What the Kavanaugh inquiry signals for the US-China trade war
Robert Delaney says Trump faces significant challenges at home, but the trade war offers him hope of a great political victory. With Xi’s policies looking vulnerable, it’s no wonder China is far from keen to talk right now, yet a compromise is still possible
Partisan bickering in Washington usually plays well in Beijing. Each US government shutdown resulting from a budget fight is another example of the folly of American-style democracy.
But the heat of last week’s Senate inquiry into allegations of sexual assault against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh might have produced chills among some foreign policy advisers in Beijing. The hearing showed the lengths to which a political party will go to fight its way out of a corner.
Realising that testimony given by Kavanaugh’s accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, was coming across as credible, Kavanaugh gave the performance of a lifetime in the form of a wailing cri de coeur, and Republicans then turned the hearing into a searing display of righteous indignation.
The proceedings were reflective of a Washington that is no longer able to abide by compromise or diplomacy. US President Donald Trump’s party has remained mostly loyal to the president’s war footing, both in domestic and foreign policy.
Watch: Brett Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford testify in US Senate hearing
Which brings us to the inescapable subject of the US-China trade war, where Washington and Beijing are pitched in a stand-off that threatens to undo four decades of steadfast bilateral diplomacy.
With multiple investigations of Trump and his associates soon to wrap up and the country torn over whether the questioning of Kavanaugh is warranted, the stakes have never been higher for the president and his party. He will milk any victory to full effect, and the trade war holds out hope for Trump in this regard, regardless of which way it turns.
He could follow through with tariffs on every Chinese import and say that his unwavering approach deserves praise. And, if Beijing blinks, victory is even easier to claim.
When it comes to political showdowns, Trump doesn’t stop with kicking an opponent who’s down. Victory isn’t complete until he has ground his opponent into the dirt to decompose into fertiliser for high-protein crops that will fortify Trump and his associates to launch further attacks.
No wonder, then, that China’s vice-minister of commerce, Wang Shouwen, who led the Chinese delegation to Washington for the most recent round of bilateral trade talks in August, said last week that China would not agree to further talks with a “knife at its throat”.
Everyone in Washington, it seems, has a knife drawn, creating risks for anyone tangling with the Trump administration.
And while not as precarious as Trump’s political foundation, President Xi Jinping’s has some vulnerabilities. With economic growth slowing and more countries reacting defensively to China’s trade and industrial policies, some in Beijing are questioning whether Xi’s policies might not end up undermining development objectives.
Beijing is now pushing economic and technological self-reliance instead of re-examining the restrictions it places on foreign companies trying to tap it markets.
This is big a gamble. Yet if Xi were to offer any significant concessions to Washington to clear the path to an end to the trade war, Trump might then proclaim himself to be a dragon slayer.
The sound and fury of Trump holding himself up to the world as the winner in the trade stand-off, to drown out the obstacles he faces domestically, would reverberate badly for Xi in Beijing. It’s no wonder China isn’t inclined to come back to the negotiating table.
Watch: China rebuffs Trump’s claim it is trying to meddle in US midterm elections
Sooner or later, though, the two sides will need to offer each other something. Supply chains between the US and China support large chunks of both economies, and the US Chamber of Commerce won’t stand idly by when the trade war starts eating into the profits of the country’s largest companies.
Compromise with honour is possible. Trump may not seek to draw much blood from Xi. The Chinese leader would be wise to keep in mind that Trump is not lying when he proclaims his affection for him.
He has far more respect for Xi, who reached the pinnacle of China’s vast political machine and has managed to steer it towards his objectives, than he ever will have for his domestic political opponents, who may wreck his ambition to create a solid conservative majority on the Supreme Court.
Considering the challenges both leaders are facing, they’d be foolish not to give concessions a chance.
Robert Delaney is the Post's US bureau chief, based in New York