Friday, November 23, 2018

Will history remember the coming Trump-Xi dinner party?

This first appeared in Asia Times, Nov 17, 2018 

Whether it's hamburgers or humble pie, there is a strong chance the host will make a meal of it

 NOVEMBER 17, 2018 3:17 PM (UTC+8)
One of US President Donald Trump's favorite meals. Photo: iStock
One of US President Donald Trump's favorite meals. Photo: iStock
President Trump has invited China’s President Xi to stick around after the G20 Summit in Buenos Aires so that Trump can host a dinner party – “maybe hamburgers, maybe more; it’ll be just great, great,” he might have said.
Xi has tentatively accepted and the world can assume that the two leaders will engage in substantial conversation about the trade war, tension in the South China Seas and other subjects of deep concern to both countries.
While the Dow Jones seems to flutter up and down depending whether the pre-summit preparatory talks by officials are perceived to be going well or not, most observers following Trump closely are not expecting much to come out of the coming summit.
A major reason for low expectation is Trump’s notorious negotiating style. He says one thing and means another. He always reserves the right to abruptly change his position at any time.
This approach might have proven effective in his real estate dealings, keeping his competitor off balance, but is not any good for building trust and confidence with foreign countries.
He has also made a list of harsh demands and expects China to come to Washington, hat in hand, with a list of concessions in exchange for the privilege to sit down and negotiate. Trump seems to think the Chinese would accept his upside down process, namely for China to concede first, and then negotiate.

Trump objects to Made in China 2025

Probably the most surprising among all this is Trump’s indignation that he finds China’s Made in China 2025 “insulting” and demands China retracts the national plan.
Made in China 2025 is meant to be an aspirational document to encourage the Chinese people to aim high based on excellence in STEM and by the dint of their own efforts.
It’s puzzling as to why MiC 2025 is any of Trump’s business and that he should find it offensive.
Nothing in the document says anything about commandeering US technology or about pushing American heads under water in order to advance China.
Instead, it’s China that should feel offended that Trump finds China’s aspirations insulting. Instead of spelling out his own set of national aspirations to compete with China, Trump is trying to push the Chinese underwater as a way for the US to stay on top.
Thus we are left to speculate as to the possible outcome of the dinner discussion in Argentina. Will it presage the beginning of a cold war between China and the US? Or will it make some advances in the trade war negotiation?
The hostile tone of speeches given by Vice-President Pence as a stand-in for Trump suggests that the US is heading toward confrontation. He accuses China of militarizing the South China Sea. Yet it’s the American Navy that regularly patrols the water in the name of exercising Freedom of Navigation.
Apparently sending your warships thousands of mile away from your home base to sail around China’s territorial waters is friendly but for China to develop military bases on its offshore islands is unfriendly.

Hijacking intellectual property

Pence and the rest of Trump’s China team accuse China of forcing the transfer of intellectual property in order for US companies to do business in China.
It’s true in the early days when China joined the WTO, China as a developing country with backward technology was allowed to protect certain key industries. Protection included the requirement that the foreign company must form a joint venture with a Chinese company. In the process, foreign know-how was shared with the local entity.
There is no denying that the strategy was helpful for China to catch up. Now as the second largest economy with its mounting collection of native-grown intellectual property, China should no longer need to insist on forming JVs to access foreign technology.
Removing this stipulation as a condition for doing business in China would take away a sensitive bone of contention.
However, as usual, the Americans have blown the matter out of proportion and acted as if a denied access to IP from the US would cause China to dry up and wither on the vine.
An indication of Trump’s irrational arrogance is his policy to restrict visas for students from China. His rationale is that the students are there to steal national secrets and receive valuable training to bring back to China.
He is apparently ignorant of what elite American universities already know – that Chinese students make contributions far exceeding their numbers. Furthermore, most choose to remain and work in the US.
Trump’s new policy actually encourages the best and brightest to go back to China. His track record suggests that he likes to sock himself in the eye and then declare himself a winner.

Trump: trade surplus is evil

Trump’s original trade dispute with China rests on the simplistic idea that anyone enjoying a trade surplus with the US is “insulting” and must be stealing from the US.
In his ideal world, each trading partner would sell to the US no more than what they can buy from the US, a ludicrous and impractical proposition that makes no sense economically.
In one of the early discussions, the US side demanded that China buy more from America to reduce the trade surplus by US$100 billion. Upon looking around, the US negotiating team to their chagrin discovered that China may be ready to buy, but the US doesn’t have enough products to sell.
In Trump’s view, China’s top-down allocation of resources in favor of state-owned enterprises give the SOEs unfair advantage in competing with American companies without such a subsidy.
Actually, a recent report by the Rhodium Group for the Asia Society revealed that SOEs make up only 5% of all the companies in China, but account for 28% of the industrial assets and generate only 18% of the total profits. Their return on assets is a woeful 2.9% vs 9.9% for private enterprises. At a minimum, Trump’s fear of China’s SOEs has been misplaced.
As president, Trump has materially changed the bilateral conversation with China. As Hank Paulson pointed out in his speech in Singapore, Trump is leading the US on a divergent path away from China.
Rather than seeking to work together based on common interests, the US is putting down China as best as it could. For example, the White House is clearly intimidated by China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

Pence: Beware BRI projects

Pence, in particular, has been going around warning third world countries of China’s predatory financing associated with the BRI projects.
It’s true that the BRI projects in Sri Lanka did not work out. But Sri Lanka was an exception. Most third world countries continue to want to be part of China’s BRI. However, the negative publicity should prompt China to calculate the financial viability of every new project with more care.
On the other hand, projects financed by the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank have followed the discipline of World Bank financing. AIIB founded by China has a multinational staff and practice of transparency.
To date, India has been the largest beneficiary of BRI projects funded by the AIIB, and there have been no complaints about predatory terms.
In his speech, Paulson notes that there are no winners in a trade war and suggests that Trump is dropping an iron curtain between China and the US, and forcing other countries to choose sides.
China offers collaboration and assistance on infrastructure projects along with free and open trade. The US is known to focus on “America first,” and does not have a priority to help others. If forced, which side do you think these countries would choose?

Navarro takes on Paulson

In response, Peter Navarro proclaimed that the US was winning the trade war with China and President Trump does not need shuttle diplomacy. Clearly, in reference to Paulson, Navarro said: “Wall Street, get out of those negotiations.”
Before Paulson became the US Secretary of Treasurer under the George W Bush administration, he was chairman of Goldman Sachs. He worked closely with China’s leadership during the financial crisis of 2008 to prevent the total collapse of the US banking system and the global economy. His credentials are well established.
Navarro’s credentials? He was five times loser for political office and in one post-election pout, he said: “I don’t have any concerns at all about making stuff up about my opponent that isn’t exactly true.” Sound familiar?
For Trump’s 2016 campaign, Navarro co-authored with Wilbur Ross an economic roadmap on dealing with China. A public letter signed by 370 economists including 19 Nobel laureates called the plan an unmitigated disaster. So true, now the disaster is nigh.
Aside from keeping Trump’s boots in spit shine condition, Navarro has apparently been Trump’s main China whisperer as well as running around unilaterally declaring that the US is winning the trade war.
Other than finding demonizing China a lucrative profession, he does not have much else of a track record. Supposedly, to bring manufacturing back to America, Navarro has been tasked to import and recreate the many supply chains and put them back in the US. Want to bet if he can do it?
California winemakers, Iowa soybean farmers and Maine lobster fishermen are among many businesses wondering when and how winning this war is going to give them the business they used to enjoy with China.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Life of Anson Burlingame, a Celebration

On Friday, November 16, 2018, a ceremony to honor the memory of Anson Burlingame was held at the library of the city of Burlingame, the Bay Area city named after him. This is a project my friend David Chai and I have been working on for many years. It’s most gratifying to see this come to being. His contribution to the US China relations has been unique in the history of modern civilization.

One local coverage is

A national coverage in the Chinese language is

A Silicon Valley coverage on Dingding TV is

A full set of photos taken by the Burlingame city photographer can be seen at

As reported in online Asia Times

Archive of relevant research material are kept at 

Part of the standing room only audience
Co-instigators David Chai and George Koo with sculptor Limin Zhou (center)

Mayor Michael Brownrigg

Text Box:
On March 23, 2022, the City of Burlingame celebrated Anson Burlingame and the Principles of Eternal Justice.

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Pick Trump apart before the mid term

This first appeared in Asia Times, written before the mid term election. Asia Times also posted a translation of this piece in Chinese.

His abrupt withdrawal from the Paris Accord, despite 195 signatories, is a clear indication that Trump does not care a whit what the community of nations thinks. Democrats should explain to the voters that reducing the emission of greenhouse gases is the most pressing universal challenge facing today’s world.

Abruptly breaking the nuclear weapons ban of 40 years with Russia without any replacement scheme is another dark side of unilateral action. In effect, by renewing the arms race, Trump has made the world a more dangerous place. At the same time, expenditures for a new arms race would add to the federal budget deficit.

Cold War footing

Trump has also deliberately placed China on a new Cold War footing; far from putting America first, his approach will end in self-inflicted losses. Vice-President Pence summarized the anti-China position in his speech early in October.

Just like his boss, Pence accused China of holding a huge trade surplus and forcing American companies to transfer their technology to China. Pence also accused China of having the audacity to “manipulate” the American election.

How? By using inserts in Iowa newspapers to explain that the consequences of Trump’s trade war would be harmful to the farmers’ livelihood.

Put Pence’s accusations together, even if cast in its worst light and without checking against reality, hardly seem to justify threatening to go to war with China.

Very simplistically and flying in the face of basic economic principles, Trump believes that China’s trade surplus is evidence of stealing from the US.  In other words, global free trade is actually a conspiracy against America first.

Trump believes imposing tariffs will solve the “unjust” trade balance. He has even declared that tariffs collected on imports from China would be new revenue to the US Treasury – a source of free money to Trump.

In reality, of course, the tariff would be paid by the importer and passed on to the end consumer in the form of a price increase. Far from free, the tariff represents a new tax for American consumers and taxpayers.

A large portion of imports from China is either made for American companies by contract manufacturing arrangements or by American corporations operating in China. The tariffs would raise the cost of the imports back to the US, but Trump believes that the tariff barrier would encourage American corporations to bring their manufacturing back to America from China.

A naive assumption

Trump’s assumption is naive. The US may no longer have the workers with the needed skills or workers willing to work under the comparably low wages paid in China. Furthermore, manufacturing in China enjoyed complementary supply chains of intermediate products that no longer exist in America.

Even for those operations that could be brought back to the US, it would take time to reestablish and a disruption in the market and to the American economy would be unavoidable.

Trump’s style of trade negotiation is to list demands coupled with the threat of tariffs. The approach may have intimidated Mexico and Canada, but it has not worked with China. He first imposed tariffs on a list of items and was offended that China did not immediately surrender but had the gall to retaliate with their own list of tariffs.

When the tariff war began, China’s stock market tumbled and Trump’s economic team immediately crowed that China was losing the trade war and victory for the US. Recently, it’s the American stock markets’ turn to tumble while China’s held steady. The reality is that short-term stock market fluctuations simply reflect that a long-term lose-lose scenario is in the making.

The Democrats need to explain to the American voters that imposing tariffs will cost everybody more money. American industries that depend on import of materials and intermediates will have to pay more even if the imports do not come from China simply because imports from other countries will raise their prices to match the Chinese competition with the newly added tariff.

Americans will have to pay more for their daily household items from China because of the added tariff. Even if there were competing imports from other countries, those imports would adjust their prices to reflect the new price from China including the added tariff. The net effect is that the tariff raises the cost of living for everybody.

The Democrats should simply ask: How is this going to help the US? There are plenty of domestic issues that need attention: repairing infrastructure, raising education standards, reducing gun violence and combating drug addiction, to mention a few. Why start a new Cold War to add to the list?

Of course, to become credible critics of Trump’s policy toward China, the Democrats would have to disclaim having been guilty of demonizing China, or at least explain that they see the error of their biases and that making China an enemy is not in America’s national interest.