Beware the Ides of March. President Trump has indicated that he will defer his promised hike in tariffs on Chinese products to 25 percent until March 1. Stocks promptly went up. ‘If all goes well,’ Trump said on Sunday, ‘we’re going to have some very big news over the next week or two.’
What’s the big deal? Trump, who fashions himself a wheeler-dealer par excellence, is claiming that he, and he alone, can reach the great compact with Beijing that will put an end to its predatory trading practices. China, which continues to smart over the humiliations inflicted upon it by the western powers, including America, during the nineteenth century, has essentially flipped the script, at least if you listen to the hawks around Trump and in the media.
Unlike many of his policies, Trump’s eagerness to lock horns with China has met with some degree of approbation in the foreign policy establishment. China is widely seen in DC as a rising, revisionist power à la Wilhelmine Germany.
A dissenting voice was recently featured in Harper’s magazine. In a cover story entitled ‘What China Threat?’, the distinguished Singaporean scholar Kishore Mahbubani says the fears of a militant China are bogus. He argues, for example, that it has not run roughshod over the claims of countries such as Vietnam or the Philippines. Peaceful coexistence, in other words, is possible. Why create a self-fulfilling prophecy of war with Beijing?
Trump, who is clearly thirsting for a Nobel Prize, seems to be jettisoning the bellicose talk that defined his early presidency. He is not only negotiating with China, but also meeting with Kim Jong-un in Hanoi this week. Trump’s advisers are apparently terrified that he will give unilateral concessions to Pyongyang, while others fret that he will reach a deal with China which merely papers over the real disagreements between it and Washington. But whatever happens in Asia is unlikely to alter his presidency fundamentally. The real threat to Trump will come on Wednesday when his former personal lawyer Michael Cohen testifies before Congress about the ignoble things he did for the fellow who craves a Nobel.