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Commentary: Trump is serious about US divorce from China

The rest of the world will be pressured to make a choice between Washington and Beijing, says the Financial Times' Edward Luce.

Commentary: Trump is serious about US divorce from China

The US-China trade war has sparked fears of a global recession and hit oil prices. (Photo: AFP/Brendan Smialowski)

LONDON: The phrase “new cold war” should never have been coined.

Nothing in the original stand off between the Soviet Union and the US could prepare the global economy for what Donald Trump is demanding of America’s trading partners.

Moscow and Washington existed in separate orbits. Now the rest of the world is being asked to make a choice between China and the US, two intimately entwined economies.

Nor does the label “trade war” begin to capture the dimensions of what this implies.

READ: Commentary: Have the gloves come off in latest US-China trade war saga?


America’s partners are being pressured to eject Huawei, China’s leading telecoms equipment supplier, from their 5G networks.

But Mr Trump’s all-or-nothing ultimatum is by no means confined to Huawei. Almost every Chinese product is now under suspicion of concealing the “Manchurian chip” — backdoor technology that can lie dormant until it is activated.

REA: Commentary: There is no longer any doubt the US is pursuing containment of China

Israel, for example, is being asked to dump a Chinese construction company that is deepening the port of Haifa. It is also under pressure to cut ties with another Chinese contractor that is building a metro in Tel Aviv.

Barring commodities such as soyabean or pork, the internet of things makes almost every product a potential dual-use technology in a future US-China conflict.

FILE PHOTO: The Huawei logo is pictured at the IFA consumer tech fair in Berlin, Germany, September 5, 2019. REUTERS/Hannibal Hanschke

They used to say ploughshares could be converted into swords and vice versa. How about refrigerators? Or children’s toys?

Once you start down the road of excluding anything with Chinese-embedded chips, it is hard to know where to stop. The line between legitimate national security concerns and outright paranoia is perilously thin.


That line was obliterated at a conference in Paris this week with the misleadingly dull title “International cooperation on artificial intelligence”. In reality the gathering — co-hosted by the Washington-based Atlantic Council — was the first effort to stimulate talks between the US and China on the future of AI, which covers pretty much the future of everything, including warfare.

A Trump administration official, whom I cannot name under the gathering’s “Chatham House rule”, opened by declaring that the US would not cooperate with China on AI while it remained authoritarian.

Companies around the world had to choose between two AI systems, said the official. One, led by the US, was based on trust and openness. The other, China, was closed and “malicious”. The latter was exporting “authoritarian software” to every continent.

A Chinese official responded by saying that the US killed innocent civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan. “Nobody is perfect in human rights,” he said. The exchange almost ended the conference before it began.

File photo of China and US flags. (Photo: Reuters/Aly Song) FILE PHOTO: Chinese and U.S. flags flutter near The Bund, before U.S. trade delegation meet their Chinese counterparts for talks in Shanghai, China July 30, 2019. REUTERS/Aly Song/File Photo

It offered a troubling foretaste of how much could go wrong between the world’s two great powers. The French co-hosts, which included two former prime ministers, could only make forlorn pleas for dialogue.


It is an open question whether Mr Trump will agree to a ceasefire with China in their trade war over the coming weeks. Worries about his re-election prospects in 2020 suggest Mr Trump might go for some kind of truce.

Such a deal could even include a brief reprieve for Huawei. Quite how he would sell that one to the increasingly hawkish bipartisan voices back home is another matter.

Democrats would be sure to attack him for folding too cheaply. Mr Trump’s short-term actions are unpredictable.

But his larger China strategy is unchanging. It is hard to overstate its radicalism. Over the past 40 years, the US has taken a “win-win” approach to China.

The more it could be bound into the global economy, the freer its political system would become. Reality has belied that theory. Yet China’s economy is about three times larger than it was then.

READ: Commentary: Why China doesn’t understand what the Hong Kong protesters want

A view of Shanghai, China. (File photo: AFP/Johannes EISELE) China's continued economic strength flies in the face of the authorities' campaign to limit credit growth and reduce winter pollution by cutting industrial production AFP/Johannes EISELE

In fact, what Mr Trump is pursuing is closer to “lose-lose” — everybody loses if globalisation goes into reverse. Under Mr Trump’s plan, the US ultimately wins because it would lose more slowly than China.

The Paris AI gathering this week was supposed to be about the implications of machine learning. A century after the first world war, what it highlighted was the urgent need for human learning.

Source: Financial Times/sl


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