Centuries before President Donald Trump began withdrawing from multilateral trade agreements and retreating from international leadership roles, while promising to build a “big, beautiful wall,” there was another great world power that chose to abandon global engagement and seek chauvinistic refugebehind a Great Wall. It involves a critical period of Chinese history that offers some insight into the politics of trade wars emerging today.
The Fall of a Great Power
During the reign of Zhu Di, who became Yongle, the third emperor of the Ming Dynasty in 1402, the sphere of Chinese culture and influence expanded far beyond its traditional territories. Although Zhu Di’s tactics were often ruthless, his reign is considered one of the most brilliant in Chinese history. He moved the capital permanently to Beijing from Nanjing, reconstructing the 2,000-mile Grand Canal to transport grain from the fertile Yangtze River valley in the south to Beijing and building the majestic monuments known to most tourists visiting China today, including the imperial palace of the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven, and the palatial Ming Tombs. Zhu Di personally led five successful military campaigns north of the Great Wall against the Mongols, who had ruled China for the century preceding Ming rule under the Yuan Dynasty beginning under Kublai Khan. He fought the Mongols his entire life as they continued to be the greatest threat to Ming rule.
One of the premier achievements of his reign was the expansion of the Ming naval fleet under admiral Zheng He and the historic maritime empire created through Zheng’s expeditions. Ironically, Zheng He was the son of a devout Muslim of Mongol extraction who was killed in battle while fighting with Mongol rebels against the Ming army. The Ming soldiers captured the 10-year-old Zheng, castrated him, and gave him as a servant to Zhu Di, a prince and prominent young army officer at the time. Although eunuchs had not often been trusted with political or military assignments during the reigns of Zhu Di’s predecessors, Zheng became a valued confidante to Zhu throughout his military campaigns, including the rebellion Zhu led to take the throne from his nephew not long after the death of Zhu Di’s father, emperor Hong Wu. Shortly after becoming emperor, Zhu Di placed Zheng in charge of the Chinese naval fleet.
Chinese vessels and sea charts had led the world for several centuries, but Zheng He expanded the capacity and reach of China’s navy exponentially. His lead vessels, called “treasure ships,” were enormous for the age (at least five times the size of the vessels sailed by Christopher Columbus 90 years later). Each of these ships, which numbered more than 60 on the first voyage, carried at least 500 sailors and treasures of Chinese porcelain, silk goods, iron implements, and silver coins. The entire fleet of more than 300 assorted ships carried horses, weaponry, grain, and a crew of around 28,000 men.
From 1405 to 1433, Zheng led seven voyages, lasting two years each, to more than 30 countries throughout Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. His plan under Zhu Di’s direction was to chart the entire world carrying thousands of tons of treasure and a military force to promote the power and influence of the Ming dynasty and build a great empire through gifts, trade, and foreign domination. Using his military and diplomatic skills, Zheng founded numerous colonies during these voyages and brought many of the kingdoms he visited within the Chinese tribute system. Zheng spread Chinese culture and influence throughout the regions he traveled, which can be traced centuries after his expeditions ended, as temples were constructed in his honor.
After Zhu Di died in 1424, the imperial power and influence of the Chinese navy soon ended. Much like President Trump’s abandonment of the international trading system created and maintained by his predecessors for seven decades since the Second World War, the emperors who succeeded Zhu Di failed to see value in maintaining alliances beyond its borders.
Subsequent Ming ruler allowed its ocean going vessels to deteriorate and withdrew behind the Great Wall in the grand sanctity of the “Middle Kingdom.” In an ancient version of “China First” policies, the kingdom closed its ports to foreign ships, which succeeding rulers believed only carried barbarians, in their xenophobic view of the outside world. This policy continued into the Qing dynasty and ultimately led to disastrous, humiliating consequences in the last century of the empire. In the nineteenth century, the Opium Wars, the territorial concessions taken by the Western powers, and the ravaging abuses inflicted by Japanese militarism have all instilled a lasting national resentment that plays a significant role in Chinese policy to this day.
A Great Rejuvenation
The current leader of the Chinese Communist Party, Xi Jinping, who has become the most powerful Chinese ruler at least since Deng Xiaoping (and likely will become the most powerful since Mao Zedong now that Xi’s term is unlimited), invoked the slogan, the “Chinese Dream,” as the guiding creed for his regime soon after he became president of the People’s Republic of China in 2012. At first, many observers likened the phrase to a meaning similar to the “American dream” of individual economic prosperity, especially in view of the rising wealth of China as much of its population emerged from poverty under the economic reforms implemented during Deng’s rule. But Xi’s use of the slogan offered a much broader theme: the dream he proposed was a nationalistic call for “a great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” Frankly, the message could be made into an American baseball cap with the slogan, “Make China Great Again.” But unlike the Trump slogan, Xi’s includes a well-crafted strategy of revival and a true reference point to a time when China actually fell from a pedestal as the single most powerful nation on Earth.
President Xi cited the Chinese dream for a national rejuvenation in a speech given at the National Museum of China commending an exhibition called “Road to Revival,” which juxtaposed the achievements of ancient imperial China in the permanent exhibit against the spectacle of national humiliation that followed the penetration of European imperialists into the isolated Middle Kingdom and ended with what the Chinese call the “Second Sino-Japanese War” from 1931 to 1945. The exhibition presented a sanitized version of the progress made since the Communist “liberation” of China in 1949 on the road to the current “socialist market economy,” or what Deng Xiaoping called “socialism with Chinese characteristics.” Of course, the exhibits gave no hint of the 1989 massacre that occurred in front of the museum on Tiananmen Square, downplayed the chaotic destruction of the Cultural Revolution, and largely ignored China’s other self-inflicted disasters occurring during the rule of the charismatic Mao Zedong. It was against this backdrop that Xi urged national unity in the effort to revive the pride and greatness of China.
The memory of Zheng’s powerful navy was revived in the early twentieth century as the new Chinese republic began building a navy to defend against the imperial Japanese incursions. More recently in the current century his diplomatic successes are being honored by recalling his exploits as a national hero and by imitation, especially in the use of soft power to extend Chinese influence. As China has risen to become the second largest economy in the world behind the United States, President Xi has taken modern version of treasure ships abroad to welcoming countries and invested in infrastructure and established trade relationships.
While fulfilling the “Chinese dream of a great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” Xi’s plans include the construction of a land-based Silk Road Economic Belt and the Maritime Silk Road tying Asia to Europe, the Middle East, and Africa (known in a characteristically Chinese expression as “One Belt, One Road”) running along the path of the historic Silk Road and the maritime voyages of admiral Zheng He in the early fifteenth century. The One Belt, One Road project is not just a transportation project. China says it is committing more than $1 trillion for infrastructure projects in over 60 countries, spreading its soft power to win friends and expand its orbit of influence, presumably to “Make China Great Again.”
On November 15, 2016, a week after the U.S. presidential election, the Chinese government’s English language newspaper, China Daily USA, ran a large editorial cartoon depicting President Barrack Obama diving off the bow of a large container ship, named “TPP” (for Obama’s 11-nation trade agreement initiative, the Trans-Pacific Partnership), depicted stuck in the desert surrounded by cacti, sand dunes, and cattle skulls. A long editorial described Beijing’s relief that “TPP is looking ever less likely to materialize by the day. After all, the trade grouping has been essentially . . . meant to counter China’s economic influence in the Asia-Pacific.” The piece described Chinese President Xi Jinping and President Trump’s phone call exchanging good wishes for the “Trump era.”
Strategically, President Trump’s withdrawal from the TPP three days after his inauguration was a major win for President Xi in reaching his goal to make China great again. As President Trump withdraws the United States from world leadership roles built over the last century (including his expressed desire to abandon the World Trade Organization), he gives an assist to President Xi as China attempts to transform into a global leader based on a strong economy, transformational infrastructure projects, a strong defense, and extensive international application of soft power projects.
Trump Retreats to Mercantilism and Trade Wars
Like the Ming emperors who withdrew behind the Great Wall and let their great ships rot in the docks to keep barbarians from entering the Middle Kingdom, President Trump is trying to build tariff walls (not to mention the campaign border wall) to withstand intrusion by foreign barbarians while withdrawing from world leadership under the illusion of America First economic nationalism. Three days before the Trump inauguration, President Xi appeared for the first time to reach out to the global elites with a free-trade message at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, as if to offer himself in a debut role as the unlikely new champion of the liberal world economic order.
From the outset of his entry in public affairs, President Trump has revealed a dangerous degree of naiveté, to put it kindly, on international trade policy. He thinks, for example, that unilaterally raising tariffs to trade war levels will force China to protect U.S. intellectual property rights and eliminate the trade deficit. Before taking office, Trump’s ignorance of the U.S.-China bilateral history seriously undermined the relationship, as he threatened to terminate the all-important “One China” policy and proposed to give U.S. debt obligations to China a “haircut,” as if these debts deserved no more respect than a fee owed to one of his obsequious lawyers. Now in his second year in office, the president has begun a full out trade war with China, America’s single largest trading partner, using Art of the Deal bully tactics, apparently thinking that he has leverage to bluff his way to victory. It is a war he wages in the face of opposition from a majority of the American business community, at least a plurality of Congress, and growing public sentiment. To date, the Chinese are not only refusing to capitulate, they are refusing to come back to the table.
With its large import market, the United States has some economic leverage, but China’s exports to the United States represent only four percent of its GDP, which continues to grow at six-point-six percent per year. President Xi, who is trying to convert the Chinese economy away from being export driven now has an unlimited term of office, may be putting more stock in his political leverage, as he strives for a return to the greatness of China. Meanwhile, President Trump’s political stock is down.
This trade war will likely have no winners in the short run, but may determine which leader’s slogan prevails in the long run. President Xi has the obvious edge.