US President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing in 2016. Photo: AFP
US President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing in 2016. Photo: AFP

Well-deserved kudos should be given to US President Donald Trump. By agreeing to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jung-un, he has made a clean break from the impasse that outlasted two US presidents.

Trump will be doing what his two predecessors were unwilling to do. Both George W Bush and Barack Obama dismissed the notion that any meeting with the North Korean leader could take place in lieu of Pyongyang abiding by certain preconditions.

Without an agenda loaded with excess baggage, Trump and Kim can begin a conversation that could break the ice and make history together.

American leaders frequently forget that confrontation and upfront in-your-face demands rarely impress Asians favorably. It will behoove Trump to remember that in giving face, good things happen.

Given the suddenness of the development and the unpredictable nature of both Kim and Trump, it is hard to predict the eventual outcome. However, Kim through South Korean intermediaries has already indicated that the topic of denuclearization is on the table – certainly a concessionary gesture.

If Trump is a fraction of the master negotiator he has said he is, he has a real opportunity to resolve the Korean debacle that has bedeviled American presidents since the end of the Korean War in 1953.

If so, he would deservedly be honored around the world as a statesman who made a major contribution toward world peace. He could look forward to ticker-tape parades not only in New York and Washington but in Beijing, Seoul, Pyongyang, even Moscow and Tokyo, too.

Back to making America great again

Then, after a suitable breather, Trump can go back to making America great again.

Ironically, Trump’s “America first” strategy will depend on not only getting along with China, but figuring out various ways of enlisting China’s assistance and cooperation.

Indeed, as a professor from the University of Texas pointed out in Fortune late last year, Trump could not begin to meet his own goal of rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure relying just on public and private capital from within the US.

Obviously the US needs capital from China, virtually the only source with the wherewithal to help. Furthermore, China has the proven skill set to plan and manage infrastructure projects that would be completed on time and within budget. Therefore, that means the US needs China’s goodwill.

David Firestein of the University of Texas suggests in his Fortune commentary that to avoid geopolitical controversy, the US invite only China’s private capital to participate. That distinction won’t work, because American policymakers have trouble distinguishing between China’s private and state-owned entities in any case.

Continuing to treat China as an adversary justifies America’s large defense budget but does nothing for the US as a whole – and won’t make America first

For example, Huawei is dominating global markets with its telecommunication products because of their cost-effective advantages. By alleging a shadowy connection of the founder with his previous affiliation with the People’s Liberation Army, the US has shut out Huawei, its privately held status notwithstanding. This is foolish xenophobia at its worst.

Continuing to treat China as an adversary justifies America’s large defense budget but does nothing for the US as a whole – and won’t make America first.

Consistent with Trump’s willingness to break the mold on dealing with North Korea, he should consider undertaking a brand-new, history-making approach with China.

To do so, it’s probably necessary first to dispel the many myths and misinformation about China that circulate inside the Washington Beltway.

Many in the US expect China to become a democracy as it becomes an economic power, and are deeply disappointed when China goes its own way. Such an expectation is in fact not supported by China’s past traditions and history, and can be attributed to a delusional mindset of the critics that every country must eventually be like the US.

The current government in Beijing believes in single-party rule in the name of ensuring internal order and stability. If anything, the  government of the People’s Republic of China is most like the city-state government of Singapore. Unlike the US, China does not attempt to export its way of governance to other parts of the world.

Thus nothing China has done could be considered provocative or hostile toward America. The Chinese do not try to interfere with the US elections. They do not engage in an arms race with the US.

They will not initiate a trade war because they understand very well that there will be no winners in a war of tit-for-tat rounds of retaliatory tariffs.

It’s true that China has become enormously successful in global trade. Its success comes from making products at a low cost and pricing them competitively. Its comparative advantage benefits consumers who buy its goods around the world.

Made-in-China industrial goods benefit the US economy and create jobs. For example, low-cost solar panels increase demand to convert to solar power. That demand creates an industry of panel assemblers and installers.

In a trade war, tariff protection for one sector of the economy will damage other sectors that depend on reasonably priced imports to build a business. Also hurt would be sectors that export, because their competitive advantages would be erased by retaliatory counter-tariffs. The net effect will be mutually assured damage or even destruction of the combatants’ own economies.

There is nothing to be gained by insisting on casting China as America’s adversary or everything to the good by treating China as a friend.

As I have commented previously, Chinese companies operating in the US have already demonstrated their ability to rebuild America’s infrastructure cost effectively, such as China Construction rebuilding the bridge over the East River in Manhattan and China Railway Rolling Stock replacing old subway cars in major US cities.

Both Chinese entities – yes, they are state-owned – delivered quality results relying on American labor. These projects resulted in local US investments and created local jobs. A long array of win-win outcomes awaits US-China cooperation, if Americans can get over their xenophobic bias and treat China as a peer and a partner.

Given President Trump’s bold move toward North Korea, he is just unorthodox enough to pull this off, namely change the narrative about the most important bilateral relationship in the world.

George Koo

George Koo retired from a global advisory services firm where he advised clients on their China strategies and business operations. Educated at MIT, Stevens Institute and Santa Clara University, he is the founder and former managing director of International Strategic Alliances. He is currently a board member of Freschfield's, a novel green building platform.

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