Butterfly Effect: Tulsa's Empty Stands Will Embolden China - OZY | A Modern Media Company
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Trump's domestic weakness is feeding into Beijing's assertive expansionism.

Charu Sudan Kasturi

Charu Sudan Kasturi

OZY Senior Editor Charu Sudan Kasturi's column, "Butterfly Effect," connects the dots on seemingly unrelated global headlines, highlighting what could happen next and who is likely to be impacted.

This was supposed to be China’s moment of weakness. Its economy is expected to shrink for the first time in more than four decades. Its opacity in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic has upset numerous nations. The U.S. has threatened sanctions to punish Beijing. And speaking in Tulsa, Oklahoma, last Saturday, President Donald Trump boasted about how he had pressured China into the “best deal you’ve ever seen,” but that “I can make even more.”

Yet nothing about China’s behavior suggests it’s on the defensive. In fact, we’ve seen a more assertive Beijing over the past few weeks than in a generation. And while mapping the minds of China’s leaders is about as difficult as predicting what Trump will tweet next, there’s one factor that’s definitely driving Beijing’s approach: a belief in global capitals that the U.S. president is struggling, politically, five months before the November election.

Consider this. Just this month, Australia has indicated that China is behind a major “state-based” cyber attack; Vietnam’s foreign ministry has accused two Chinese ships of attacking a fishing boat in Vietnamese waters; and Taiwan has cautioned that Chinese fighter jets briefly entered its airspace. On June 15, the People’s Liberation Army killed 20 Indian soldiers along their remote border in Ladakh, marking what New Delhi insists are attempts by Beijing to grab disputed territory by force.

And then there’s Hong Kong. China is drafting a controversial law that would allow its security forces direct control over the island, effectively ending much of the autonomy it has enjoyed since reunification in 1997. The U.S. has threatened to withdraw Hong Kong’s special trading status if the law goes through. And European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen on Monday warned of “very negative consequences” if the Hong Kong legislation is approved. But Beijing has shown no signs of pulling back, whether in Hong Kong or the Himalayas.

What’s giving China this confidence? Part of it stems from the realization that many of Trump’s threats are fairly meaningless. Take the proposal to end Hong Kong’s special trade status. At the moment, U.S. imports of Hong Kong–manufactured goods carry lower tariffs than commodities bought from the mainland. But only 1 percent of America’s purchases from Hong Kong are goods manufactured there — the rest are China-made products repackaged in Hong Kong, and so are already tariffed higher.

Other, tougher measures — such as pulling out from the trade deal with Beijing — would also hurt America, and is something Trump won’t want to rush into in an election year. Hours after White House trade adviser Peter Navarro said Monday that the trade deal was “over,” Trump clarified on Twitter: “The China Trade Deal is fully intact. Hopefully they will continue to live up to the terms of the Agreement!”

But there’s another factor playing into Beijing’s calculus: the momentum shift away from Trump’s reelection campaign. Presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden leads Trump in three key battleground states that the president won in 2016 — Michigan, Wisconsin and Florida. He leads Trump by 9 points nationally, according to an average of recent polls by Real Clear Politics.

Foreign nations also look for other signs — beyond polls — to determine which way the wind is blowing. Former national security adviser John Bolton’s tell-all book, followed by his assertion that he plans to vote for Biden in November, is being viewed as one such marker. After all, Bolton’s no bleeding heart liberal.

What that means is that New Delhi, Tokyo, Hanoi and Canberra know that they can’t tag along with any Trump move against China — since he might not be in office beyond January to follow through. They each need to look after their own interests, challenging China but without provoking a backlash they can’t manage alone. They all need access to China’s markets, and all depend on the import of Chinese goods. It’s the same with the EU — for all of Von der Leyen’s bluster, only Sweden has suggested imposing sanctions on China if it goes ahead with the Hong Kong law.

That suits Beijing just fine. For years, that is precisely the approach it has demanded from other nations as it tries to reshape the global order — like a bully, happy to pick off smaller kids one by one, but worried about them ganging up. It is happy to negotiate individually, for instance, with the Philippines, Vietnam and other nations whose waters it claims in the South China Sea, but opposes the intervention of the U.N. or regional bodies such as the Association of South East Asian Nations.

Things can change. Trump has shown a survival instinct that few expected when he launched his campaign for the presidency five years ago. His loyal support base and the Republican Party broadly continue to stand by him. An economic recovery and blunders from the Biden camp could alter the equation.

But ultimately, China knows that Asian countries worried about its expansionism will only risk an escalation in tensions if they’re confident that they can count on the U.S. At the moment, as the empty stands in Tulsa last Saturday showed, even Trump can’t count on America.

Charu Sudan Kasturi

Charu Sudan Kasturi

OZY Senior Editor Charu Sudan Kasturi's column, "Butterfly Effect," connects the dots on seemingly unrelated global headlines, highlighting what could happen next and who is likely to be impacted.

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