As the Sino-American trade war rages, and while anti-Trump statements are in full swing across the Atlantic, one can only be struck by the contradictory reactions of Chinese foreign policy experts.
Donald Trump is "a brilliant tactician" and the trade war "will continue", according to an analyst, highly critical of the line defended by the Beijing leadership, grounded in the "cult of personality", "Xi Jinping thought", and the concept of "Chinese renaissance". Among the elites, no one really criticizes the latter, but many are opposed to the sudden and open acceleration of China's global ambition. While Deng Xiaoping, the father of China’s open-door policy launched 40 years ago, recommended caution ("low profile") regarding the economy and especially foreign policy, his distant successor Xi Jinping has shamelessly displayed his determination to "put China back at the center" these past two years. He is ready to use all available means to do so, even if it involves provoking America and its allies. One remembers his Davos speech in January 2017, skillfully delivered a few days before the inauguration of the new U.S. President, or his report to the 19th Congress of the Communist Party of China last October. Just a year ago, Beijing analysts connected to the leadership could hardly conceal their joy as they witnessed the "decline of the West" after the election of businessman Donald Trump, the British referendum that led to the "lamentable" Brexit, and the weakening of Germany’s Angela Merkel.
"By imposing trade sanctions against China, Donald Trump is giving the communist leadership a hard time."
Today's reality is quite different, and Washington is speaking with almost one voice - for once - against China. The weight of the American military complex is obvious, but economic advisors Robert Lighthizer and Peter Navarro, who are increasingly listened to, also play a significant role. By imposing trade sanctions against China (the overall sanctions have now reached $100 billion, out of the $500 billion deficit in Sino-American trade), Donald Trump is giving the communist leadership a hard time. Throughout the Summer, senior party officials debated this unfavorable situation, including at the historic seaside resort of Beidaihe, where an important political meeting was held. Xu Zhangrun’s (a respected scholar from Tsinghua University) open critique spread on the web and revealed a rise in criticism targeting Xi Jinping's impetuous strategy. Moreover, for the past six months, Trump and his diplomatic team seemed like they were focusing on the North Korean issue - the only geopolitical issue with regards to which Beijing could really compete against Washington.
The trade war (a term the authorities try to avoid, even though the stock market already lost 24% of its value since the beginning of 2018) will most certainly hurt the American economy in the long term - perhaps even as much as the Chinese economy. But for Chinese leaders, the time is not right. "The media, experts, members of Congress... It's as if China's friends in Washington have become mute" according to a renowned Chinese political scientist, who predicts that the competition between the two countries will become increasingly fierce. In Beijing, people believe that Trump has already won, regardless of mediation attempts or even American electoral deadlines (Congress election this year, presidential elections in 2020). "Even if Democrats win the Congress, the current consensus is anti-Chinese" added the same source. In other words, it is not an epiphenomenon.
"As Trump's most China-skeptic advisors dominate, the Beijing leadership [...] might come to wonder if it still has any strong allies in the West"
In order to avoid an excessive impact, including on public opinion, Beijing constantly intervenes: it injects liquidity into the economy, depreciates its currency, the yuan, and seeks allies in Europe or Asia. Without much success it seems, according to the recent visit to China of Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad (who warned Beijing against a "new version of colonialism") or discussions at the EU-China summit in late July. The latter was not very fruitful from Beijing’s point of view, as China was hoping to open discussions on a bilateral investment treaty or even a – hardly credible – trade agreement. In Europe, concerns are increasing about trade deficits, Chinese investment in high-tech and infrastructure, or more generally China’s global rise. This is obviously of concern to the Chinese leadership, who considers a transatlantic rapprochement on these issues to be the worst-case scenario. As Trump's most China-skeptic advisors dominate, the Beijing leadership – so confident a few months ago after emphasizing its new and more assertive political line – might come to wonder if it still has any strong allies in the West. Or whether the hazards of the unpredictable American domestic policy will ultimately be favorable to China.