The best asset Donald Trump has are his enemies. The US media pore over his every tweet, follow the inside leaks, obsess over his style. The American political establishment also fails to see that Trump is not stupid or irresponsible, just different. When he is at home, the noise of excessive news blurs the signals. The result is that it is when Trump goes abroad that he gets a good press. People actually listen to what he says. Being a shrewd businessman, first, and a politician very much second, Trump plays every negotiation as a long game. His rhetoric changes, contradicts itself and often sounds totally convincing. This is because he has one voice for his American fans who like their meat raw and the message short and sharp. When he goes abroad, he knows they are not listening. They don’t read the wordy newspapers. He can become his shrewd deal making self. He is a chameleon. This is the reason why everyone is surprised at his Asia visit. Trump has a good personal rapport with every leader he had to meet. Even South Korea’s president Moon Jae-in was charmed by him up close, whatever Trump may have said in Washington DC about him. China’s president Xi Jinping has figured him out. So, unlike the scarcely hidden contempt with which European leaders greet him, he gave Trump a State-visit plus reception. This was the highest honour China has accorded to any visitor. Xi understands that for the foreseeable future only the US and China are going to matter. The world has gone G2.
Both these men gave limited patience with multilateral efforts at global governance. They use the UN for grandstanding, but ignore it when it suits them. The Paris Agreement irks Trump, but Xi is happy to go along because he knows none of the promises made about reducing emissions are enforceable. Trump behaves like US politicians have often behaved in the international arena. It did not join the League of Nations though Woodrow Wilson had proposed it. They did not join the International Trade Organisation launched at Havana in 1944. So, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade had to be invented which, 50 years later, became the WTO. America is unilateral when that suits it. Europe may still think it matters, but its leaders only reflect the prejudices of liberal democracy which the losers on the American side display. Trump knows that the centre of economic gravity has moved eastwards. He can leave the Europeans to their pretensions and follow the money. Thus, in terms of global diplomacy, Trump,will play duopoly with China.
The money is East of the Bosphorus with the Saudis, the Indians, the Chinese and Japanese. Trump knows that selling arms is an important part of his job. That involves boasting about how well armed the American military is. Armaments is one sector where the US has a trade surplus. While economists and financial journalists despair at Trump’s attitude to trade deficits, Trump knows that if he can get deals done on his travels, it all adds up. The $10 billion deals made in Beijing will add up. Trump plays a straight game when closing the deal, though he wanders all over till he gets there. India will have to adapt to this world. Trump is friendly, and friendship with the US is the only insurance India can buy. China will blow hot and cold because it has the long-standing grudge about the border. India has to understand that, for China,the border imposed by the British is an unjust one. They want their land back. India has to understand the strong nationalist sentiment of the Chinese.
But no Indian leader can give territory away. Some formula will have to be found which can smooth a transition in which China gets back much of its lost territory from what used to be part of Tibet. Indian politicians have not yet woken up to the intensity of Chinese feeling on this. How any leader can convey to the Indian people that the border is illegitimate is difficult to guess. Of course, the one road is war. It has to be avoided as far as possible. But there has been a frozen peace on the Himalayan border for the last 60 years. Doklam was a small incident, but there will be many more such. Xi wants to take China to its old glory, and make it the dominant power it used to be. China has devoted its last 40 years to building up a powerful economy and army. One purpose for this was regaining China’s glory. In a G2 world, India has to be much more focused on its growth and military, and devise a diplomacy which makes sure that somehow this problem can be solved without bloodshed. It will not be easy.