Author: Tom Phillips
Posted on: The Guardian, February 6th, 2017
A military conflict between the US and China would spell disaster for the world, the Communist party’s official mouthpiece has warned, in its first pronouncement on ties between the world’s two largest economies since Donald Trump moved into the White House.
“Were the United States and China to wage war on one another, the whole world would divide itself,” the People’s Daily newspaper argued in a commentary, paraphrasing Henry Kissinger, the veteran US diplomat whose secret mission to China led to the historic rapprochement between Richard Nixon and Mao Zedong in 1972.
Fears of a potentially calamitous trade war, or even a military clash between the two nuclear powers, have been building since Trump’s shock election win last November.
Trump repeatedly criticised China on the campaign trail and has continued to ruffle Chinese feathers since his unexpected victory, using television interviews and Twitter to challenge Beijing on issues including trade, Taiwan and the South China Sea.
Steve Bannon, Trump’s influential chief strategist, was last week reported to have warned last year that war between the US and China in the resource-rich waterway was inevitable.
Meanwhile, in a likely indication of the frictions between Washington and Beijing, Trump has yet to speak to his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, despite having held conversations with at least 18 world leaders since his inauguration.Beijing’s public reaction to Trump’s rise has so far been cautious, although state-run English-language newspapers have accused him of “playing with fire” by questioning longstanding US policy on Taiwan and one nationalist tabloid has warned of “large-scale war”.
Last month, the China’s foreign ministry urged the US president’s team to “speak and act cautiously” after the White House press secretary, Sean Spicer, vowed the US would foil Chinese efforts to “take over” the South China Sea.
In a diplomatically worded editorial published on page three of the People’s Daily domestic edition on Monday, the voice of the Communist party said both countries should strive to avoid confrontation, conflict, misunderstandings and miscalculations.
Differences of opinion were inevitable due to the historical, cultural, economic and social differences between the US and China, the article said, “but wise men should seek common ground”. The article was printed under the byline “Zhong Sheng”, a homonym for “Voice of China”.
The broadsheet noted that both countries’ leaders were waging high-profile campaigns to improve the lives of their citizens: Xi’s “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” and Trump’s battle to “make America great again”.
“China and the US share many common interests … and should roll up their sleeves in the spirit of pragmatism,” it suggested.
Evan Medeiros, Barack Obama’s former chief adviser on Asia, said Beijing’s initial response to Trump’s interventions on China policy had been carefully calibrated.
“The Chinese have not let themselves be bated … They understand that they are dealing with a different American leader who operates in different ways. They want to manage it carefully so it doesn’t needlessly escalate,” said Medeiros, who is now the managing director for Asia at the political risk consultancy Eurasia Group.
Medeiros said China’s leaders had at first seen Trump’s victory as a boon, wagering the property tycoon would not challenge it over human rights.
However, attitudes had shifted from nervousness about the US president’s erratic tweeting to resignation that the two countries were entering a “difficult period”. “The possibilities for an escalation of tensions are growing because distrust is high,” the article said
Susan Shirk, the head of the 21st Century China Centre at the University of California, San Diego, said China specialists were “flummoxed” at Trump’s apparent determination to take on Beijing and said such moves came at an unfortunate time.
President Xi will reach the midway point of his anticipated decade in power this autumn, a highly sensitive and symbolic moment that will be marked by the 19th Communist party Congress in Beijing.
With an intense period of political jockeying under way before the summit, Shirk said she feared that, in order to protect his domestic position, Xi might be tempted to push back strongly against what he would perceive as Trump’s attempts to humiliate him.
“As a person who sees a very strong connection between Chinese domestic politics and its foreign policy, I see the Trump statements as resonating through Chinese foreign policy in a way that could really be dangerous,” said Shirk, the author of China: Fragile Superpower
“It’s a pretty scary moment in American foreign policy as well as domestic policy. But with domestic policy I do feel there are more checks and balances. In foreign policy he can create a lot of chaos out of the White House,” Shirk added.