Trump’s Looming Bust-up with China is Bad News for 2018

My Comments: Having more money to spend in retirement requires a delicate balance between living cautiously and making sure your funds are growing properly. If you stay alive, the money to pay your bills has to come from somewhere.

All that is to say that global economics is going to play a role in your future financial affairs, whether you understand it, like it, or don’t give a hoot about it. My efforts to help my friends and clients is to try and provide insights to help you get it right and have more money rather than less money.

Trump has already conceded economic hegemony to China on the global stage by refusing to participate in the Trans-Pacific Partnership. That alone is going to limit your financial future over the next several decades. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

by Edward Luce / January 3, 2018

Flattery gets you everywhere with Donald Trump. But only while it lasts. Like any addiction, it needs regular boosts in higher doses. Amid fierce bidding, China’s Xi Jinping won first prize as 2017’s most effective Trump flatterer. All it took was a lavish banquet in the Great Hall of the People. In return, Mr Trump forgot to raise America’s trade complaints or human rights. Mr Xi easily outflanked the US at the Asian summits following Mr Trump’s China visit. If the key to seducing him is a dish of Kung Pao chicken, what’s not to like?

The problem is that Mr Xi must continually feed Mr Trump. At a certain point, the ratio of Trump flattery to loss of self-respect will be too high. Would another flurry of trademark approvals for Ivanka Trump break China’s bank? Probably not. What about giving the go-ahead for a Trump Tower in Shanghai? Possibly. Another red carpet reception is unlikely to cut it. The law of diminishing returns applies to favors already bestowed. In 2018, it is likely to turn negative. China has always been in Mr Trump’s sights. Massaging his ego buys only brief respite.

The other ego is Mr Xi himself. China has acted with caution for more than a generation. For Washington’s “never Trumpers”, Beijing’s restraint gave it honorary membership of the axis of adults that would curb Mr Trump’s instincts. If Mr Trump was a loose cannon, China could be counted on to behave responsibly. In the opening months of Mr Trump’s presidency, Mr Xi did just that. China, not the US, is now the darling of the Davos economic elites. Mr Xi can lecture on Ricardian trade theory with the best of them.

But China’s age of forbearance is over. In October, Mr Xi opened a bolder chapter in China’s foreign ambitions. Deng Xiaoping, China’s great moderniser, spent his last years with no official role other than chairman of China’s bridge association. Hu Jintao, Mr Xi’s predecessor, was happy with just being president. Mr Xi, by contrast, has grabbed every title going and immortalized his own thought in the party’s constitution. Mr Trump has competition, in other words. For the first time since Mao Zedong, China has a living personality cult. US-China relations are now in the hands of two gargantuan egos.

That is bad news for 2018. Added to this are two bigger clouds. For the first time since the cold war, the US has an explicit competitor. Mr Xi’s China has set itself the target of becoming the world’s top dog within a generation. Unlike the Soviet Union, China can sustain technological rivalry with the US. America’s dominance in the Asia Pacific is no longer a given. Mr Xi’s aim is to achieve military parity. Second, America’s president thinks in hourly increments. China’s leader plans in decades. The battle between these two egos is one-sided. Mr Xi holds a telescope. Mr Trump stares at the mirror.

The scope for misunderstanding is growing. Too much attention has been paid to the spectre of a nuclear conflict between the US and North Korea — too little to the looming fallout in US-China relations. That is in spite of Mr Trump’s latest tweet boasting that he had a bigger nuclear button than Mr Kim.

The US president still believes China can disarm Kim Jong Un on America’s behalf. No one else thinks that is likely. Last week, Mr Trump said his patience with China was running out. Mr Trump’s advisers have so far curbed his protectionist impulses. But Mr Trump is rarely muzzled for long. His one consistent belief is that the US is being ripped off. China, whom he has repeatedly accused of raping America, tops the list. “If they don’t help us with North Korea, then I do what I’ve always said I want to do,” he told The New York Times. We should expect 2018 to produce US trade actions against China and Beijing to fight them at the World Trade Organization. There will also be more nuclear tweets.

But the US-China fog extends far beyond the Korean peninsula. As does the potential theatre of confusion. Last year China opened its first overseas base, in Djibouti. A Chinese aircraft carrier made its first visit to the Mediterranean. Mr Xi also stepped up China’s installations in the South China Sea — a subject on which Mr Trump has yet to comment.

Mr Trump has not uttered the word “Taiwan” since he spoke to its leader after his election. His first tweet of 2018 was to accuse Pakistan of “lies and deceit”. China rushed to Pakistan’s defense. “China and Pakistan are all-weather partners,” said Beijing after praising Islamabad’s “outstanding contribution” to fighting terrorism. Mr Trump was far closer to the truth. But there are few gulfs of perception wider than that.

In a stand off between Mr Trump and Mr Xi, who would blink first? There is no way of knowing. However, China is giving hints of over-confidence. From the Iraq war to Mr Trump’s election, China has been reaping one windfall after another. His disdain for democratically elected leaders plays straight into Beijing’s hands. But its luck cannot last for ever. Mr Xi should remember that Mr Trump launched missile attacks on Syria when the two were having dinner in Mar-a-Lago. Many in China believe Mr Trump is a paper tiger. They may be right. But it would be rash to test that theory.

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