The escalating trade war between China and the United States is more than just a mighty tussle over imports and exports – and the elite in both Beijing and the West know it.
It is, in effect, a battle of the utmost strategic importance, pitting China against a coterie of Western nations that see it as the gravest threat to their dominance of the existing world order. Slapping on tariffs is just the opening salvo.
On the one side, there is the clear (if not publicly admitted) goal of slowing down (if not containing altogether) China’s seemingly inexorable rise as a superpower. And on the other is China’s determination not to bow to the collective might of the West and forfeit the right to decide its own destiny.
On present reckoning, it does not appear that either side will back down. And so the stage is set for a long, bruising contest of will, with the rest of the world as collateral damage.
Contrary to what some analysts have argued, Beijing has not been caught wrong-footed in this confrontation. At the tactical level, the Chinese leadership might have underestimated the swiftness and scale of the American responses in the ongoing tit-for-tat imposition of tariffs – or the duplicity of the European Union, which now says it wants to forge a consensus with the US and Japan against unfair Chinese trade practices.
But at the strategic level, China’s leaders, past and present, have long seen this head-on collision coming.
Back in 2003, Zheng Bijian, then vice-principal of the Central Party School in Beijing, coined the term “peaceful rise” when he spoke at the Boao Forum for Asia. He was responding to concerns in the West about the emerging Chinese threat to the West-dominated world order, a fear first expressed openly in Napoleonic times.
His message, no doubt delivered with the blessings of the Chinese leadership, was that while China was emerging as a great power, its focus was on developing itself, not trifling with others. He amplified this in a 2005 Foreign Affairs article, declaring that China would not “follow the path of great powers vying for global domination during the cold war”.
Lest the message about China’s peaceful intentions was not clear enough, in 2010 state councillor Dai Bingguo dismissed the claim that China would seek to dominate Asia or displace the US as the world’s pre-eminent power as “pure myth”.
I do not think Beijing can be so naive as to believe the world, especially the West, will just take its word for it, and indeed it has not. This is especially true of the US, which, even during president Barack Obama’s watch, was already talking of a “pivot” to Asia. Ostensibly, the move is to provide cover for America’s friends and allies in Asia that fear Chinese bullying, but no one is in any doubt that the intention is to stare down any Chinese challenge to American supremacy.
So Chinese leaders, known for their propensity for long-term thinking and planning, are unlikely to be unprepared for the day the Americans come spoiling for a fight.
It is therefore fallacious to suggest that had President Xi Jinping kept his head down and not talked so boldly about the Chinese dream or the greater role and respect China would strive for globally, he would not have stung the US into launching a pre-emptive strike under the guise of correcting the imbalance in bilateral trade.
With so many China-watchers around the world training their sights on the mainland, it defies belief that its gathering strength will escape unnoticed if no Chinese leader talks about it! This is one light that cannot be hidden under any bushel.
China must know alarm bells will go off from Tokyo to London and Washington sooner or later, but one can scarcely expect Beijing to abandon its quest to leapfrog the rest of the world in industrial and technological development just because already developed nations will not welcome the competition.
So the proverbial straw broke the American camel’s back the moment it became known that Beijing wanted to push ahead with Made in China 2025, its blueprint for taking pole position in such areas as artificial intelligence and robotics.
To be sure, even without this red flag, the Trump Administration would have gone ahead with tariffs – for domestic political reasons. Candidate Donald Trump, an unabashed protectionist, had never hidden his intention to take China to task for its unfair trade practices, a move he knew his electoral base wanted. And the Washington establishment, equally unhappy about those practices and deeply worried about the strategic implications of letting China rip, is content to fall in line, never mind that some of its members know tariffs make little economic sense. Anything to keep China down.
If one accepts that Beijing knows it cannot avoid a head-on clash with an America that feels its supremacy has been challenged, then that begs the question of whether and how China has prepared for the inevitable fight.
I would be most surprised if Chinese leaders were caught napping. China, after all, has a rich history, replete with wars of every scale and severity, to learn from. One that comes immediately to mind is the 1950-53 Korean war, the only occasion when People’s Liberation Army “volunteers” fought American forces directly. In particular, the 1950 Battle of the Chosin Reservoir seems an apposite case study.
Many historians see this battle as a turning point in the Korean war, which eventually led to the retreat of (largely American) United Nations forces back to the 38th Parallel dividing North and South Korea, after they had come close to taking all of the North.
So what happened? In brief, by mid-October 1950, UN forces had all but pulverised North Korea’s People’s Army and were on the verge of conquering the entire Korean peninsula and uniting the two parts of the country. Then, on the 19th, Chinese troops crossed the border and joined the war.
The American supreme commander, General Douglas MacArthur, in the flush of victory after his daring landing of troops in Incheon, ordered a massive “Home by Christmas” offensive to crush the Chinese in two months. Battle was joined near a lake, in the present-day South Hamgyong province of North Korea.
Fighting in minus 37 degrees Celsius with inferior equipment, inadequate supplies and no air cover, the PLA pushed the UN/US forces into retreat – and eventually a stalemate that holds till today. But the cost was horrendous; close to 60,000 casualties, nearly half from the bitter cold, against just 13,900 on the UN side.
So what relevant learning points are there to be gleaned from reviewing the key findings of the hundreds of battlefield analyses and reports available?
First, the Americans, especially General MacArthur, underrated the Chinese. So is the same happening again today? Yes, if you take at face value Trump’s boast that a trade war is easy to win.
But that is only in relation to the trade war. For the larger strategic contest, which can easily spill into the South China Sea, will the Trump Administration also underestimate China’s resolution about protecting its sovereignty and send its warships deep into waters claimed by the Chinese? Beijing certainly hopes not, but has prepared feverishly for that with its rapid build-up of military forces there.
Conversely, is Beijing underestimating the pressure which the Trump Administration can pile on? Unlikely, given its constant refrain that there will be no winner in a trade war, just losers all round. While Beijing might nurse hopes that Trump and the hardliners will run out of political steam after the mid-November congressional elections, its words and deeds suggest it is ready to persevere to the bitter end.
Second, the PLA admitted then that it had crossed into North Korea unprepared. Fast forward to today. Though there is no such thing as complete readiness for a full-frontal confrontation with the US, the China of today is not the China of the Korean war. It has been 16 years since China first assured the world about its peaceful rise, knowing in its heart of hearts even then that the West, led by the US, would not be so easily placated. Beijing could not have been twiddling its thumbs since.
Third is America’s strength in terms of industrial and technological capability. During the Battle of the Chosin Reservoir, PLA forces targeted a key bridge along the route which the 1st US Marines Division had to take in its retreat. They blew it to bits three times, only to be amazed by how swiftly, each time, the Americans rebuilt it with steel platforms and other material airdropped onto the site.
Today, the Chinese know full well the US still commands vast resources and a clear technological lead, and no doubt are bracing themselves for whatever the Americans can throw at them.
Finally, the Chinese “volunteers” fighting in Korea showed great tenacity. No US or UN soldier who fought in Korea and, specifically, at the Chosin Reservoir, could have left the battlefield without feeling awed by the Chinese capacity to suffer enormous casualties and yet keep surging forward and fighting.
Beijing knows resilience is really its strongest card. During the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945), a backward, divided China emaciated after years of civil war endured eight long years of indescribable suffering – and refused to yield. No doubt the Chinese of today can live without Apple smartphones or McDonald’s.
In the end, when Beijing sees no prospect of a trade-war settlement that allows both sides to walk away at an acceptable cost, it will dig in and take whatever pain the US can inflict – in the not unrealistic expectation that in the US political system, politicians, corporate leaders and consumers simply do not have the stomach for a war of attrition.
However, even if there is cessation of hostilities on the economic front, the West is unlikely to give up its effort to deny China’s quest for a seat as an equal at the high table of the international order. They have only just begun. ■
Leslie Fong is a former editor of The Straits Times