Trump’s trade war and the clash of civilisations

As the two global superpowers go head-to-head over trade, the two leaders’ rhetoric reveals underlying currents at play.

By Cédomir Nestorovic, Professor of International Marketing and Geopolitics at ESSEC Business School.

Trade wars of the magnitude of that currently raging between the United States and China often come with the risk of mutually assured destruction. This begs the question: why is Donald Trump so confident in his protracted spat with China?

A simple answer is the economy. The economic picture in the United States has been considerably better under Trump’s tenure, while China’s economy is slipping. For Trump, the US$200 billion worth of tariffs on Chinese exports to the United States will increase his economic advantage.

China’s retaliation was to introduce US$60 billion of tariffs on American products.  Initially, these were focused on products exported by Trump’s electoral base (soybeans, corn producers, etc.), however, there has since been a move towards total war.

With tariffs levied across the board, there is now even less reason for Trump to be concerned. As a negotiator, he will leverage this advantage to push China into signing agreements which are advantageous to him. In such a scenario, the tariff war only serves to further Trump’s negotiations with few negative implications for him.

Donald Trump
Photo: Gage Skidmore

Bringing the trade war into the public eye increases the risks

However, things have changed dramatically. President Xi is now speaking publicly about the trade war. Previously Xi stood behind the intricate Chinese diplomacy of mandated negotiators and ministers. This afforded Xi the possibility of making or breaking a deal behind the closed doors of the Forbidden City.

Now he is in the spotlight, there is little chance of a U-turn or de-escalation. The stakes are higher. With neither side able to back down without losing face, there is a real risk that the tariff war could morph into a political, social or even military clash.

A clash of ideology or a clash of civilisations?

The vocabulary used by both sides is significant and one concept, the clash of civilisations, has taken centre stage. Trump has yet to use the term to refer to the United States’ relationship with China, but his advisors have. As expected, Xi has rejected this inference, as he has done so repeatedly.

The term Clash of Civilisations is never explicitly defined but we can assume that it refers to Samuel Huntington’s book ‘Clash of civilisations and the remaking of world order’ published in 1996. Huntington predicts wars between civilisations will replace ideological wars following the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War.

After 9/11, the term was ascribed to the confrontation between the so-called ‘Western world’ and ‘Islamic world.’ Now, however, it has evolved into a purported conflict between the ‘Western world’ and ‘Sinic (Chinese) world’.

Xi Jinping
Photo: Kremlin

The talk is not of civilisation when Trump’s interlocutors label China as a non-market economy, when they condemn China’s poor human rights record and its aggressive approach in the South China Sea. Equally, the Chinese side does not reference ‘civilisation’ when it presents itself as wanting to build a better world order based on win-win trade policies and a mutually beneficial One Belt One Road Initiative.

A clash of ideology better fits Trump’s narrative

Trump’s invective regularly refers to ideology rather than culture or civilisation. He views China as an illiberal country and believes it is due to this that China lacks allies, unlike the United States. According to Trump, no country will back the idea of introducing facial recognition, with the aim of following citizens’ movements and awarding them a social score that, if it falls below a preassigned level, will result in restricted travel rights, disqualification from public office or a reduced level of hospital care. Also, no country will accept that Huawei and other tech giants from China be used as Trojan horses and collect data that could be exploited by the Red Army.

Some European countries expressed their reservations in labelling China and Huawei as the only wrongdoers. They point their fingers to American companies and recent scandals involving Facebook and Google collecting data of their users. All this, however, did not prevent Trump from signing a presidential order against Huawei and its affiliates.

Trump’s charges are not new, but they can help to shore up support within the United States for his trade war by identifying a powerful and threatening enemy, particularly at a time when the president is preparing for the 2020 presidential elections.

Trump will likely continue to use ideological polarised lenses because it fits his narrative and he secures more support at home and abroad by stressing ideological differences rather than economy or trade.

The prevailing misunderstanding in this struggle is that when Xi rejects Western superiority he rejects civilisational and racial superiority, while Trump refers to ideological superiority. It is difficult therefore to reach an agreement when the two parties, be it consciously or unconsciously, consistently entertain a plurality of interpretation of negotiating nomenclature.