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Rosenblum writes: "Whether Donald Trump slips into history as a bitter laugh line or weasels his way into a second term, his ham-handed hubris toward China has done more to change the shape of global geopolitics than the rise and fall of Adolf Hitler's Third Reich."

President Donald Trump with China's President Xi Jinping and members of their official delegations during their bilateral meeting at the G20 Summit in Buenos Aires, Argentina. (photo: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)
President Donald Trump with China's President Xi Jinping and members of their official delegations during their bilateral meeting at the G20 Summit in Buenos Aires, Argentina. (photo: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

Saint Donald and the Dragon

By Mort Rosenblum, Reader Supported News

27 June 20

hether Donald Trump slips into history as a bitter laugh line or weasels his way into a second term, his ham-handed hubris toward China has done more to change the shape of global geopolitics than the rise and fall of Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich.

Trump lost face in China by alternately bullying and fawning over Xi Jinping in full public view. That turned an essential ally in confronting global crises into a wary, hostile adversary bent on muscling aside the United States for world supremacy.

Previous American policy, engagement, was a discreet minuet. Both partners took intricate steps at arm’s length. Trump’s approach was estrangement. He berated China in public for dirty dealing, declared a trade war. Yet when it suited his needs, he shifted to abject flattery.

As Trump charges, China steals intellectual property, knocks off American products, and infringes on copyrights. But his tariffs and taunts have reversed decades of progress toward a common accord. Now scapegoating China for his failure to contain Covid-19 provokes unmarked anger.

Trump repeats a one-word sneer, “Gina,” and talks of “kung flu.” Republicans follow his lead. In a crucial race in Arizona, Sen. Martha McSally’s ads berate “those communists.” She says her favored opponent has “Chinese investments.” So do most Americans with mutual funds.

Republicans slur Joe Biden as being close to China. Democrats explain why a lifelong statesman steeped in history knows better than to jab sticks at a dragon that is waking from a long sleep, eating our lunch, and getting hungry again an hour later.

China is fortifying its nuclear arsenal and deep-water fleet. It patrols vital sea lanes in the South China Sea, plants its flag from the ocean floor to the dark side of the moon, and bribes its way into poor states across the world for strategic materials, markets, and U.N. votes.

Badly in need of the West, China is open to quiet diplomacy if both sides can claim victory. But Xi, leader for life in a society that thinks in millennia rather than four-year terms, is in no hurry. The Middle Kingdom can endure setbacks and lasting pain in pursuit of global domination.

The past matters in China, which suffered a century of humiliation under European and Japanese occupation after so many successive emperors kept foreign barbarians at bay. When Japan was finally driven out in 1945, two opposing factions fought for control.

America spent heavily to pick up the pieces of World War II. It helped forge a United Nations and championed democracy in a postwar world. But it backed the wrong side in China. Mao Zedong took a sharp left turn and slammed the door.

The world knew little of the famine that took at least 30 million lives — perhaps up to 55 million — in the early 1960s. Reuters was later allowed in briefly, but Red Guards expelled its correspondent in 1969 after holding him captive 777 days. At one point, they tortured his cat to death in front of him.

Reporters saw China through the looking glass from Hong Kong, interviewing diplomats and travelers to amplify guesswork about who stood where in ceremonial photos.

Early in 1971, I bumped into F. Tillman Durdin, a dour New York Times Asian hand who didn’t smile much. He grinned like a Cheshire cat as he fluttered a telegram at me as if it announced he had won the Irish Sweepstakes. It was better. “This,” he said, “is my China visa.”

After a hint from China, Henry Kissinger flew secretly to Peking. Richard Nixon followed with reporters in tow. James Reston’s analysis in the Times is still fresh today: “China’s attitude and tactics toward the United States are obviously changing, but her strategy and principles remain the same.”

Trump missed that message. John Bolton’s new book says he pleaded with Xi to help him win a second term, offering favorable trade terms in exchange. He praised ethnic cleansing and brutal concentration camps for a million Muslims in Xinjiang.

Xi concluded the obvious. American moralizing about democratic principles, press freedom, and the rest is cynical hypocrisy. Trump — malleable, self-obsessed, and ignorant of global realities — is far more paper than tiger.

Young Americans now face the prospect of a Chinese-accented world in which governments can be blatantly corrupt, free expression is muzzled, and individuals are punished for resisting the party line. China wants resources and subservience. Human rights are not part of the picture.

Bob Dylan, reflecting on generational change in a New York Times interview, observed: “We have a tendency to live in the past, but that’s only us. Youngsters … have no past, so all they know is what they see and hear, and they’ll believe anything.… That’s going to be the reality.” Our schools should be teaching Mandarin.

Few young people grasp China’s sense of manifest destiny. Armed conflict, if unlikely, is a grim prospect. A nuclear exchange would devastate both sides. Assault by sea is iffy. A few Covid-19 cases put a U.S. aircraft carrier out of service. Wars are won or lost on the ground.

In the Korean War, which broke out 70 years ago on June 25, 120,000 Chinese troops overran U.S. Marines and soldiers. By the armistice in 1953, China had deployed nearly 3 million men.

“Ripley’s Believe It or Not!” once noted an old calculation when China had 600 million inhabitants. If they marched four abreast at military pace, they would never stop coming. Newborns would grow up and join the ranks. China’s population is now 1.4 billion.

Mao’s old People’s Liberation Army is two-million strong, the world’s largest, nearly twice the total of American armed forces. And it is aggressively on the move.

Chinese and Indian troops clashed on June 15 along the disputed Himalayan frontier, where India is building a north-south road for trade between the world’s two most populous nations. In a tense new atmosphere, each side has amassed thousands of troops.

Chinese soldiers with nail-studded clubs and rocks killed at least 20 Indians, wounding many more. Beijing said little about the skirmish but admitted that a senior commander died. Any escalation would likely involve tanks and heavy artillery.

Narendra Modi last year imposed tight controls in Kashmir, pushing against Pakistani positions. Emboldened by a $3.5 billion U.S. arms deal and Trump’s warm embrace, he is raising the heat. China backs Pakistan, where it is planning a naval base. India’s fury at China for the June attack compounds simmering enmity against Pakistan. Each of the old foes has nukes; a showdown would risk involving the United States and China.

In the South China Sea, U.S. warships challenge Xi’s right to restrict traffic to Asia and the Pacific. Near collisions have almost sparked hostilities. Diplomacy has protected Taiwan’s independence since 1949. But Xi abruptly took over Hong Kong despite China’s pledge to keep it autonomous until 2047. Today, anything can happen.

As Trump cuts aid to African countries, China moves in fast. Its ships are back again on the East African coast, which a Chinese fleet briefly colonized 500 years ago. A French Foreign Legion outpost was alone in the sleepy port of Djibouti until 9/11 when Americans built Camp Lemonnier as an African foothold. Now a PLA naval base effectively controls entry to the port.

Economic setbacks have delayed Xi’s multi-trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative involving 70 countries, but a new trade route retraces Marco Polo’s steps back to Italy. The old Silk Road links China to the Middle East and Asia Minor. For the rest, China can wait.

China tried to hide the coronavirus outbreak, but U.S. intelligence warned of it in December. By mid-January, courageous Chinese doctors, defying orders, spread the word. Correspondents converged on Wuhan for detailed accounts of the mysterious pathogen. The WHO and other governments worked urgently to contain it. World markets were shaken.

This was hardly a time to return to the 1960s with American reporters peering through opaque windows while Chinese state media show its own self-portrait to the world. Xi seized the moment.

After a March op-ed headline in The Wall Street Journal called China the sick weak man of Asia, China expelled the paper’s three reporters. When Pompeo responded harshly, China added The New York Times, The Washington Post, and others. Real dictators are better at tit-for-tat than aspiring ones.

In January and February, wrapping up a trade deal, Trump praised China’s transparency and effective action in curbing the virus. In March, when it ran wild in America because of his own inaction, Trump laid the blame squarely on China and the WHO. Hanger-on Republicans ignored indisputable facts to echo his distortions.

Xi joined world leaders to confront the pandemic. He gave $2 billion to WHO, four times the annual dues that Trump withheld. World leaders see plainly who is at fault. The European Union now bans visitors from the United States. Chinese are welcomed with open arms.

By turning his back on the world, Trump leaves it wide open to China. And as an ancient Middle Kingdom epigram puts it, a careful foot can step anywhere.

Mort Rosenblum has reported from seven continents as Associated Press special correspondent, edited the International Herald Tribune in Paris, and written 14 books on subjects ranging from global geopolitics to chocolate. He now runs

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