Dealing with China: Where Trump Is Right

Are we allowed to praise the U.S. president? In the case of Chinese diplomacy, we actually have to. We are dangerously naïve in our own relations with China. There is hardly any population with a more nationalist attitude than the Chinese.

Maybe we’ll have to be grateful to Donald Trump one day. It sounds horrible to say something like that, I know. Every reasonable person thinks that their hand will wither just from writing such a sentence. Whatever Trump says or does is either very simpleminded or terrifyingly sinister.

I’m also not writing this because I think that a German journalist, at the very least, should intervene on the president’s behalf, even if only to be sportsmanlike. This is a rare case when everyone is in agreement, because the majority is right.

But nonetheless: even the idiot can be right about something, even if by accident. This something may possibly be Trump’s China policy.

For unknown reasons, we in Germany look very favorably upon China. My colleague René Pfister recently described very nicely, in the context of a trip to Beijing by Chancellor Angela Merkel, how mild and understanding the chancellor is when speaking about the Chinese president, which is somewhat surprising when considering how harshly and unforgivingly she judges Vladimir Putin.

Compared with China, Russia is a friendly autocracy. The parliament is elected every five years, at least in theory. There are even oppositional parties and somewhat free internet access. In contrast, in China one is happy to be so politically unobtrusive as to go unnoticed by higher-ups. Here, belonging to a religious group that requires its members to pray can be enough cause for one to disappear into a work camp for years.

But one hardly hears anything from German government representatives about how brutally the Chinese government deals with dissenters. Or why it would be better not to trust a government that considers respecting international agreements to be a sign of weakness.

I admit, I am biased when it comes to the Chinese. A few years ago, I made a state visit to Beijing and Shanghai with Germany’s then-President Horst Köhler. There was a state dinner on the first evening in which the entire delegation participated. Normally, at such an event, you make an effort to engage those sitting nearby in conversation. You exchange a couple of pleasantries and demonstrate an interest in the other country’s characteristics and its people. It’s a widespread convention called conversation.

I could’ve spared myself the effort of initiating contact, as was made clear over the course of the dinner. The speeches had hardly ended when my neighbors turned their backs on me and played around on their phones. Then, the meal was served, which meant that you had to make sure that you also got something to eat.

Finally, my conversation partners turned again to their smartphone screens. A glance at the other tables indicated that I shouldn’t take it personally. Interest in one’s neighbor, even if feigned, does not seem to be part of the manners that are taught in the Middle Kingdom.

Business Model of Friendly Ignorance

It wouldn’t matter at all to any of us how many Chinese behave toward the world, if the Chinese were not preparing to ascend to being a dominant world power. The only great power that is currently in position to match the Chinese is the United States. The Chinese government is masterly at nodding noncommittally when one points out how it is ignoring commonly agreed-upon rules – and then picking up exactly where it left off.

In the last 20 years, U.S. policies toward China have consisted primarily of politely reminding it that copyright and trade agreements are not something that only applies when it suits China. Trump is the first president that no longer accepts the Chinese business model of amiably ignoring the West’s wishes, and thus at least slows, even if he doesn’t stop, China’s ascent to the status of an uncontested superpower.

I believe that we are naïve when it comes to China and its interests. We in Germany cannot imagine an economy that subordinates everything to national interests because we stopped thinking in national categories years ago. If someone here says that Germany would do well to recall its own interests, it means that they are running roughshod over the idea of Europe.

Unheeded Warnings

Even in the case of companies with great strategic value for Germany, we hand over control without a second thought. Two years ago, there was a discussion about selling robot producer Kuka to the Chinese Midea Group. Robotics is a key technology that will only continue to become more significant as artificial intelligence marches triumphantly onward.

There were voices deserving of serious consideration that warned against agreeing to the sale. But the warnings echoed unheeded in the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs, then headed by Sigmar Gabriel. The last we heard of Kuka was that its long-standing CEO had been replaced.

For some reason, we aren’t offended by anything that the Chinese do. I suspect that it’s related to Chinese mannerisms. Asia is considered by us to be a place of profound wisdom and Buddhist contemplation. One often doesn’t recognize one’s mistakes until it’s too late.

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