US China trade talks

Author: Ntsekhe Moiloa

In ‘A Farewell to Arms’ Ernest Hemingway wrote, “No, that is the great fallacy: the wisdom of old men. They do not grow wise. They grow careful.” As a rule-of-thumb he is right but evidently Hemingway had only met the likes of the women and men at Vunani and not anyone quite like US presidential trade advisor Peter Navarro or his boss, Donald Trump.

The picture below is one of the US trade team meeting their Chinese counterparts at the White House recently. Peter Navarro, was almost excluded after the Chinese complained that Navarro had behaved erratically and unprofessionally on the Beijing leg of the talks, according to a Bloomberg article on 16 May 2018.

Lu Xiang, a US affairs specialist at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said it was counterproductive to have Navarro involved in the talks. “Navarro’s views on economics and Sino-US relations have always been illogical and absurd, so I think having him as a member of the US negotiating team would not be beneficial to either side,” Lu said.

— South China Morning Post, 17 May 2018

The picture which was carried in the South China Morning Post looks like a bunch of mostly sixty-something year old men talking shop.

Nothing seems remarkable about the image until you take a picture from the other end. From the other end, it looks like young Chinese engaging with seventy and eighty-something year old Americans.

The picture above is doing the rounds on Chinese social media and so it provides a useful view of how the Chinese see themselves in the trade talks: younger, upright, focused, considered and quietly confident. The bottom half of that picture is the occasion of the Beijing signing of the 1901 Boxer Protocol between the Eight Nation Alliance and the Qing Empire. The Chinese today consider the Boxer Protocol to be one of the Unequal Treaties, a set of agreements signed with Western powers after military defeat or the threat of military action against China. On that occasion the old, wise envoys of the Qing dynasty were apparently outclassed by their more attentive and younger counterparts.

The story the pictures tell is that China has modified its approach since those days. While the West prevaricates on learning Mandarin and really understanding Chinese perspectives, China has sent its young abroad to be equipped to deal with the West on a better footing. And despite Donald Trump’s boasts that a US-China trade spat would be an “easy win” for the US, it is the Chinese that have emerged having conceded practically nothing.