Steak and Distractions

April 8, 2017

Trump and Xi Jinping just concluded two days of supposedly tough discussions at Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s Florida club where he goes to get away from the troubles of Washington. It’s unclear what exactly came out of the two days’ worth of meetings, but from press reports they allegedly discussed North Korea and the trade deficit, two items Trump had flagged as priorities. And as a delightful welcome around the time they were finishing dinner the first evening, Trump authorized US military strikes on a Syrian airbase in a stunning reversal of his “America First” policy that wasn’t supposed to include such actions. Putting aside whether the strikes were warranted in light of Assad’s horrific attack on his own people using illegal chemical weapons, much has been made about the timing and message that Trump was sending to his guest. Was the rapid reversal in Trump’s approach to Syria merely a reaction to the gruesome images of dying babies or was it also motivated by some bigger picture thinking about the kind of message he wants to send to Xi and others about the US’ future role in conflicts around the globe. It would be generous to think Trump truly understands the implications of his attack and actually has a plan for bringing the Syrian conflict to an end. I mean this was the man who told us throughout the election that he had a plan to defeat ISIS, but it was so good that he did not want to share it before he could implement. Upon taking office, we quickly learned that plan never existed.  It was a similar pattern with health care, though in a rare admission, Trump acknowledged in the midst of the health care debacle that it was “complicated”.  So here we are with Syria, a foreign policy quagmire that has gone on pretty much unabated for six years or so and we’d be naive to think that Trump has an actual plan to bring about a resolution to this seemingly intractable problem.  But I digress.

Back to the Xi-Trump meetings in Florida and the two of them enjoying their Dover sole and steak dinner as missiles were fired at a Syrian air base. It’s curious that this meeting, which was built up quite a bit in the press in spite of all of the other distractions facing Trump, turned out to fade quickly from the front pages of the news. And most of the stories about the meeting were in relation to the Syrian missile strike trying to understand how it would impact US-China relations. It’s clear the chemical weapons Assad used were inhumane and gruesome, but the reaction from a man who earlier in the week said getting rid of Assad was not a priority and as far back as 2013 advised Obama not to bomb Syria seems slightly off. Even attributing it to his unpredictability and penchant for chaos is not enough of an explanation. I think the attack was partially a response to Assad’s chemical attack, but I do think it was a way to both send a message to Xi that he could do the same in North Korea and more importantly (and perhaps a bit cynically), did it to boost his standing among those calling for a more robust response to Syria and already incredibly critical of Trump. Trump is a man who craves popularity and doesn’t particularly care from who he receives it. He is a man who attacks unfavorable polls as fake news precisely because he cares way too much about those polls.  So now with his popularity plummeting and the support he relied on not doing much to boost those numbers, he’s ready to try something to boost the top-line number so he doesn’t go down as the most unpopular president this early on in their tenure. Once again, I get distracted.

So where does that leave this meeting between the leaders of two of the most consequential countries on the planet. We got a pledge to do something within 100 days about the trade deficit, which is about as meaningful to long-term policy as China sending us another panda for the National Zoo. While cute and a good sound bite, it does nothing to constructively deal with the issues affecting relations between the two countries. We heard nothing about North Korea, human rights, Hong Kong, the South China Sea, climate change, or any of the other myriad issues that the countries could possibly work on. Perhaps Xi got a nice photo-op with the palm trees in the background and Trump showed a bit more respect for decorum as he greeted Xi, including an actual handshake, but no tangible progress was made in dealing with problems that are only going to grow in magnitude. I guess it’s not so much of a surprise when many senior roles related to Asia remain unfilled and even when Obama was operating at full capacity, he was unable to do much to move the dial when it came to China and Asia. Unfortunately Americans are not paying enough attention to this part of the world at a time when it’s ever more important that they do and we have a government woefully underprepared to give it the attention is needs and deserves.  It may take a crisis of epic proportions to get everyone to wake up and take the requisite notice, which could be more frightening than anything we’ve seen yet.

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Much has made of Trump’s shake-up of foreign policy norms even before he’s officially taken office, whether it’s connecting with Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen, having his daughter sit in on meetings with both Japanese PM Abe and Turkish President Edrogran, or launching misspelled Twitter rants in China’s direction.  I’ll be the first to admit that after Trump’s call with Tsai, I was somewhat elated that someone had recognized how impressive Taiwan’s efforts had been to create an open and democratic society in a little over 20 years.  For someone who has been an amateur Sinologist his entire life, I was also startled that I liked that the two had spoken.  I was startled because I, like many in the foreign policy establishment, had taken the official “One China” policy as a given for maintaining regional stability and had never contemplated challenging it in any sort of way for fear of what the consequences may be. Yet, with his phone call, Trump called China’s bluff and the world did not end.  However, I cannot give him credit for being any sort of visionary possessing a coherent world view or adherent to any discernible tenets of foreign policy.  I think it was purely accidental that this phone call started a dialogue about what the “One China” policy means and to what ends both sides will go to maintain a fiction that has served everyone well for nearly 30 years.  One only has to look at Trump’s subsequent actions to see that this seeming stroke of brilliance was not pre-meditated on his part (his staffers may be a different story) and does not reflect a President-elect with a strategy or plan for advancing U.S. interests abroad.  His follow-up tweets and interview on Fox News that he could use Taiwan as a bargaining chip to extract concessions on trade from China demonstrate that he understands nothing about U.S. – China relations and Taiwan’s place in the middle of that power dynamic, but merely took a phone call from someone congratulating him on and inflating his ego for winning the election.

Where does that leave U.S. – China relations when Trump assumes office next month?  If we try to extrapolate the type of foreign policy he and his team are going to conduct once in office, it might be instructive to examine his reaction to China’s seizure of an underwater drone off the coast of the Philippines.  Upon hearing about the incident, he blasted out a tweet calling the act “unpresidented” and once it had been settled that China would return the drone, he then tweeted to “[l]et them keep it!”  While there is seemingly not much to go on here, the worrisome takeaway from all of Trump’s commentary on U.S. – China relations, commentary being a generous word to use to describe his tweeting, is that the man does not have a clue as to what he’s doing and the people surrounding him are encouraging this no-nothing behavior.  At worst, Trump and his team believe unpredictably poking China like a third-grader to provoke a reaction is the best approach to calibrating U.S. – China relations and advancing his “America First” agenda.  This approach completely ignores the nuances of U.S. – China relations and the search for common ground on issues like climate change and North Korea that the Obama administration worked so hard to achieve.  While U.S. – China relations are anything but easy or predictable, it is one of the most important bilateral relationships in the global order and will only continue to become more so as China continues to rise and the U.S. seeks to maintain its influence in the Asia-Pacific.

I have argued here before and perhaps now believe it even more, but the U.S. needs a new grand strategy when it comes to the Asia-Pacific region.  Recent history shows us to be reactionary throughout the region, whether it’s stationing more U.S. troops in Darwin or carrying out more multilateral military exercises to respond to a rising China or slapping even more punishing sanctions on North Korea after their latest missile test.  Rather than reacting, we need to be proactive to create a regional architecture that promotes peace and prosperity in the region for everyone, including China.  Even the TPP, which would have gone a long way towards laying one part of the foundation for such an architecture, was flawed in that it kept China outside.  The U.S. decision to remain outside of the AIIB was another such decision that was more a reaction to China having created the institution rather than actually thinking about what the U.S. could do to shape it as a founding member.  Unfortunately, we now have a President and his attendant team taking power that barely knows the meaning of the word strategy when it comes to foreign affairs, let alone something that requires more forethought and nuance like a grand strategy for the Asia-Pacific region.

My apologies for being offline the the past three weeks, but I was back in the States for Chinese New Year to see family and friends, as well as take care of some work over there and just returned to Asia this past Monday where I’ve been busy working and setting up my new home in Hong Kong.  So it’s fitting that I am sitting at my beloved Starbucks in the Garden City Mall in Shenzhen about an hour or so before I am due to move out of my room here and bring all of my worldly possessions to Hong Kong, meaning all four suitcases-worth.

Heading home for any extended period of time and then returning to China means that I have some room to process all that’s happened during the time I’ve been here, as well as answer questions from family and friends about what they might have seen or heard about China in the news.  The two topics dominating any conversations I had about China were either the stock market and economy or the continued crackdown on political and civil liberties, including the ongoing case of the missing Hong Kong booksellers.

Having some space from China, I still feel that this is a country heading in the wrong direction at the moment.  It’s not that it can’t or won’t turn itself around, but almost daily there is another news headline that makes me shake my head and wonder what’s really going on here.  The latest was President Xi’s visit to the country’s major news and media organizations in China explicitly telling them to act as a mouthpiece for the party.  This new policy is another attempt to exert greater control over another aspect of Chinese society that has the potential to create social instability.  However, like many previous moves, this one smacks of insecurity and coming at a time when there are questions around China’s ability to manage its economy, it’s clear this is another attempt to mask potential problems that may exist in the system.  If these problems somehow were brought to light, there is a real fear that people would not be happy and social unrest could erupt.  Definitely not a move of a leader in control of his country.

Beyond that, I have been thinking more about Hong Kong, Shenzhen, and other cities that see themselves as other in the context of Greater China.  Hong Kong is probably the most salient example of this trend in light of protests over the years against certain actions taken or policies put forth by the mainland.  The largest of recent memory being the Umbrella Revolution in the fall of 2014 triggered by Beijing shifting the goalposts on universal suffrage for Hong Kong’s Chief Executive.  The alleged kidnapping of the booksellers has only added accelerated this feeling of “other-ness” that seems to run deep among Hong Kongers.  However, more interesting and something that only really hit me this morning as I was being driven around Shenzhen in an area known as the Hi-Tech Park where some of Chinas biggest tech companies have their offices including Tencent, ZTE, and DJI. I saw all these twenty-something tech workers running to work and the scene could have just as easily been one from Silicon Valley.  Shenzhen is a city trying to build its future on technology and finance as it firmly sheds its industrial past.  More interesting is the fact that very few people in Shenzhen are actually from Shenzhen, so the city does not have to hew closely to a long-established culture.  Many people (mainly foreigners visiting or living here, including myself at times) bemoan the lack of a deep-rooted culture.  But my riding partner that morning who has lived here for quite some time even though she is not from here framed this lack of a deep-rooted culture in a positive way that I had not considered before.  She claimed that this lack of culture meant that the city was building something new from the ground up, which made Shenzhen much more open than any other Chinese city that is hemmed in by its past.  You can see it in all the new skyscrapers, shiny shopping malls, and tech companies pushing the Chinese innovation storyline.  But I had not thought about it in terms of what it means for a city and its outlook, as well as its place in the national narrative.  The conversation was sparked by my question about whether Shenzhen was different than other parts of China and upon receiving an emphatic “yes”, I followed up and was presented with this theory.  If Shenzhen can perhaps be added to the “other” category because of its short history, lack of a strong local culture, and welcoming people from all over China with easy access to Hong Kong, I wonder what this means for the future of the city and more importantly, China as perhaps other cities begin to see themselves as different than the rest of the country, which would be a rather backhanded way of unravelling the social cohesion that President Xi working so hard to maintain.  Something to be explored further in another post, but wanted to get it out there because it’s something I feel like I am going to be thinking about for quite some time.  But now I must finish packing and make my way back to Hong Kong.

I’m giving some solidarity with my snowbound friends and family on the East Coast of the US right now as they get hit with their first major snowstorm of the year.  While there isn’t any snow here in Shenzhen, it’s damn cold.  We’re experiencing a polar vortex of our own with temperatures hitting record lows.  It’s 45 degrees in Shenzhen and it feels even colder because most homes don’t have heat and even with heat, they are built without any real insulation since it’s normally warm and humid.  Add the humidity factor into it and it feels even colder because it’s that raw, wet cold that gets into your bones.  I am sitting here at . . . where else?  . . . Starbucks in the mall in my winter parka and wool beanie because someone had the bright idea to leave the front doors of the mall open even though it’s freezing outside.

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Freezing at the mall

Trying my best to type without gloves, but it’s not easy.

I’ve been meaning to write for the past couple of days, but the combination of work and Internet problems from being behind the Great Firewall have made it hard to sit down and do so.

You’ve probably noticed that the stock markets have had a wild week with most of the turbulence being traced back to the much-discussed slowdown of the Chinese economy.  The government reported it’s growth for 2015 of 6.9%, which while the envy of most other countries, was the slowest rate in 25 years.  It’s hard though to tie the gyrations of the market to just the slowdown of the Chinese economy.  That would completely leave out human nature and the irrational impulses of investors or perhaps the all the rational follow-the-herd mentality that often pervades markets.  A sell-off in one market is usually going to lead to a sell-off around the world, especially in this day and age when everything is so interconnected.  But I did not set out to turn this post into a lesson about markets, investing, or even the global macroeconomy.

China never ceases to amaze me in how screwed up and fascinating a place it can be, usually all in the same moment.  The five booksellers from Hong Kong are still missing, though two have kind of turned up.  One who was allegedly abducted from Thailand (and is a Swedish national) went on national television to confess to killing a young girl in a drunk driving incident in 2003 and the other, Lee Bo, who is a British national, is somewhere in Guangdong province, but no one knows exactly where or why.  It’s galling that nearly a month after Lee Bo went missing, we still do not know where he is. Worryingly, the Hong Kong government has asked the central government and Guangdong officials and all they could get out of them nearly three weeks after he went missing is that he is indeed on the mainland.  Chinese officials do not think that the HK government merits a detailed response and so the HK government and its people still remain in the dark about whether mainland law enforcement officials actually came down and abducted Lee Bo, as well as the other four missing men who are connected to this particular publishing house.  What’s more troubling is that the mainland allegedly took these men away because they did not like the content of the books these men were publishing, which tended to be gossipy take-downs of top mainland officials.  All of this adds up to some serious violations of “one country, two systems”, which was the policy that has undergirded the handover of HK from the British to the Chinese.  China has become more and more brazen about violating this policy and the Hong Kong people are truly powerless to stop it.  In the grander scheme of things, it unfortunately dovetails with a number of other moves on the mainland that reflect a central government still attempting to snuff out any sort of dissent.  From President Xi telling government officials that some questions should not be asked to the continued takedown of government officials on charges of corruption to the conducting off war exercises off the coast of Taiwan the other day, nearly a week after the election of Tsai Ing-wen, reflecting a Taiwanese electorate that increasingly sees itself as Taiwanese and not Chinese.  In one bizarre move last week, nearly 45,000 people, mostly from the mainland, criticized Tsai for her pro-independence stance.  It’s known the comments came from the mainland because they were using simplified Chinese characters versus Taiwan, which uses the traditional ones.  It’s bizarre because Facebook is still blocked on the mainland unless you have a VPN, so many suspect it was the work of government-enlisted individuals who were able to evade the Great Firewall to post on her page.  While some Taiwanese supporters pointed out this irony in reply comments, Tsai probably had the best post of all replying, “”The greatness of this country lies in how every single person can exercise their right to be himself or herself.” (“這個國家偉大的地方就在於每一個人都有做自己的權利”)

Tsai FacebookPretty brilliant reply to what was probably a coordinated mainland response seeking to rattle her so soon after being elected.

And that my friends is a bit of what went down this week that leaves me sitting here shaking my head wondering what’s next, but still insanely intrigued and fascinated by the things that happen in this country.  Stay tuned for more.