Donald Trump has been in office long enough for certain patterns to emerge in his behaviour. The US president likes to create a crisis, let it run a while and then announce that he has solved it. He will frighten friend and foe alike with dire threats, before striking an agreement that he self-certifies as “tremendous”. In reality, the new deal will often be superficial and the underlying issues will remain largely unaddressed.
This is the model that the Trump administration has followed with North Korea, as well as with Mexico and Canada. And it is the model that is pretty clearly going to emerge in Mr Trump’s “trade war” with China.
In a few weeks time, the US president will declare a great victory. His loyal aides will play along. But the underlying reality will be that not much has actually changed in the economic relationship between the US and China — in the same way that not much changed in the trade relationship between the US, Canada and Mexico after Mr Trump’s team renegotiated the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Just as North Korea has not actually scrapped its nuclear weapons, so China will not actually scrap its system of state subsidies for industry, the most fundamental way in which Beijing disadvantages foreign competitors.
Instead, the Chinese are likely to buy off Mr Trump with pledges to purchase lots more American goods. They will also open up more sectors of their economy to US investment and tighten laws on intellectual property. This will probably not affect America’s trade deficit with China. And it will certainly not impair China’s drive for dominance in the technologies of the future.
But calling off the trade war will not be the only gift from Mr Trump to Chinese president Xi Jinping. For Mr Trump has already disarmed America in an even more important battle — the battle of ideas.
That matters because America’s most potent weapon in its emerging contest for supremacy with China is not its economy, nor its aircraft carriers, but its ideas. The notion that abstract principles like “freedom” and “democracy” are powerful American assets is sometimes dismissed as liberal wishful-thinking. But Chinese actions suggest otherwise. The government of Mr Xi does its utmost to suppress the circulation of liberal and western ideas, censoring the internet and cracking down on dissidents, students and human rights lawyers.
The fact that previous US presidents spoke up for human rights was more than an irritant to the Chinese one-party state — it was a threat. There was no better symbol of this than the “Goddess of Democracy”, built by pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square in 1989, which bore an uncanny resemblance to America’s Statue of Liberty.
The Tiananmen uprising was bloodily repressed and the “Goddess” was torn down. But Chinese liberals have continued to look to America for inspiration and support. Human rights were only one item on the US agenda when dealing with China. But they were a crucial part of what America stood for in the world.
Sadly, that has now changed. As a candidate, Mr Trump gave a very ambiguous reply when asked about the Tiananmen massacre of 1989, stating: “they were vicious, they were horrible, but they put it down with strength.” As president, he has made it clear that he is an admirer of authoritarian strongmen around the world.
The US state department continues to issue an annual report on human rights worldwide, which has strong things to say about China. But the message coming from the Oval Office is rather different. On various occasions, Mr Trump has praised Mr Xi as “a great leader” and a “very good man”.
This matters because Mr Xi is actually the most authoritarian leader of China since the death of Mao Zedong in 1976. Mr Trump’s over-the-top praise for him risks giving the American stamp of approval for repression in China. When Mr Xi abolished presidential term limits, making it possible for him to rule for life, Mr Trump’s response was to joke that America should consider that model of government.
But repression in Mr Xi’s China is no laughing matter. Controls on the media, the internet and universities have all been tightened significantly since he came to power in 2012. And there has been an unprecedented crackdown in the province of Xinjiang, with up to 1m Uighurs confined to “re-education camps”.
Compared to China, America still provides an inspiring example of a free society in action. But the fact that the US president regularly trashes the “fake news” media, and that his administration has separated thousands of illegal migrants from their children at the US border, blurs what should be a bright line between the practices of a democracy and those of an authoritarian state.
The resolution to the trade dispute may do further damage. Mr Trump shows every sign of wanting to move on from his battle with China, and to declare a new trade war on the EU and Japan. In doing so, the president will drive a wedge through the middle of the western alliance, making it all but impossible to take a co-ordinated approach to China.
If that happens, Mr Trump will look less like China’s toughest adversary and more like the answer to Mr Xi’s prayers.
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