Beijing lays down line in checking Trump

Editorial | Mary Ma 3 Jun 2019

Beijing has released its first official document on the trade war with the United States. Although it's known as a White Paper, it's hardly a declaration of war against Washington - despite a surge in nationalism at home.

The document essentially consists of several points: one, US President Donald Trump is to blame for starting the trade war, not China; two, the Trump administration is untrustworthy, not Beijing; third, the Chinese government still wants the talks to continue, but only on a sincere basis.

It's clearly an improvement from the state media's patriotic tone that has fanned nationalistic feelings across the country. Rhetoric such as the Chinese state-controlled system being superior to the Mediterranean culture of the West could only be counterproductive, hollow and meaningless.

As both sides raise the ante, the Sino-US trade war would most unlikely end in the near future. It would be kind of lucky if Trump and President Xi Jinping meets one on one at the G20 summit in Osaka this month.

As vice commerce minister Wang Shouwen spoke in Beijing at a press conference, it was clear that a Xi-Trump summit on the G20 sidelines has yet to be finalized. Wang wouldn't even confirm whether Xi will be going, saying only that China would send representatives to the event.

If the meeting isn't going to be held as expected, then Beijing may well be prepared for a drawn-out conflict.

China could be betting that Trump's re-election bid would wane in a no-deal scenario, hoping to force the "untrustworthy" president either to lower his demands, or face a probable break-up in his re-election campaign. That wait-and-see tactic is a huge gamble.

Indeed, the whole trade war is a game of high-stakes poker, with one player waiting for just the opportune time to call the other's bluff.

There is at least one accusation in Beijing's white paper that Americans can't dispute - Trump is untrustworthy. His move to impose new tariffs on Mexico for not stopping immigrants entering the United States illegally was jaw-dropping, for it had just reached a trade treaty with its southern neighbor and lifting tariffs on steel imports.

What would America's trading allies think about the about-face? Would Canada, the European Union and Japan wonder in private whether the current US administration is prepared to abide by the treaty after all the negotiations?

Detractors of China say the mainland practices rule of law in name only, which might be a fair criticism. As far as the trade war is concerned, the Trump administration has been pursuing the disputable practice similarly, invoking emergency presidential powers to impose sanctions to his liking.

Former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg said those emergency powers weren't meant to be used in that manner when passed by Congress.

The problem with the United States is that the checks and balances embedded in the constitution is effectively paralyzed, allowing the nation's course of business to be controlled by a free-wheeling individual.

The situation will likely persist until effective checks and balances are restored.

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