Superpower Showdown , a gripping and granular account of the past, present and future of the United States-China trade war by two former Beijing correspondents of The Wall Street Journal , could just as well have been titled Marriage Story .
“Think of this as a romance gone bad,” write Bob Davis and Lingling Wei, as they document in painstaking detail the souring of the U.S.-China relationship in the era of Donald Trump and Xi Jinping.
They tell the story of how a relationship that once seemed to be “wrapped in a permanent embrace” of economic interdependence — so much so that it came to be dubbed “Chimerica” by some and described by officials in Beijing as “an old married couple who needed each other, even if they might bicker” — has descended into outright confrontation, with huge implications not just for both countries, but for the world.
There are perhaps no two journalists better placed to tell this tale. Mr. Davis spent three years covering China’s economy at the WSJ ’s Beijing bureau, and subsequently moved to cover trade-related issues in Washington. Ms. Wei has been among the most well-informed reporters covering Chinese politics in Beijing for years, with the kind of access that eludes most foreign correspondents.
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How did it come to this? This is the question that drives the two writers. The strength of this book lies in the rich perspectives it offers from both Washington and Beijing, presenting a clear insight into the decision-making of both parties, and how, during the course of a turbulent two-year trade war, they came to so often completely misread the intentions of the other. The blame, the writers suggest, lies with both.
The book is rich with reporting full of insider details. Two episodes, in particular, stand out. In the autumn of 2012, shortly before his ascension to take over as the next leader of China’s Communist Party, then Vice President Xi Jinping famously went missing for two weeks. He cancelled meetings with visiting officials, including the Prime Minister of Singapore and the U.S. Secretary of State, at the last minute. The disappearance triggered feverish speculation among China-watchers, who were gripped that year by the political intrigue surrounding the purge of Bo Xilai, Xi’s rival.
The enduring mystery of Xi’s disappearance has a somewhat mundane explanation, the writers suggest. Xi retreated from Beijing with a group of close advisers to Zhuji, a small town on the Yangtze river in Zhejiang province, where he served as a provincial leader. Those two weeks would, however, end up being very significant in determining the future course of Chinese politics. Xi and his advisers came up with his “China Dream” campaign in Zhejiang, and deciding to make the “rejuvenation” of China their central agenda — heralding a turn towards nationalism.
Lessons for India
The book also sheds new light on the now famous April 2019 meeting of the Politburo Standing Committee, where China’s leaders did a u-turn on agreeing to a trade deal. The book says three of Xi’s fellow members took him by surprise by how vociferously they objected to the deal, which had been shepherded by Liu He, a close adviser of Xi’s. Third-ranked Li Zhanshu, head of China’s legislature, told Xi on key U.S. proposals to amend Chinese laws to protect foreign firms that “no country has the right to tell China what laws it must amend.” Top party ideologue Wang Huning and vice premier Han Zheng were other strong voices in favour of tearing up the deal.
The book leaves us with four important lessons that may be of particular relevance for India as it looks to navigate what will continue to be a stormy U.S.-China relationship.
Firstly, the lesson from the April 2019 Politburo meeting, in the authors’ view, is that as different as the two political systems are, “Chinese leaders still face constraints”. It tells us how Chinese decision-making works. Xi “couldn’t afford to be seen weak in dealing with the Americans.” He would end up relenting and taking a harder line on the deal to fend off criticism.
Secondly, should Trump remain in office post-November, the book offers many lessons in how U.S. decision-making works too in the Trump era. It gives Trump credit for taking on China and addressing structural concerns that previous administrations had ignored, but is unsparing in assessing his deficiencies. He “started the biggest trade war since the 1930s,” they wrote, “with only a superficial understanding of how China worked and without a specific goal in mind or plan to achieve success”. The trade deficit, they note, would only continue to grow on his watch.
His biggest failure would be his disdain for working with U.S. allies, one reason, they suggest, for his inability to achieve what he wanted on the China front. It doesn’t paint Trump’s team of advisers in a very favourable light, instead showing us a rather chaotic White House that operated without any strategic vision, instead lurching from decision to decision to appease the whims of its very distracted current occupant.
Thirdly, the book notes how the U.S. trade and technology war, that has certainly crippled the ambitions of Chinese tech giants from Huawei to ZTE, is spurring an even more ambitious Chinese move towards technological self-reliance. The “Anke project” (or to make China “secure and controllable”) is looking to purge Chinese government agencies, telecom firms and power-grids of all foreign software and hardware. Under its “352” rule, they will allocate 30% of all contracts to domestic providers in 2020, an additional 50% in 2020, and the remaining 20% in 2021. The great tech divide is here to stay.
And so is the U.S.-China divide. The book, finally, makes a strong case for why Trump may be a part of the reason for the end of the affair, but he “is not the entire answer.” The shift in U.S. attitudes towards China is much bigger than Trump. It is not only bipartisan, but most importantly, has now extended to many U.S. companies as well, who for long were happy to be Beijing’s most vocal lobbyists in Washington.
The trade and economic battle didn’t start with Trump, and the book tells us it certainly won’t end with him.
Superpower Showdown: How the Battle Between Trump and Xi Threatens a New Cold War ; Bob Davis & Lingling Wei, HarperCollins, ₹599.