Dear President Xi Jinping,
I hope this letter finds your excellency well. It has been a while since you last talked about a trade war with the United States. If I am not mistaken, that was in your keynote speech at the Boao Forum on April 9. Describing China as a “defender of free trade,” you carefully avoided sounding too provocative vis-a-vis U.S. President Donald Trump.
Although China is still one of the most-protectionist major economies, comments you made in response to Trump’s “America First” offensives, such as “China’s door of opening up will not be closed and will only open wider,” alleviated the markets’ pessimism over the future of international trade.
Nonetheless, the trade war broke out on July 6. The U.S. provoked China and then it retaliated. Last week Trump even stated that he was ready to put tariffs on up to all $505 billion of Chinese imports. It is almost a duel, isn’t it? Why have you been so silent about Trump’s outrageous offensive against the proud Chinese nation?
You must be leaving by now for Beidaihe District, the famous summer resort for the party leaders. The temperature in Tokyo has been over 40 degrees Celsius but it could be politically hotter for you in Beidaihe, since your party comrades may find you (and your men) responsible for the deteriorating Sino-U.S. relationship.
As you remember, two days before the trade war erupted, your giant poster in Shanghai was defaced with black ink. Five days later, rumors spread in Tokyo and elsewhere outside China that the party’s elder leaders criticized you for being dictatorial or that your trusted foreign policy advisers had been ousted.
Although a majority of China watchers in Japan think you have successfully concentrated power and secured a third term of your presidency, some pundits in Tokyo agree with your potential opponents that it was your “unnecessary provocations” that has invited Washington’s endless trade war against China.
You have my full sympathy in this debate. You didn’t provoke Trump. On the contrary, you have been very prudent in dealing with him. You didn’t monopolize political power because you wanted to be a dictator. You just wanted to make your dream of “making China great again” come true.
Seen objectively from Tokyo, it was the United States that reversed its traditional “engage and deter” policy for China. Putting Trump’s almost laughable justification for tariff imposition aside, now the U.S. government, whether in the interagency or on Capitol Hill, has never been more united against China since 1972.
Last week, FBI Director Christopher Wray referred to “the China threat” in an interview at the 2018 Aspen Security Forum in Colorado. He said, “China is trying to position itself as the sole dominant superpower, sole dominant economic power,” and “They’re trying to replace the United States in that role.”
The FBI director also stated that China’s aggressive intelligence gathering efforts is “a long-term game that is focused on just about every industry, every quarter of society.” He said, “It covers everything from corn seeds in Iowa to wind turbines in Massachusetts and everything in between.”
You, of course, know that what alarmed those in the U.S. government most was, ironically, your new policy of “Made in China 2025.” In the 10-year plan, you put special emphasis on the promotion of breakthroughs in the following 10 strategically important key sectors:
1. Information technology, including a “cyber power” capability, investment in semiconductors or acquisitions of international technology companies
2. Numerical control tools and robotics, including those devices to increase productivity
3. Aerospace equipment, including satellite technology and its indigenously developed passenger jet aircraft
4. Ocean engineering equipment and high-tech ships, including those related to infrastructure in the South China Sea
5. Railway equipment, including through competitive infrastructure projects in the “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR) initiative
6. Energy saving and new-energy vehicles, including a priority on clean air in the cities with Chinese-made cars
7. Power equipment, with a priority on energy efficiency, smart-grid and smart-city technology
8. New materials, including inventing and commercializing new indigenously developed materials
9. Medicine and medical devices, with a priority on Chinese-invented manufacturing and exports
10. Agricultural machinery, with a priority on enhancing efficiency and creating a platform for exports
All those sectors are indispensable. They will not only give China an economic advantage over American manufacturers but could also determine the future of strategic power balance between the U.S. and China. Your dreams seem to be coming true. That’s why Americans have become so strategically serious again.
Back in Colorado, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats echoed the FBI chief by stating that China is seeking to be a global power and is spreading its influence through its OBOR economic development program, and through expansion in the South China Sea. If I were you, I would take Coats’ words very seriously.
The biggest mistake Japan made in 1941 was to underestimate the resoluteness of the Americans. In the late 1930s, Tokyo predicted that the U.S. would continue to be weak and divided. We thought that Washington was chaotic and would never be unified. And then we started treading on a lion’s tail.
Will you continue to keep silent on the trade war? Or can you take the initiative and start pursuing an exit from this mad trade game of chicken? If you keep your mouth shut, the trade war goes on, but you won’t be politically hurt in Beidaihe. You may even win another round of domestic political battles by silencing your potential opponents.
If you break the silence, however, and start making concessions with Trump without China losing face in public, you can stop this endless and suicidal game. The lesson Tokyo learned in 1945 is that you cannot always win by fighting, but you can win by avoiding a fight. Ultimately, it is your choice.
Kuni Miyake is president of the Foreign Policy Institute and research director at Canon Institute for Global Studies.