In the area of foreign policy, is Trump just plain crazy, or crazy like a fox? Is this random flailing bent on isolating America, or is it creative destruction which tears up the old deal before dictating a new one?
Everyone in America has their opinion now. But so, too, do the leaders of foreign nations who have to deal with it. Europe seems to think that Trump is an idiot for smashing the old alliances, and that’s understandable. China, on the other hand, is much more wary that they are dealing with a more serious and permanent change.
There are very good reasons for this.
Sun Zi always taught the importance of understanding your enemy. Even if you fear China, you have to think like it. On the other hand, if you are in favor of a new, more balanced world order you have to realize this can’t happen without integrating China. No matter what your position is, understanding the Chinese perspective is critical. Since it is a given that Trump is smashing the world order as we know it, everyone has to understand where everyone else is coming from. The only alternative would be another stupid and pointless war based largely on misunderstanding, as most wars are.
Here are four reasons why China is taking Trump way, way more seriously than most of the world.
They have to. It would make no sense for China to not assume that the more hostile approach to China, countering it on all fronts, is not working to a deliberate plan. Just as this piece attempt to explain a Chinese perspective, there are many Chinese writing the mirror image attempting to explain the US perspective. Part of the reason for writing this as I am is to get everyone into the head of how Chinese analysis typically works.
They don’t have crazy or stupid leaders. China is a technocracy. There are about 30 people in the Central Committee who run the whole nation, for practical purposes. To get to the top you need connections and political skill, certainly. But you also need talent as an administrator. They honestly have skilled people running the show, and that has benefited them greatly despite being autocratic. Yes, the middle and lower management are not necessarily as good, and horribly corrupt, but as a technocracy China’s leadership works according to logic, planning, and strategy. They naturally assume that every other nation does, too.
China looks inward. No nation is bigger than China. No other nation has 4,000 years of continuous history and the incredibly dense culture that comes with that. No nation has developed as quickly, ever, and has the social and economic problems that come from unbelievably rapid change. China looks out for #1, and if you’re Chinese you know that this is China. Everything is about them. Some of this is reasonable given the situation, but many of their neighbors call it arrogant. In any case, it’s very much what they are about.
China doesn’t understand why other nations are scared. China does indeed have peaceful intentions, at least to the extent that they do not plan to build a global empire. They really do look inward, and their recent history teaches them that they are always a victim. At the same time, however, they are the silent and serious looking 200kg, 2m tall guy in the corner. Of course everyone is afraid of him, especially given his demeanor. Chinese do not seem to understand the need to be more, well, American about things and put a big friendly smile on their face. It’s just not in their nature. And they have proven absolutely terrible at making friends as a result.
These four points, taken together, are a story of an isolated nation that simply cannot understand why the great and powerful United States fears them or why it might lash out in desperation. There must be a scheme, a plan to dominate the world as Western people seem to have a tendency to do. And China simply has to prepare for this no matter what. It only makes sense to them. Given that they really only care about their own problems, which is reasonable given what is happening, everything on the outside is a threat. A major change is a threat. It has to be taken seriously, which in Chinese terms is studied absolutely to death and written up in a four-point analysis like this.
China is going to respond to Trump carefully and cautiously. But it will also do so as if there has been a permanent change in US policy. Creative destruction has already happened, no matter what. China will not look at us the same ever again. For better or worse, we have a very different situation on our hands than we did just a few years ago.