Donald Trump is leading a double life. In the west, most foreign policy experts see him as reckless, unpredictable and self-defeating. But though many in Asia dislike him as much as the Europeans do, they see him as a more substantial figure. I have just spent a week in Beijing talking to officials and intellectuals, many of whom are awed by his skill as a strategist and tactician. …
Few Chinese think that Mr Trump’s primary concern is to rebalance the bilateral trade deficit. If it were, they say, he would have aligned with the EU, Japan and Canada against China rather than scooping up America’s allies in his tariff dragnet. They think the US president’s goal is nothing less than remaking the global order.
They think Mr Trump feels he is presiding over the relative decline of his great nation. It is not that the current order does not benefit the US. The problem is that it benefits others more in relative terms. …
Once the order is destroyed, the Chinese elite believes, Mr Trump will move to stage two: renegotiating America’s relationship with other powers. Because the US is still the most powerful country in the world, it will be able to negotiate with other countries from a position of strength if it deals with them one at a time rather than through multilateral institutions that empower the weak at the expense of the strong.
My interlocutors say that Mr Trump is the US first president for more than 40 years to bash China on three fronts simultaneously: trade, military and ideology. They describe him as a master tactician, focusing on one issue at a time, and extracting as many concessions as he can.
They speak of the skilful way Mr Trump has treated President Xi Jinping. “Look at how he handled North Korea,” one says. “He got Xi Jinping to agree to UN sanctions [half a dozen] times, creating an economic stranglehold on the country. China almost turned North Korea into a sworn enemy of the country.” But they also see him as a strategist, willing to declare a truce in each area when there are no more concessions to be had, and then start again with a new front.
For the Chinese, even Mr Trump’s sycophantic press conference with Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, in Helsinki had a strategic purpose. They see it as Henry Kissinger in reverse. In 1972, the US nudged China off the Soviet axis in order to put pressure on its real rival, the Soviet Union. Today Mr Trump is reaching out to Russia in order to isolate China.
Trump is a businessman, with no prior experience in politics. Maybe the political class are really only good at being re-elected, and we should bring in more non-career politicians as our leaders?