Seeing red: trade war shows US and China have their wires crossed at a time when they need to cooperate
Tom Plate says the most important relationship in global politics today – between China and the US – has been muddled by misguided thinking on both sides, and could end in disaster if harmony isn’t restored
Look at the question from the angle of the medical condition synaesthesia, which is a kind of cross-wiring inside the brain. It is not a disease – synaesthesiacs test negative for schizophrenia, psychosis and so on. In fact, this unusual sensory wiring can fire up perception and creativity. The synaesthete may “hear” a colour, or “see” a sound, as with some popular Western artists – Kanye West, Stevie Wonder, Billy Joel and Mary J. Blige come to mind – and such masters as the late painter Wassily Kandinsky.
This was also the case with the late composer Oliver Messiaen, my favourite synaesthete. Blessed with this reprogramming of the senses – in a sort of “hearing-is-seeing” and “seeing-is-hearing” psychedelia – this French genius could “see” music not just in sound but in vivid colour.
His compositions, in consequence, tended to be extremely original, sometimes to the edge of thrilling colourful ecstasies. Messiaen’s magisterial five-hour opera Saint François d'Assise that culminates in the death scene – a vortex of sound and white light that explodes over the saint’s lifeless body with a starkness that can move even the grumpiest atheist, or the most godless communist.
But cross-wiring in the hands of lesser talents can produce confused ugliness. This is best description of the trade war between the United States and China. This negative synaesthesia so crosses up the wires of international connectivity that what is emerging is a disturbing and emotionally shattering cacophony.
Escalating US-China trade war makes European firms nervous
There is no beauty in this beast. OK – blame it on US President Donald Trump, replying with his unbalanced and unsophisticated middle-school maths – and on an anti-China circle of advisers who believe shock therapy can bring Beijing to heel. Or blame it on the Xi Jinping government, for its “see-no-evil, hear-no-evil” flaunting of a global braggadocio while embarking on a rebarbative regional restlessness viewed by many as potentially destabilising.
You didn’t have to be a Messiaen to have seen this coming. Back in April, we consulted the always insightful William Overholt, of Harvard, about his book China’s Crisis of Success. Bill was among the earliest in the West to declaim the genius of Deng Xiaoping (see The Rise of China, published in 1994).
But, these days, he worries about China’s current president. While he calls Xi’s political courage admirable, he says it may be overly risky: “China is on the cusp of greatness, stagnation or tragedy, and the risks are so high that small, unexpected events could make the difference…”
One unexpected, but not small, event was the election of Trump in 2016. The Xi government, in power since 2012, is hardly the only government to have failed to anticipate the negative potential of an unprepared man in the White House lusting to change nearly everything so as to trademark the new realities as made-in-Mar-a-Lago.
But the fact of this matter is that China was the one government with the most to lose if found sleeping at the switch: alas, when you are so busy tooting your own horn, it is hard to listen carefully to others tooting theirs and the themes they may be playing.
Think of what China has accomplished – and thus, at least theoretically, how much it has to lose. Over just three decades, it has transformed the political economy of more than a billion people with dramatic gains for so many Chinese who would otherwise have remained poor. It has put together the most stunning Keynesian programme probably ever proposed in a central government planning document. And it has achieved a virtual party consensus that technology is the one god that absolutely will not fail China.
But was China’s historic march out of hopeless poverty purely a matter of positive internal combustion? Just think back to the relationship in the late 1990s. Sure, the administration of US President Bill Clinton wins no prizes for an overall incoherent foreign policy, not to mention a yo-yo approach to China in particular. But it was absolutely Messiaen-class gifted in one respect: it “heard” in China the colour of “green”, as in money; and “saw” in China the roaring sound of our global future. Clintonism was confused, as well as confusing, but the overall direction was positive.
By the end of the decade, gifted Clinton officials such as Charlene Barshefsky were working hand in hand, almost as if senior partners in the same law firm, with premier Zhu Rongji, China’s most sensible leader since Deng Xiaoping himself. Yes, there were blips: in Beijing, in the famous 1998 joint news conference, Clinton said, as he absolutely had to say in front of the camera, that China was on the “wrong side of history”. But even if true, only time will tell – history is still spilling forward, far from having reached the end point of its endless run.
The origins and impact of the US-China trade war
But oh my – now look at where we are. Instead of working hand in hand, China and the US are shaking fists in each other’s face. Bilateral communication is reduced; “free” trade is being taxed; trust is flowing downhill faster than a Trump tweet. Were Messiaen alive today, composing an opera about China and the US, the sound that he might see would be an explosion of red – not as in “communism” but as in “blood” – and the sight he might hear is the horrific sound of coming war.
Perhaps Beijing and Washington suffer from a kind of negative synaesthesia – or maybe just plain old dyslexia, if they cannot make out the clear writing on history’s wall that says they must get along if there is to be world peace.
Columnist Tom Plate is the author of Yo-Yo Diplomacy and a clinical professor at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles