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US plays dangerous game with no end goal

South China Morning Post logo South China Morning Post 16/7/2020 Alex Loalex.lo@scmp.com
a man holding a wine glass: US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer speaking at a Senate Finance Committee hearing. Photo: EPA-EFE US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer speaking at a Senate Finance Committee hearing. Photo: EPA-EFE

The United States' top trade negotiator says he doesn't know what the end game of his country's trade war with China is. That's a frank if damning admission of a rudderless Washington that is all bombast but no direction.

"I don't know what the end goal is," US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer said. "Right now we need to stop an aggressive force." Translation: we need to do something, anything. That, unfortunately, is not a policy.

A two-year trade war, hundreds of billions of dollars in tariffs and untold costs to US farmers and consumers, but no clear goal?

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The problem is that while US leaders from both political parties agree China is the devil incarnate, they can't agree on how to fight it, or even the nature of this conflict.

A while ago, China was a "strategic competitor". Now it's the enemy. But what kind of enemy? It's hard to say.

Donald Trump started the trade war because he thought the Chinese had been eating America's lunch. But then, China hawks in his administration such as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo raised the stakes. Now, is it democracy against dictatorship, a clash of civilisations, good vs evil, West against East or some or all of the above? Perhaps it's just a naked confrontation between a dominant power and a rising power.

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Except for the most hardcore anti-China ideologues, Americans themselves don't know beyond Lighthizer's claim that "we need to stop an aggressive force".

The late Soviet Union took on Western capitalism. Militant Islam wanted to kick America out of the Middle East and any Muslim countries. The Chinese? Beijing has no intention to make an enemy of America; all its hostile actions so far have been responses to America's. It doesn't want to subvert Western democracy. But according to some Western policymakers, merely running a non-democratic government amounts to an existential challenge to Western values and belief in freedom.

I suppose the Chinese should apologise for merely existing and insisting on their way of doing things. Chinese would have been perfectly happy to continue selling stuff to Americans.

What is perhaps most damaging and dangerous is that America wants to drag its allies and friends into its fight with China, without defining or understanding what it is they want. It's much easier to fight an outright enemy; far more difficult to confront and engage according to circumstances. Unfortunately, American politicians don't do nuances.

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This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (www.scmp.com), the leading news media reporting on China and Asia.

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