Their agenda is driven not by strength but weakness and the result is playing out before our eyesby Guy de Jonquières / June 26, 2019 / Leave a comment
From Washington to Warsaw, from Beijing to Brasilia and Budapest, from Caracas to Cairo, the world has fallen under the spell of “strongman” leaders. Nowhere is that clearer than in the mounting tensions between Donald Trump’s US and Xi Jinping’s China. Ostensibly about trade, their conflict is at root a contest for supremacy between a long-established global hegemon and a pretender to that crown.
In one sense, the US-China dispute may look like a clash of the titans, pitting the world’s two largest economies, each equipped with awesome military and nuclear power, against each other.
But on closer inspection, that appearance is deceptive. In reality, it is a contest born as much of weakness on both sides as of strength.
In part, that stems from striking similarities between Trump and Xi. Though the specific circumstances and political systems differ, both have enveloped themselves in personality cults. Both have striven, often by questionable means, to amass power and project themselves as invincible and infallible.
Yet strip away the self-assured façade and they are exposed, not as supremely confident supermen but as suffering from inferiority complexes. And for all their braggadocio, both habitually portray their countries not as masters of all they survey, but as weak and exploited underdogs.
Trump has repeatedly complained that other countries “play the US for a sucker” and vowed to “Make America Great Again.” The implication being that it is not great now. Xi speaks of China’s “one hundred years of humiliation” and of engineering “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese people.” This is hardly the language of men confident that their country is indisputably the top nation.
Yet both, too, are in danger of over-estimating their countries’ power, a stance that could lead to overreach. Trump’s ultimate goal remains ill-defined. However, it appears to extend far beyond tackling China’s trade practices and intellectual property theft. Many observers believe he is bent on stopping its economic development in its tracks and eliminating it as an industrial and technological rival. However the two countries’ interdependence is so broad and deep that, even if that were achievable, it would be at great cost to America’s own economy.
Xi, on the other hand, is pouring huge resources into Made in China 2025, a bold attempt to leapfrog his country into global industrial and technological leadership.…