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Trump and Xi Jinping: A dark new era of competition full of unknowns

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Donald Trump Xi Jinping
Donald
Trump and Xi Jinping.

Saul Loeb/Pool
Photo via AP


  • Australia’s former prime minister Kevin Rudd says the
    era of engagement did its best, but that the US and China are
    now strategic competitors likely headed for conflict.
  • It’s a totally new world and no one knows the
    rules.
  • China was delighted when Trump took took shots at
    US-led global institutions, which allowed Beijing to make its
    own unilateral moves.
  • Both presidents are unlikely to take a step back when
    national pride is on the line.
  • Looking ahead, Western democracy needs to keep its eyes
    open.

The Mandarin-speaking former Australian prime minister says the
world needs to wake up to the reality that its two major
superpowers — the US and China — have entered a new era of
strategic competition and no one on either side knows what the
rules are anymore.

Kevin Rudd, the 26th prime minister of Australia and the
president of the Asia Society Policy Institute, told Sinica, the world has
entered a new period of strategic competition between two global
superpowers, and that the slide to conflict between the two is
closer than it has ever been.

Gone are the days of rules based orders, Rudd says, the Trump
administration has seen to that by turning its back on the core
institutions the West set up during the critical post-war years.

“Our friends in Beijing have been delighted when Trump has taken
the meat axe to the World Trade Organisation,” Rudd told
Kaiser Kuo.

No longer constrained by adhering to multilateral institutions,
China has been borrowing from the Trumpian playbook, testing
controversial waters and standing on its own on issues it would
never have touched several years ago.

“When the US withdrew from the Human Rights Council in Geneva,
when the US indicated its impending withdrawal from the UN
climate convention change and engaged in a rolling polemic
against these institutions our friends in Beijing can’t believe
their luck that the US has taken the meat axe to the world order
it helped create.”

But the US in turn under President Trump “love him or loathe
him,” has simultaneously caught the Chinese off-guard and a
little unprepared with a far more direct approach to confronting
some of the bilateral issues.

“President Trump has now arrested China’s attention — not just
because of the trade war — but also, as evidenced by Vice
President Pence’s speech on US-China relations, by a much more
‘frontal reaction’ to what? Let’s call it ‘the Chinese
Alternative,'” Rudd said.

Speaking at the Hudson Institute earlier this month, Pence
directly accused China of ‘meddling in America’s democracy,’
through a sophisticated and elaborately planned
whole-of-government approach to interfere in US domestic
politics.

In a no-holds-barred speech, Pence accused China of stealing
American intellectual property, of trying to dominate 90% of the
world’s most ­advanced industries, eroding US military positions,
and driving the US out of the Western Pacific.

Pence surprised many observers by slamming China’s militarization
of the contested areas in the South and East China Sea, its
practice of what he described as “debt diplomacy” in developing
countries, as well as its ongoing and relentless pursuit of
isolating its “rogue province,” Taiwan.

Pence said China had betrayed US hopes that it would open up and
liberalize. And that was that.

“In terms of the harshness of the language, I think, again, it
will cause Beijing to sit up and take notice, and it will confirm
in the minds of many that the impending unfolding period of US
containment of China is now entrenched,” Rudd said.

Everyone agrees: That’s a dead policy walking

Or in other,
less-Ruddesque language
: the US has made its decision to
confront and no longer condone Chinese assertiveness around the
world.

Rudd, who first rose to power in 2007 on Australia’s China-driven
trade tsunami and the memorable Kevin’07 campaign slogan said
that, since December 2017, the decades-long US policy of
strategic engagement, most recently vigorously championed by the
former US president Barack Obama, has been well and truly
“interred” and been replaced with a direct strategic competition
— and no one has even blinked.

“What I’ve noticed is that no one from the Democratic side has
opposed it,” he said.

Not Democrats, not Congress, not large American corporations or
think tanks or policy wonks or academics.

“By and large there hasn’t been much blowback against that
direction and that caught Beijing’s attention.”

A tale of two presidents

In between throwing out the diplomatic dictionary and shaking up
bilateral ties, Trump has repeatedly made a point of referring to
China’s Xi Jinping as a “friend.”

And while they are far apart in many ways, these leaders share
certain qualities. They see themselves in history, they see their
countries as exceptional, they see themselves surrounded, and
they see themselves as agents of change and they see their
countries as direct competitors.

Both have invested enormous national pride in themselves and will
have difficulty stepping back from conflict, if it means losing
national face.

Xi is a meticulous planner, removing obstacles and enemies before
they see him coming. Trump is a master of improvisation and
misdirection, sometimes it feels like he doesn’t even see himself
coming.

On Thursday, he
wrote on Twitter
, as he does, to announce a “very good”
conversation with Xi, suggesting friendly progress had been made
across several of the issues the US has taken up, including the
ongoing trade dispute and North Korean talks.

“Just had a long and very good conversation with President Xi
Jinping of China. We talked about many subjects, with a heavy
emphasis on Trade,” Trump wrote. “Those discussions are moving
along nicely with meetings being scheduled at the G-20 in
Argentina. Also had good discussion on North Korea!”

The positive, sparky tone brings into stark relief the escalating
trade realities on the ground that have shaved billions off both
economies and has been overshadowing a planned sit-down at the
Group of 20 leaders summit in Argentina later in November.

A few hours after the president’s tweet, US prosecutors began
executing a series of charges against Chinese nationals and a
Chinese tech firm for allegedly stealing US corporate secrets.

The message, to anyone hopelessly trying to read the tea leaves,
are either very complex and nuanced or perhaps this is just what
the new diplomacy in an age where the rules have not yet been
written, and there is an absence of any meaning at all.

A new world disorder

Rudd says that if 40 years of strategic engagement are done and
dusted, so then are all the complex rules, protocols, habits, the
cultures, the diplomatic intimations that have evolved and been
taken on by participants, “through a process of osmosis.”

“2018’s a big year, the US has proclaimed that era is over,” Rudd
said.

The common language of Sino-US diplomacy, spoken by luminaries
from Zhou Enlai to Henry Kissinger has been thrown out.

“And in this new period of strategic competition what are the
rules? And in the absence of rules are we now going to watch this
relationship career in multiple directions? How is it going to
run in the absence of automatic, as it were, assumptions about
how far can you push the trade war? How far can you push economic
relations?”

“How far can we now push incidents and near misses in the South
China Sea … etcetera.”

In this period both for China and the US, is it now a
free-for-all or are we now … on more of a gradual gliding path
from competition to confrontation to conflict?”

Certainly, in the face of a passive West, brow-beaten by economic
failures and political stalemates, the Chinese model of
authoritarian capitalism is being emboldened.

Concealing one’s strength and biding one’s time

And for the first time since Mao Zedong, many observers from
within and without see China helmed by a virtuoso leader, who has
ruthlessly and efficiently shored up power and removed many of
its previous checks and balances, including two-term limitations
on the office of the president.

Rudd became prime minister the year that Xi Jinping was anointed
as Hu Jintao’s successor in Beijing, 2007.

Xi, he says — calling it political intuition — is a man with a
sense of a historic mission and the party, sharing his
accumulation of strength, is and will behave on the world stage
with ever-increasing assertiveness.

“Given the power consolidation process of first term Xi Jinping
has been achieved with comprehensive success — it hasn’t turned
out well for those who opposed him — its fair to conclude … that
Xi Jinping’s worldview and that of the party more broadly is
synchronous.”

Rudd describes the historic turnaround in foreign policy under Xi
as ditching China’s favourite fallback position first articulated
under Deng Xiaoping: “conceal one’s strengths and bide one’s
time” (韬光养晦 tao guang yang hua) to an approach that seizes the
initiative when the opportunity arises: “rouse oneself and press
on” (奋发有为 fen fa you wei), a strategy that has seen China more
willing to act outside the global forums that the US is itself
apparently dismantling.

“I think the one thing I probably got right about Xi Jinping was
an estimation of his character and personality. That he would not
be content with being primus inter pares (first among equals).”

Xi has a sense of historical mission, Rudd says. Something that
might also be said of his US counterpart.

And history, China is starting to believe, is on its side.

“The Western condition generally at present — for which Trump is
not particularly to blame — is in a bad state … China’s
response to that over the last decade-plus has been a state of
heightening encouragement … that their own authoritarian
capitalist project can prevail not just at home, but also
possibly as a model to emulate from abroad as well.”

So, actually, it’s pretty desperate days already

Rudd says for the liberal world order to survive, nations
currently anesthetized by the comforts of free speech, a cracking
press and the warm embrace of democratic norms are going to have
to rouse themselves off the couch.

“I think the other member states of the international community,
if they want the current rules-based order based on its
established pillars to survive, they’re going to have to argue
for it and argue strongly for it and argue with passion and
commitment for it.

“Otherwise, it will disappear beneath the waves of an
economically dominant China over the long term.”

“If nation-states around the world think an authoritarian
capitalist model is better and people are passive to the
international challenge to those norms … then the Chinese way
may well prevail,” Rudd warned.

So, its time to wake up and smell the communism, Kevin?

“The sooner people are aware of that the better.”

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