threatened to slap tariffs on an additional US$267 billion worth of Chinese imports if negotiations with Xi are unsuccessful:

If we don’t make a deal, then I’m going to put the US$267 billion additional on [at a tariff rate of either 10% or 25%].

This next batch of Chinese imports might include laptops and Apple iPhones, which are among China’s biggest exports to the US.

Further complicating the possibility of a satisfactory negotiation in Buenos Aires is a lingering dispute between the US and China over reforms to the World Trade Organisation to strengthen its dispute resolution and appeal mechanisms.

The US also objects to China’s continued description as a “developing country” under WTO rules. This includes provisions that are favourable to Chinese state-owned enterprises.

A collapse in efforts to reform the WTO would strike another blow at a multilateral trading system that is under more stress than at any time since globalisation gathered pace in the 1990s.

The US-China trade conflict, which is threatening to become a full-blown trade war with unpredictable consequences, cannot be separated from a more general deterioration in relations.

These were given expression last month by Vice President Mike Pence in a speech to the Hudson Institute, in which he lambasted China in a way that prompted talk of a new cold war.

Pence accused China of deploying:

… an arsenal of policies inconsistent with free and fair trade, including tariffs, quotas, currency manipulation, forced technology transfers, intellectual property theft and industrial subsidies handed out like candy. These policies have built Beijing’s manufacturing base, at the expense of its competitors – especially the United States.

The US trade deficit with China reached US$375 billion last year – nearly half the US global trade deficit.

None of this augurs well for a constructive resolution of US-China differences at the G20, although you might hope Trump’s approach would be tempered by concerns about the economic consequences of a conspicuous failure.

What seems most likely, given the stakes involved, is for officials from both countries to be tasked with responsibility for addressing a range of American concerns, with the aim of resetting the relationship.

This would seem to be a best-case scenario.

In the meantime, officials working on the draft of a final communique will be struggling to satisfy competing demands from G20 participants for clear-cut statements on protectionism and climate change.

These have been staples of such communiques since the G20 was formed ten years ago amid a global financial crisis.




Read more:
In the economic power struggle for Asia, Trump and Xi Jinping are switching policies


Washington is reportedly resisting an explicit call to fight protectionism. It is also demanding a watering down of the G20’s commitment to the Paris Agreement on climate change.

Consensus on these issues is proving elusive, further undermining efforts to address global challenges.

This underscores a dramatic shift in the global geopolitical environment since Trump gained office.

At the 2016 G20 summit in Hangzhou, world leaders agreed on a “rules-based, transparent, non-discriminatory, open and inclusive multilateral trading system with the World Trade Organisation playing the central role in today’s global trade”.

On climate, the G20 committed itself “to complete our respective domestic procedures in order to join the Paris Agreement”.

Two years later, a “rules-based” trading system is being shredded and the Paris Agreement is at risk of unravelling. These are troubled times, not helped by an American pullback from the stabilising role in global affairs it has played since the second world war.The Conversation

Tony Walker, Adjunct Professor, School of Communications, La Trobe University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

All eyes on November’s G20 meeting as tensions between China and the US ratchet up



File 20181014 109233 1xrgd0z.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Much attention will be on the next meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and US President Donald Trump at the G20 in late November.
AAP/EPA/Roman Pilipey

Tony Walker, La Trobe University

When G20 finance ministers met in Bali last week to review economic developments in the lead-up to the annual G20 summit, they could not ignore troubling signs in the global economy driven by concerns about an intensifying US-China trade conflict.

Last week’s slide in equities markets will have served as a warning – if that was needed – of the risks of a trade conflict undermining confidence more generally.

China’s own Shanghai index is down nearly 30% this year. This is partly due to concerns about a trade disruption becoming an all-out trade war.




Read more:
The risks of a new Cold War between the US and China are real: here’s why


IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde’s call on G20 participants to “de-escalate” trade tensions or risk a further drag on global economic growth might have resonated among her listeners in Bali, but it is not clear calls to reason are getting much traction in Washington these days.

Uncertainties caused by a disrupted trading environment are already having an impact on global growth. In its latest World Economic Outlook, the IMF revised growth down to 3.7% from 3.9% for 2018-19, 0.2 percentage points lower than forecast in April.

IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde has called on G20 members to
AAP/EPA/Made Nagi

The IMF is predicting slower growth for the Australian economy, down from a projected 2.9% this year to 2.8% next year. The May federal budget projected growth of 3% for 2018-19 and the following year.

Adding to trade and other tensions between the US and China are the issues of currency valuations, and a Chinese trade surplus.

In September, China’s trade surplus with the US ballooned to a record U$34.1 billion.

This comes amid persistent US complaints that Beijing has fostered a depreciation of the Yuan by about 10% this year to boost exports, which China denies.

These are perilous times in a global market in which the US appears to have shunned its traditional leadership role in favour of an internally-focused “America First” strategy.

So far, fallout from an increasingly contentious relationship between Washington and Beijing has been contained, but a near collision earlier this month between US and Chinese warships in the South China sea reminds us accidents can happen.

This is the background to a meeting at the G20 summit in Buenos Aires late in November between US President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping. That encounter is assuming greater significance as a list of grievances between the two countries expands.

US Vice President Mike Pence’s speech last week to the conservative Hudson Institute invited this question when he accused of China of “malign” intent towards the US.

Are we seeing the beginning of a new cold war?

The short answer is not necessarily. However, a further deterioration in relations could take on some of the characteristics of a cold war, in which collaboration between Washington and Beijing on issues like North Korea becomes more difficult.

By any standards, Pence’s remarks about China were surprising. He suggested, for example, that Chinese meddling in American internal affairs was more serious than Russia’s interventions in the 2016 president campaign.

He accused Beijing of seeking to harm Republican prospects in mid-term congressional elections and Trump’s 2020 re-election bid. This was a reference to China having taken its campaign against US tariffs to newspaper ads in farm states like Iowa.

Soybean exports to China have been hit hard by retaliatory tariff measures applied by Beijing in response to a first round of tariffs levied by the US.

“China wants a different American president,” Pence said.

This is probably true, but it could also be said that much of the rest of the world – not to mention half of the US population – would like a different American president.

All this unsteadiness – and talk of a “new cold war” – is forcing an extensive debate about how to manage relations with the US and China in a disrupted environment that seems likely to become more, not less, challenging.

Australian academic debate, including contributions from various “think tanks”, has tended to focus on the defence implications of tensions in the South China Sea for Australia’s alliance relationship with the US.

This debate has narrowed the focus of Australia’s concerns to those relating to America’s ability – or willingness – to balance China’s regional assertiveness.

This assertiveness increasingly is finding an expression in China’s activities in the south-west Pacific, where Chinese chequebook – or “debt-trap” – diplomacy is being wielded to build political influence.

Australian policymakers have been slow to respond to China’s push into what has been regarded as Australia’s own sphere of influence.




Read more:
Despite strong words, the US has few options left to reverse China’s gains in the South China Sea


Leaving aside narrowly-focused Australian perspectives, it might be useful to get an American view on the overarching challenges facing the US and its allies in their attempts to manage China’s seemingly inexorable rise.

Among American China specialists, few have the academic background and real-time government experience to match that of Jeffrey Bader, who served as President Barack Obama special assistant for national security affairs from 2009-2011.

In a monograph for the Brookings Institution published in September, Bader poses a question that becomes more pertinent in view of Pence’s intervention. He writes:

Ever since President Richard Nixon opened the door to China in 1972, it has been axiomatic that extensive interaction and engagement with Beijing has been in the US national interest.

The decisive question we face today is, should such broad-based interaction be continued in a new era of increasing rivalry, or should it be abandoned or radically altered?

The starkness of choices offered by Bader is striking. These are questions that would not have entered the public discourse as recently as a few months ago.

He cites a host of reasons why America and its allies should be disquieted by developments in China. These include its mercantilist trade policies and its failure to liberalise politically in the three decades since the Tiananmen protests.

However, the costs of distancing would far outweigh the benefits of engagement to no-one’s advantage, least of all American allies like Japan, India and Australia.

None of these countries, in Bader’s words, would risk economic ties with China nor join in a “perverse struggle to re-erect the ‘bamboo curtain’… We will be on our own”. He concludes:

American should reflect on what a world would be like in which the two largest powers are disengaged then isolated from, and ultimately hostile to each other – for disengagement is almost certain to turn out to be a way station on the road to hostility, he concludes.

Bader has been accused of proffering a “straw man argument’’ on grounds that the administration is feeling its way towards a more robust policy, and not one of disengagement. But his basic point is valid that Trump administration policies represent a departure from the norm.




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Response to rumours of a Chinese military base in Vanuatu speaks volumes about Australian foreign policy


At the conclusion of the IMF/World Bank meetings in Bali, Christine Lagarde added to her earlier warnings of “choppy” waters in the global economy stemming from trade tensions and further financial tightening. She said:

There are risks out there in the system and we need to be mindful of that…bIt’s time to buckle up.

That would seem to be an understatement, given the unsteadiness in the US-China relationship and global geopolitical strains more generally.The Conversation

Tony Walker, Adjunct Professor, School of Communications, La Trobe University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The risks of a new Cold War between the US and China are real: here’s why



File 20180925 85773 fky1d3.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
The US and China find it extremely difficult to see the world from the other’s perspective.
AAP/EPA/Roman Pilipey

Nick Bisley, La Trobe University

Donald Trump is making good on his trade war rhetoric with China, announcing tariffs on a further US$200 billion worth of goods from the PRC. As China promises retaliation, the warmth of the Mar-a-Lago summit of April 2017 is a thing of the past. When this is added to the wide-ranging tensions such as the disputes over barely habitable rocks in the East China Sea, tensions over the competing claims in the South China Sea, and the spectre of nuclear catastrophe on the Korean Peninsula, the sense of geopolitical risk is as palpable as it is frightening.

During such periods of turbulence, it is not surprising that scholars and commentators look to the past for parallels to current crises. Not long ago, the trend, prompted by the centenary of the outbreak of the first world war, was to see Asia on the cusp of 1914-like conflagration. This proved a highly imperfect point of comparison.

Today, a more common refrain is that Asia is on the cusp of a new Cold War. If it were to happen, it would mean the rivalry that has been growing is transformed into overt militarised competition that drags the region into its vortex.

In this case, the US is confronted not by an expansionary Soviet Union seeking to capitalise on decolonisation to advance its ideological and geopolitical ambition, but by a resurgent China. Its ambitious president, Xi Jinping, has clearly set out his aim to make China the world’s preeminent national power.

Until very recently, it seemed unlikely that a Cold War with 21st century characteristics would eventuate. The USSR and United States inhabited almost entirely separate economic universes during the Cold War.

This meant the dynamic of competition was driven by power politics and ideology alone – the tempering effect of shared economic interests simply didn’t exist. Today, so the argument goes, their economic interdependence is a powerful brake on the worst instincts of the two countries.

While China and the US are in competition, the two countries have also established an extensive range of bilateral mechanisms to manage their complex relationship. There are around 1000 meetings between the countries every year, ranging from summit level down to mid ranking officials, covering issues from trade and investment to coastguard and fisheries.

The two countries know they have to work hard to ensure the competitive dynamic does not spiral out of control. And of course, both sides’ nuclear weapons act as a great disciplining force, ensuring even the most heated of relationships can remain short of outright conflict. Asia also has a wide array of institutional mechanisms such as ASEAN and the East Asia Summit that regularly discuss their common concerns and build a sense of regional trust.

Yet, in spite of their many meetings, in which there is much discussion but little agreement, there are good reasons to think a Cold War 2.0 might be a good deal closer than we realise. The US and China are plainly entering into a period of significant geopolitical rivalry. Each has ambitions that are mutually incompatible. Beijing wants a south-east Asian region in which it is not beholden to US primacy, while Washington wants to sustain its regional dominance.

The two also find it extremely difficult to see the world from the other’s perspective. Washington does not seem able to grasp that even though Beijing benefited from US primacy in the region, it will not forever accept a price-taker’s position in the regional order.

For its part, Beijing simply does not believe Washington’s claim that it wants China to achieve its potential, and that this can occur without meaningful changes to the current international order. When that is added to the nationalism that is a powerful political force in both countries, the prospects of a bleak geopolitical future seem very real.

The trade war escalation is one of the most worrying developments. Not only does it signal a more turbulent and less dynamic period in the global economy, it represents the victory of nationalist politics over shared economic interests. More importantly, it may presage a return to a less integrated global economy.

Trump evidently wants to rip up global supply chains and turn back the clock to the days of mercantilist approaches to economic development. Most worryingly, due to China’s behaviour in the past — stealing IP, predatory approaches to foreign investment and refusing access to its vast markets — Trump’s tariffs have a surprising level of support in business circles in the US.

The risk is not only one of sustained tension between the world’s biggest economies, but significant division between the interests of the two most important countries. If the golden straitjacket of economic interdependence is gone, the prospects of geopolitics and nationalism winning the day are significantly enhanced. China also sees in the tariffs a confirmation of its long-held suspicion that the US is intent on keeping the country from fulfilling its potential.

Worryingly, there is widespread complacency in the region. We used to think great power politics had been banished by globalisation. We were wrong. We thought Trump would come to his economic sense when elected. Wrong again. And now the escalation of trade conflict is undermining the most important link between the US and China – their shared economic interests.

We must not fool ourselves again. High intensity geopolitical competition is increasingly likely. Unless the US and China can step down from the escalatory cycle they are on, we are sliding into another period in which great power rivalry, militarised competition and dangerous nationalism once again dominate the region.The Conversation

Nick Bisley, Head of Humanities and Social Sciences and Professor of International Relations at La Trobe University, La Trobe University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Rewriting history in the People’s Republic of Amnesia and beyond


Louisa Lim, University of Melbourne

This article is part of the Revolutions and Counter Revolutions series, curated by Democracy Futures as a joint global initiative between the Sydney Democracy Network and The Conversation. The project aims to stimulate fresh thinking about the many challenges facing democracies in the 21st century.


Buried at the end of the most important Chinese political speech in a decade, President Xi Jinping’s 66-page address to the 19th party congress in November 2017, was one short line: “The Chinese Dream is a dream about history, the present, and the future.” Tired after 71 ovations over three-and-a-half hours, the audience may have missed this sentence. Yet it illuminates how history underpins President Xi’s “Chinese Dream” of national rejuvenation.

History plays an increasingly important legitimising role in China. As historian Antonia Finnane writes:

Every country has its national myths, most of which are grounded in or derived from history; but in China, history alone is the bedrock. The People’s Republic doesn’t have a religion, and it doesn’t have a constitution – or at least, not one that counts. It no longer even has a revolutionary ideology. It just has history, lots of it.

For the Chinese Dream to be achieved, it is imperative – as the president himself has spelled out – to ensure people “have correct views on history”. Certain episodes – the Chinese resistance to the Japanese in the 1930s and the second world war – can be remembered. Others, like the brutal 1989 crackdown in the streets leading up to Tiananmen Square in Beijing, which has just been removed from the new secondary school history curriculum in Hong Kong, must be forgotten.

The enforcement of forgetting

The French historian Ernest Renan said:

Forgetting … is a crucial factor in the creation of the nation.

In contemporary China, it’s put into practice with surgical skill. Specific memories of events deemed sensitive by the state are not just forgotten, they are winnowed out and selectively deleted. The Communist Party has succeeded in hacking the collective memory.

National amnesia has become what Chinese writer Yan Lianke calls a “state-sponsored sport”. And as Beijing’s global influence rises, its controlling instincts – to tame, to corral, to shape, to prune, to expurgate history and historical memory – are increasingly being exported to the world.

The first move was an attempt in August 2017 to bully Cambridge University Press into removing online access in China to 300 articles from the China Quarterly journal. These were pieces on topics deemed sensitive, such as the Cultural Revolution and the Tiananmen crackdown.

The publisher at first bowed to Chinese demands and only reversed its position after public backlash. But statements by the Journal of Asian Studies, Critical Asian Studies and Springer Nature indicate that this case is part of a larger campaign.

Chinese censorship has also made inroads into Western publishing houses. For instance, Springer Nature, which publishes Nature and Scientific American, deleted around 1,000 articles from its Chinese website, citing “local distribution laws”. In doing so, Western academic presses end up serving the CCP’s purpose by propagating only state-mandated “correct views of history” inside China, as if no alternatives exist.

Protesters injured in the 1989 crackdown begged the photographer ‘Tell the world!’ Today’s it’s a crime to commemorate the dead.
Courtesy Kim Nygaard, Author provided

China is also censoring its own archives, as work by Glenn Tiffert has forensically uncovered. His comparison of electronic and paper versions of China’s legal journals found that in one journal 87% of the page count had been excised.

At home, Beijing’s tightening grip on history deigns not only what can be remembered, but also the manner in which it can be marked. In the case of the events of June 4 in Tiananmen Square, small-scale commemorations that once flew beneath the radar are now regularly punished, often through vague charges such as “picking quarrels and stirring up trouble”.

Every year, Chinese activist Chen Yunfei had paid his respects at the grave of Wu Guofeng, a 20-year-old student who was shot and bayoneted to death by troops in Beijing on June 4, 1989. In March 2017, Chen was sentenced to four years in jail for this simple act of remembrance.

Chen’s lawyer Sui Muiqing told me:

June Fourth is a red line for the authorities that cannot be crossed. This was a very important reason. It was a catalyst for his arrest.

Last year, at least 16 people were detained for public acts of commemoration. Four other activists face up to 15 years in prison after being indicted for “inciting subversion of state power” for selling liquor with a label referencing June 4 and Tank Man.

A lone man stops a column of tanks in Tiananmen Square the day after the military suppressed protests by force.

The paradox, of course, is that the harder the Communist Party works to erase the memory of June 4, the deeper its obsession with Tiananmen’s legacy becomes. As Madeleine Thien wrote:

One could say that no one remembers the Tiananmen massacre more faithfully, or with greater attentiveness, than the Chinese government.

The crime of rejecting the revolution

An old term that came to prominence in the white terror after Tiananmen is also back in vogue: historical nihilism, or “rejecting the revolution and denying the historical inevitability of socialism”. In April this year, a law was passed that bans the slander of Communist Party heroes and revolutionary martyrs. Last week, prosecutors used this new law for the first time, against a man in Jiangsu province who used social media to criticise a fireman who died during a rescue operation.

A precursor of these new laws went to trial in 2016 when writer Hong Zhenkuai questioned elements of the patriotic war story, “The Five Heroes of Langya Mountain”. This recounts the self-sacrifice of a group of Chinese soldiers who threw themselves from a cliff to avoid capture. Hong questioned whether two of the soldiers may have simply slipped and fallen by mistake.

Hong was found guilty of libel and forced to make a public apology after the court ruled that he had damaged the solders’ “heroic image and spiritual value”. The court argued that Hong should not have disputed the validity of the well-known story precisely because it “constituted part of the collective memory of the Chinese nation”.

Chinese writer Hong Zhenkuai, convicted by a court for challenging the war story Five Heroes of Langya Mountain, climbs a peak to defend his position.

Many mainland historians and activists warn that the charge of historical nihilism could be used to muzzle historical research, using the threat of lawsuits to shut down discussion and ensure that the authorities’ view of history remains the only one.

“They want to use falsified history as propagated by the authorities to replace real history for the people,” Sui Muqing said. “They want to erase real historical events that happened. That’s what so-called ‘historical nihilism’ means.”

Even literary works are being targeted as guilty of historical nihilism. The Chinese government has denounced Soft Burial, a novel by Fang Fang about the excesses of the 1950s land reform movement, as a “poisonous weed” and banned its sale. Fang Fang explains the title, writing:

When people die and their bodies are buried under the earth without the protection of coffins, this burial is called a ‘soft burial’; as for the living, when they seal off their past, cut off their roots, reject their memories, either consciously or subconsciously, their lives are soft buried in time. Once they are in a soft burial, their lives will be disconnected in amnesia.

In today’s China, exhuming or even publicly remembering history – even events that happened within our lifetime, such as those of 1989 – is increasingly costly. Soft burial has become not just a reality, but a state of self-preservation.

“In the future, historical research will be impossible,” warned Hong in an open letter. He had previously worked as the chief editor of Yanhuang Chunqiu, a gutsy magazine that addresses Communist Party history. “If you point out the contradictions or holes in what they say, they can use the law to proclaim that you are guilty.”

President Xi has even published a book titled History: the Best Textbook. Yet only one version of history is acceptable: the Communist Party’s own.

The global spread of China’s amnesia

With China’s rise, it now finds itself in a position to amplify its version of history to a global audience. Following the 2017 meeting in Mar-a-Lago between Xi Jinping and US President Donald Trump, Trump described his conversation to The Wall Street Journal:

He then went into the history of China and Korea. Not North Korea, Korea. And you know, you’re talking about thousands of years … and many wars. And Korea actually used to be part of China.

Such a distorted reading is in line with a growing body of nationalist thought in China.

Increasingly, Beijing is marshalling its own version of history to support its territorial claims overseas. This is the case, for instance, of the Nine-Dash Line, which China says gives it a historical claim to virtually the entire South China Sea. China has refused to accept the Hague-based international tribunal’s ruling that this claim has no legal basis. Disgraced Australian politician Sam Dastyari even echoed the “thousands of years of history” line to back China’s refusal to abide by these rulings.

Recently, a map dating from 1951 has been uncovered. It is being used by researchers to propose new boundaries, though it is not clear whether Beijing could adopt them.

China has also invoked history to legitimise its massive One Belt One Road international infrastructure scheme, despite critics claiming that its premise relies on mythologised history.

The Chinese Communist Party is actively trying to export its version of the past beyond its borders. But these examples should serve as a warning. If Beijing is given a free pass on history, the international ramifications could come back to bite us in the years ahead.


The ConversationLousia Lim is the author of The People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited (OUP 2014).

Louisa Lim, Senior Lecturer in Audiovisual Journalism, University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.