It isn’t only Donald Trump: A long-term reframing of politics in Washington is hidden behind the current conflicts between the U.S. and China. The question is: Will the strategy be effective?
With his serial breaking of taboos, Trump is creating a distraction from the radical change in the United States of America. His scandalous tweets and staged disputes in front of rolling cameras sometimes push his administration’s long-term strategies completely into the background. The racket therefore almost drowns out U.S. engagement in a trial of strength with Beijing that is shifting the cornerstones of U.S. foreign policy.
On the very day when Trump and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, achieved an apparent rapprochement, the chief financial officer of tech giant Huawei was arrested in a Canadian airport at the request of U.S. authorities. The CFO is a leading manager of a mammoth corporation that has a reputation for closely cooperating with its own secret services. Huawei is said to have violated sanctions on Iran. It didn’t take long for an answer from Beijing. In the meantime, at least a second Canadian was taken into custody within a few days without any apparent reason.
At first sight, it may appear these are isolated incidents considering there are the first signs of a lessening in the trade conflict. In fact, however, leading circles in Washington – both Republicans and Democrats – are substantially involved in the controversy. The superpower feels threatened and is fighting for its special status.
It is not just the possible violation of sanctions against Iran or Xi’s ambitious “Made in China 2025” program that is providing discontent in the U.S. It is the fear of being thoroughly surpassed by China in the next decade – economically, technologically and, if nothing else, militarily.
The reorientation of U.S. foreign policy can be observed, among other things, in the dispute about the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. The Pentagon is not just concerned about the offenses of the Russian army, which has developed and deployed new medium-range missiles suitable for nuclear weapons. Washington is particularly concerned about the increasing number of Chinese medium-range missiles that do not fall under the INF Treaty because the 1987 treaty was only signed by the U.S. and Russia.
China’s multibillion dollar infrastructure projects in Asia, Africa and South America make it especially clear to the U.S. government: The “Middle Kingdom” apparently wants to live up to its time-honored name.
Under Xi’s supremacy, Chinese firms are trying to acquire key industries in the West that are intended to help China claim first place among economies. Even Frank-Walter Steinmeier agreed with this assessment a few days ago when he said during a state visit to Beijing that decisions on the international stage would soon only be made including China – and by no means against the aspiring power.
While Germany’s federal president sees a simply inevitable development, Washington does not want to stand on the sidelines of this process. Trump confidantes Robert Lighthizer, Peter Navarro and Wilbur Ross even take the view that various foreign policy decisions should be oriented to this rivalry alone. If the U.S. doesn’t stand its ground in this struggle, the global rules of the game will be written by China in the not-too-distant future.
An exaggerated notion? A nightmare scenario to maintain their own dominance? To be sure. Identical warnings of a conflict of systems were raised under Barack Obama's watch. The enormous empire that only opened itself to the world economy 40 years ago has a completely different notion of a “change through trade.”
Then, as now, U.S. leadership is issuing appeals directed at the Europeans. If nothing else, the new challenges require joint trans-Atlantic answers.