A Financial Times article, The Chinese are wary of Donald Trump’s creative destruction, by Mark Leonard, director of the European Council on Foreign Relations, is so provocative, in terms of the contrast with Western perceptions of Trump, that I am quoting from it at some length.
According to Leonard, quite a few key players in China see Trump as having a coherent geopolitical agenda, with reducing China’s influence as a key objective, and that he is doing an effective job of implementation. From his Financial Times piece:
I have just spent a week in Beijing talking to officials and intellectuals, many of whom are awed by his [Trump’s] skill as a strategist and tactician…..
Few Chinese think that Mr Trump’s primary concern is to rebalance the bilateral trade deficit….They think the US president’s goal is nothing less than remaking the global order.
They think Mr Trump feels he is presiding over the relative decline of his great nation. It is not that the current order does not benefit the US. The problem is that it benefits others more in relative terms. To make things worse the US is investing billions of dollars and a fair amount of blood in supporting the very alliances and international institutions that are constraining America and facilitating China’s rise.
In Chinese eyes, Mr Trump’s response is a form of “creative destruction”. He is systematically destroying the existing institutions….as a first step towards renegotiating the world order on terms more favourable to Washington.
Once the order is destroyed, the Chinese elite believes, Mr Trump will move to stage two: renegotiating America’s relationship with other powers. Because the US is still the most powerful country in the world, it will be able to negotiate with other countries from a position of strength if it deals with them one at a time rather than through multilateral institutions that empower the weak at the expense of the strong.
My interlocutors….describe him as a master tactician, focusing on one issue at a time, and extracting as many concessions as he can. They speak of the skilful way Mr Trump has treated President Xi Jinping. “Look at how he handled North Korea,” one says. “He got Xi Jinping to agree to UN sanctions [half a dozen] times, creating an economic stranglehold on the country. China almost turned North Korea into a sworn enemy of the country.” But they also see him as a strategist, willing to declare a truce in each area when there are no more concessions to be had, and then start again with a new front.
For the Chinese, even Mr Trump’s sycophantic press conference with Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, in Helsinki had a strategic purpose. They see it as Henry Kissinger in reverse. In 1972, the US nudged China off the Soviet axis in order to put pressure on its real rival, the Soviet Union. Today Mr Trump is reaching out to Russia in order to isolate China.
In fact, Trump made clear on the campaign trail that he wanted to normalize relations with Russia because he saw China as the much bigger threat to US interests, and that the US could not afford to be taking them both on at the same time. He also regarded Russia as having more in common culturally with the US than China, and thus a more natural ally. Given the emphasis that Trump has placed on US trade deficits as a symbol of the US making deals that are to America’s disadvantage, by exporting US jobs,
However, even if the Chinese are right, and there is more method to Trump’s madness than his apparent erraticness would have you believe, there are still fatal flaws in his throwing bombs at international institutions.
As anyone who has done a renovation knows, the teardown in the easy part. Building is hard. And while the young Trump that pulled off the Grand Hyatt deal had a great deal of creativity and acumen, early successes appear to have gone to Trump’s head. He did manage to get out of the early 1990s real estate downturn in far better shape than most New York City developers by persuading lenders that his name was so critical to the value of his holdings that creditors needed to cut him some slack. But the older Trump has left a lot of money on the table, such as with The Apprentice, by not even knowing what norma were to press for greatly improved terms.
The fact that the half-life of membership on Trump’s senior team seems to be under a year does not bode well for establishing new frameworks, since they require consistency of thought and action. And the fact that Trump has foreign policy
thugs operatives like John Bolton and Nikki Haley in important roles works against setting new foundations.
So even if the Chinese are right and Trump has been executing well on his master geopolitical plan, Trump is at best capable of delivering only on the easy, destructive part, and will leave his successors to clean up his mess.