TOM PLATE WRITES – Fragile ceasefires are not the sharpest knife in diplomacy’s kitchen drawer but are several cuts above abandoning a firefight and allowing it to roar on.

The tariff war that President Trump ignited on the hefty kindling of China’s self-styled “socialism with Chinese characteristics” has been put on slow burn for the time being. Further sets of tariff up-tics are on hold while teams of American and Chinese negotiators slog through a nightmare list of asymmetrical trade issues.  It looks as if a new containment policy – not for China but for tariffs – is on the menu.

Will this lowering of the tariff temperature freshen airspace between Beijing and Washington in other respects? Tariffs by themselves are not an end point but rather an intermediate ‘ways and means’ of projecting strategic sovereign intent and interest. Trying to inflict pain on China economically will not ease economic problems in America, but could viciously intensify political fissures bilaterally, as mutual trust becomes toast.

The Western news media won’t say it, but in fact President’s Xi’s government is to be applauded for implicitly agreeing to take a long look at how its structures of trade and economic policy cause needless misunderstanding, irritation and even paranoia, including and especially with the U.S. If a good-faith review by the Chinese government and its many think-tanks yields the thoroughness and incisiveness of which China is capable, Beijing will not impair its “China Dream” in the least: Containing its own brand of economic nationalism will only add to its appeal as a world power.

To this end, China’s impressive army of think tanks, which in Xi Jinping’s official rhetoric (at least) are accorded importance and respect, must be permitted the maximum of intellectual ‘buenos aires.” Without a central-government green light to play creatively with ideas rather than simply recycle or repackage already-approved ones, the country’s policy intellectuals will sink into mediocrity and irrelevance, especially if the Party is going to peck away at every little thing like some old hen.

Let a thousand flowery ideas bloom by encouraging (not crowding and defenestrating) the bloomers. Let them tend their gardens without government or the Party always proposing to do the weeding. Let them take chances and mix it up with their Western interlocutors. Both sides have things to learn.

Xi’s China is truly at an identity crossroads. The great potential uptick in China’s global profile will not come from flexing military muscle, despite the undeniable pop of its naval and air build-up, but from belief in a steady, authentic press of soft power. Build that up – cultural diplomacy: Too much Sparta and not enough Athens will lock China into future wars, not enduring peace.

Don’t reduce China to all tank and no think. Maybe I put too much on brains over brawn but its most effective trump card, as it were, will be its substantial core of universities and think tanks, not its corps of ZTZ-99 tanks and all that. China may field as many think tanks as the U.S. and some of them may be as good as our best (RAND, CSIS, Brookings, etc.).

Is Trump getting the best advice? Would he recognize if it were in front of him? He would been wiser not to have tariff-baited in the first place; but perhaps the President is beginning to sense that down that bumpy tariff road lurks the nightmare prospect of economic warfare that might never end. Combative by nature though he is, he could hardly be a fan of that. Not all tunnels end in light.

This weekend past offered the welcome reminder that America breeds statesmen as well as cowboys. Sad though the news of the death, at 94, of the 41st U.S. President was, it wafted over the country like a layer of perfume: George H.W. Bush was overall a very good president, particularly on the China-relations issue. To be sure, few tears will be shed by Iraqis, who will never forgive him for fathering George W. Bush, the 43rd President, the one who ordered the dreadful Iraq invasion that killed near-genocidal numbers of countless Muslims.

In the U.S.A., the news all but drowned out the Trump tariff drama in Argentina.

Bush Senior’s public image was not that of the Texas cowboy (as with ‘W’) but of the New England (Kennebunkport) gentleman. Bush Sr did not become a statesman only after receiving the White House ‘leader of the Free World’ makeover upon election in 1989 but was born that way.

Exemplary was his sensitive service in China between 1974 and 1975 as chief U.S. liaison officer in Beijing.  There, his respect for the Chinese grew by the day.  Later on, China was to reap benefits: As president, Bush Sr fought hard inside the Washington Beltway against a simplistic, holier-than-thou reaction to the July 1989 Tiananmen tragedy, and in its wake secretly dispatched plenipotentiaries to Beijing to underscore the American commitment to relationship stability.

His support for proper trade terms with China (then dubbed ‘Most Favored Nation’) prompted him to deftly deflect the thoughtless anti-China bellowing in his own party; and he’d invariably shoot off to journalists who supported his administration’s not-then-trendy position on China personally inscribed notes (I have one). The professionalism of his efforts helped pave the way for China’s Rubicon-crossing to the World Trade Organization.

Still, in fairness to the Trump team in Buenos Aires, it’s not easy negotiating with Beijing in the middle of the current Chinese churn. But surely meetings of high-quality never hurt. America’s President, for all his mounting troubles back home in the U.S., deserves credit for this one – as does China’s Xi, whatever his troubles back in China.  Tariff de-escalation is the only move that makes sense.


SOUTH CHINA MORNING POST Columnist Tom Plate is the author of “In the Middle of China’s Future” and “Yo-Yo Diplomacy.”  He teaches at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, where he is clinical professor in the Asian and Asian American Studies Department. An earlier version of this column was published 4 December 10, 2018, in the SCMP from Hong Kong, China.




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