Americans have a long history of not seeing the trees for the forest when it comes to East Asia.
During the Korean war, UN forces were amazed by the human wave assaults by Chinese troops and implicitly presumed that the PRC had endless reserves of manpower based on its population even as General Ridgeway’s strategy of using massed firepower dulled the offensives and ultimately, enabled UN forces to pursue peace talks based on status quo ante bellum.
Little noticed was that human wave attacks by Chinese troops were mostly former soldiers for the KMT regime that the CCP regarded as disloyal and security risks. Incoming dynasties customarily disposed of troops loyal to former regimes by making them front line troops. The CCP tasked them to invade Taiwan, be PVA in Korea, or otherwise deployed on frontier adventures.
When that supply ran low and the CCP began to have to use the much smaller cadres of trusted communist PLA troops, CCP enthusiasm for the war dwindled very quickly.
Incidents that devastated the morale of Mao Tse-Tung and members of the ruling circle escaped notice in the west. For example, Mao Anying, the elder surviving (and only fit) son of Mao Tse-tung who was killed in Korea on November 25, 1950 by an UN Airstrike in a supposedly safe rear area was not well recognized and exploited.
Had PVA command and control nodes that are staffed by loyal CCP cadres with ties to high ranking officials been specifically targeted, it would disproportionately impacted regime behavior.
The weakness of detailed local knowledge has hindered US policy toward China in general, resulting missed opportunities.
Detailed knowledge of familial, clan, provincial, ethnic, linguistic and other ties is what is needed to understand Chinese signals and meanings and to dissect local from so called national interests.
When President Xi Jinping told President Elect Trump by phone, “facts have shown that cooperation is the only correct choice”, it could be interpreted in at least two ways:
Pleading for cooperation as opposed to conflict between the between United States and the People’s Republic of China; or, Preserving a monopoly by Beijing on relations with the United States.
It follows from this that President Xi is pleading for is for the Trump Administration to not bypass Beijing on key issues and to endorse the CCP/PRC monopoly of power that, de facto, it may or may not have.
In Western diplomacy, acceptance of a recognized regime’s monopoly on legitimate power is explicit and recognized regimes are rarely bypassed even when facts on the ground clearly dictate otherwise, like the interregnum between the proclamation of the PRC in 1949 and de-recognition of the Republic of China (ROC) in 1978.
With a limited agenda between the US and PRC well into the early 1980s, beginning with Kissinger’s initiatives and Nixon’s visit in 1972 it was readily managed and tightly controlled by the Priesthood of Western “China scholars”.
This arrangement worked well before the “opening” of China by Deng Xiaoping that unleashed a China that much more closely resemble China historically, where local authorities are subservient to the Emperor in name, and are free to do much as they pleased as long as the Emperor received their taxes and the visible manifestations of obedience to Beijing were adhered to.
Chinese civilization of the 21st Century, however, found the priesthood of Western China Experts that focused on Beijing increasingly out of touch with the widening and divergent interests of different parts of China.
Beijing centric interpretations of policies have faced challenges in explaining the lack of consistency in regime behavior across regions:
For example, the declaration of an ADIZ in East China Sea was not matched by similar moves in South China Sea. Nor are the island building ventures in South China Sea replicated elsewhere.
Divergences like this raise questions as to what are the local dynamics that are driving Chinese policies, rather than Beijing’s official policies .
China experts, because of their predominant training in one dialect and their preponderance in a few major Chinese cities, are an obstacle for a more nuanced understanding and foreign policy under the Trump Administration toward the many Chinese “local” authorities.
Crafting a nuanced set of foreign policies toward the different parts of China that simultaneously recognizes the limitations of Beijing’s power and influence, and the diversity of interests, behavior and concerns that make up the vast Chinese civilization require an expansion of capacity and broadening of expertise that will take time.
Meanwhile, acceding to Xi’s demand for a monopoly plays right into Beijing’s hands as it enable the regime to play off issues like the North Korean Nuclear Threat, South China Sea Grab, Trade, Currency, Climate Change and many other issues all at once with a Washington Foreign Policy priesthood eager for diplomatic “solutions”.
In Western diplomacy, the dominant paradigm is to compartmentalize differences and disputes to within a particular policy area, and to limit / prevent its bleed / spread to other issues. If there is a trade dispute that is not settled amicably through legitimate mechanisms, sanctions by one party are limited to that trade area.
Example: France once restricted customs clearance of Japanese VCRs to one small custom post, causing month’s long tie-ups. Japan retaliated by issuing a “health” regulation that Perrier water had to be boiled.
Notably, at the height of US-Japan trade disputes in the 1980s, the military-strategic relation was never impaired or disrupted. China, and particularly the Beijing regime, however, do not follow this protocol.
Astute observers will notice that there is a noticeable correlation between the diminishing of US and Allied pressure on China in key areas like trade, currency manipulation, intellectual property theft, state-sponsored hacking, human rights, and the flaring up of strategic issues like North Korea, South China Sea, confrontations with Japan, etc.
Every one of these “crisis” have been used by the Beijing regime to make themselves indispensable, knowing that the priesthood of “China experts” in the US and allied regimes will back China up and cause the US to back down or sideline lower priority issues.
The priesthood of China experts has nowhere to go except Beijing, and cannot afford to appear to have no influence.
Beijing is happy (after intense negotiation and hard bargaining) strike deals that appear to meet key US and allied demands for the priesthood of China experts to deliver to Washington.
Beijing, in turn, can rely on the lack of consequences from the US when they fail to deliver on their commitments, or to only deliver for a brief period (to make it look good), and then renege, confident that Washington will have lost interest or focus on the issue.
With rapid turnover of Administration staff and the revolving door to and from K-Street lobbying firms, Beijing can count on whoever playing “hardball” with them on one issue to be needing to be on Beijing’s payroll, either directly or indirectly for US firms that have interest in China in due course.
At the same time, Beijing can by diktat, in the short and medium run, threaten US economic interests with highly visible moves that impact iPhone sales, Boeing, American automakers, agricultural imports, or the old trick of limiting or encouraging mass diversions of Chinese tourists and students studying abroad. Indeed, this explicit threat was made along with President Xi’s call to President Elect Trump.
It is in this context that President Xi’s advocacy for “Free Trade” at the APEC meeting has to be understood.
Xi’s Beijing regime wants “free trade” where OECD nations that have a bona fide, legitimate monopoly of power to open their markets to Chinese products under the existing regime.
However, there can be no expectation of reciprocity or expectations of fair dealing by the local Chinese authorities to foreigners whose governments negotiated the deal with Beijing.
Post “deal”, the regime in Beijing that have little interest, let alone power to enforce terms Beijing agreed to, and is happy to use the traditional tactics of bureaucratic delay, obfuscation, and use of formal dispute settlement mechanisms to stall as long as possible — while other pressing issues move up the agenda.
Demands on Beijing to honor deals can be frustrated in any number of ways, ranging from “the next strategic crisis”, to the facility with which Beijing can carry out “barbarian management” operations.
Chinese diplomats are competent at calculating the impact of their actions on particular constituencies; estimate their impact on particular legislators in Congress or Administration officials, as any lobbyists.
They have watched how their counterparts from Taiwan played Congress and the Executive Branch, and lobby State Governors and state houses over the decades, and have adopted the same tactics.
While there are extensive efforts to coordinate foreign policy between US and Allies, there is far less coordination in economic policy beyond macro issues (e.g. currency valuations, trade balances, etc.) toward China.
This opening is exploited by Chinese by salami slicing.
Slicing and dicing US and allied interests has been effective because the US and the closest allies do not speak with one voice.
There is no economic and trade equivalent to NATO, and in particularly no equivalent to Article 5 in dealing with Beijing when the regime target a particular OECD nation.
China routinely successfully mount retaliatory moves against key US allies. For example, punishing the UK by diverting business to EU for meeting with the Dailai Lama knowing that no EU member or the US backed UK on a minor issue by standing united. Or disrupting Japanese interests by singling them out for persecution.
Similarly, when US firms are targeted for a shakedown like Qualcomm for “anti-competitive” practices, there was no action of consequence from the Obama Administration beyond verbally raising the issue, let alone efforts to form a united front of western interests and tit-for-tat retaliation.
President Xi goal toward the Trump Administration is status quo ante.
Xi knows how to exploit the present system that makes US and allied foreign policy ineffective except for the biggest issues between Beijing and Washington such as preventing all-out Nuclear War, or enabling perfunctory access to the Chinese market for western interests.
In order to be effective in reform, President Trump will have to secure a consensus within OECD to develop a common policy toward the tactics routinely used by Beijing and be willing to use the leverage.
Beyond that, China must face immediate, measurable, quantifiable consequences for their behavior targeted at not just Beijing, but the local Chinese interests most concerned with the issue and most able to influence behavior.
This is not statecraft in the western sense. But it is statecraft nevertheless.
Danny Lam is an independent analyst based in Calgary.
Editor’s Note: Danny Lam is one of the VERY few foreigners who called the Trump election months before it happened.
Indeed, three weeks before the election, he sent a forecast to us with regard to the electorcal colleage vote for Trump, which was, it would turn out to be, exactly right.