A long-form NYT article by Chris Buckley and Keith Bradsher somehow fails to convince, in the sense that it makes it out that Xi backtracked. If Xi and his emissary took the deal to near-completion, the motivation for him backing out (‘last minute switch’) is not well laid out. That is the article’s major weakness. Therefore, it is quite likely that the truth might lie elsewhere.
That is what Nikkei Asia Review articles have been trying to establish. I had already blogged on one of them earlier. Frankly, I found those articles more interesting and insightful than the one by these two gentlemen. The second article I read in NAR points out that Xi’ colleagues rejected an ‘unequal’ deal. Indeed, the article clearly exposes the lie that Trump was always desperate to do a deal. In fact, a deal was as much in Xi’ interest as it was in Trump’s interest, if not more. But, China’s nationalism and mistaken aggression trumped (pun intended) Xi’s intentions to settle the trade dispute.
Perhaps, it was Xi or his Communist Party or both believe that China’s moment under the sun cannot be denied. In fact, Chris Buckley and Keith Bradsher point out how China’s strident aggression against South Korea backfired:
Mr. Xi’s strategy of engaging in a war of words against other countries has often overreached. In a dispute with South Korea over Seoul’s decision to let the United States deploy an antimissile system, China struck a hard line against the country — only to find itself a year later in a losing position with limited options.
It does look like, however, that Xi is far less in control than is commonly accepted. After all, during this recent Washington trip, his Trade emissary was no longer called Xi’s ‘Special Representative’.
A friend wrote that something similar happened in 2014 during his visit to India:
There were unmistakable signs that his views were not going down well with the foreign policy bureaucracy, or with the think tanks dealing with India. His sin: to call for a settlement of border dispute with India at an early date. The Chinese have taken the position since at least the 1980’s that it would take long to find a solution.
Another thing that stood out: he did not know that his Army was intruding into Indian territory even as he was launching his talks with our Prime Minister. He has made large-scale changes in the structure of the PLA, and has tried to make the other Arms less unequal vis-a-vis the Army, but as late as 2017, the problems had not gone away.
Even the ‘Belt and Road’ initiative was less about a grand strategy but more a series of attempts by local governments and their enterprises to drum up businesses for themselves:
Those who defend the Belt and Road against the charge of debt-trap diplomacy are technically correct. But those same defenders also tend to portray the lack of competitive tenders and over-reliance on Chinese construction companies in Belt and Road projects as “problems” that detract from the initiative’s promise. They miss the central role of the SOE infrastructure-complex interest group in driving the Belt and Road. Structures that funnel projects funded by state banks to Chinese SOEs aren’t “problems” from China’s perspective–they are the whole point. [Link]
In other words, according to Andrew Batson, there is no strategy to trap partner countries in debt through diplomacy. All that Xi did, according to him, was to:
The fact that this model was dubbed the “Belt and Road Initiative” and turned into a national grand strategy by Xi Jinping effectively gave the SOE infrastructure complex carte blanche to pursue whatever projects they can get away with. These projects were no longer just money-makers for SOEs, but became a way to advance China’s national grand strategy–thereby immunizing them from criticism and scrutiny. [Link]
Whether or not there is a grand strategy to trap countries in debt, that is the result and that is how I would interpret critics of the OBOR project like Brahama Chellaney.
Anyway, that is a digression. But, the key is that Xi may have projected himself China’s strongman and may have anointed himself the core and also removed term limits on himself but he may not be fully in control. That is what may have torpedoed the US-China trade deal.
Postscript: It is not going to be easy for the United States to win this cold war compared to the earlier one. As Andrew Batson points out, for political rivals, China and the United States are far more economically integrated than they should be. In my view, that is a consequence of a huge strategic miscalculation on the part of America and of the capture of American elites by China.