The US-China trade fight was never going to be easy – just like going to the dentist for long overdue root canal surgery. And like an infection complicating recovery from surgery, once resentment takes hold in nation-to-nation disputes things get harder – and more dangerous.

And the People’s Republic of China has now got a full-blown case of resentment.

This isn’t surprising, as China always simmers in resentment. But part of the problem is the US Government’s failure to explain itself properly.

American foreign policy, often as not, is all about “sending messages” and “signaling”. And it’s too often assumed that the intended target of a given action understands the intended message just as Washington does – and will respond appropriately.

So it is with China and trade. As the Trump Administration – and much of Congress – sees it, the United States is properly and belatedly standing up after 40 years of unopposed Chinese economic warfare.

This reasoning makes sense to many, if not most, Americans. Now, if only the Chinese were Americans.

Instead, the PRC claims this is all intended to keep China down by stifling Chinese technological prowess and legitimate competition. And it reeks of imperialism, colonialism, and racism – seeking to humiliate all 1.4 billion Chinese people.

Preposterous? Maybe to Americans – and many others on the receiving end of China’s decades-long trade assault and not making money from the PRC in some fashion.

But it’s not at all preposterous to many, many Chinese.

‘New Long March’

President Xi Xinping is telling his citizens to look at the trade war as it would a real war and to prepare for a ‘new long march’. And China’s defense minister vowed at last weekend’s Shangri-La Dialogue to “fight to the end.”

And nearly every week Chinese media produces a retired military officer or other commenters demanding Beijing skip the trade war and go straight to a ‘real’ war with the United States. The People’s Daily commented the other day: ‘Don’t say we didn’t warn you’. Since the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) controls the media it presumably is happy with such incendiary statements.

Rallying Chinese citizens around the flag also makes sense from the CCP’s perspective. What else can it say? “The Americans and Mr Trump have a point?” Hardly.

But tribal appeals to nationalism can paint a regime into a corner. And it’s hard to back down, especially for a dictatorship. Moreover, CCP leaders in Zhongnanhai might even start believing the rightness of what started as mere tactical demagoguery.

The PRC already resembles an angry drunk who’s talked himself into a fight.

Itching for a fight?

This would not be the first time in history a shooting war wasn’t contemplated — or not contemplated very seriously — in the early stages of a spat with a foreign adversary. Yet gradually armed conflict is viewed as in the national interest – and maybe even a matter of regime survival. And one had the impression – even before the ‘trade war’ that the PLA leadership is itching for a fight with somebody.

Perhaps the Chinese have this “gamed out” many moves ahead – to include when to tone down the histrionics that are part and parcel of Chinese foreign and business affairs. But maybe they are ‘winging it’ – now that the Americans are not backing down as they always have.

And at some point resentment can spin out of control, especially when there is only one narrative, and it’s heard over and over – i.e. Chinese victimization.

In fairness, Washington has tried to present its own narrative, but not in a consistent, repeated, understandable way that is easily internalized.

Even those of us who follow such matters have to do some digging – piecing together official speeches and statements, US Trade Representative reports, and Tweets. Ask 10 Americans why Washington has imposed tariffs on China and you’ll get 11 different answers. Ask them why China is angry and you’ll get “Century of Humiliation,” referring to the intervention and imperialism by Western powers and Japan in China from 1839 to 1949. 

This all reflects the US Government’s unimpressive track record at strategic communications – of coherently explaining and advocating its positions to win public and official support in and outside the United States.

And the shortcoming is doubly surprising since American businesses are the world’s best marketers and can sell people anything — even things they don’t want or need.

An unnamed American official commented to this writer:

“I agree that we [the US government] are useless at selling ourselves and the foreign affairs agency responsible has lost its way after being absorbed into the State Dept. I have yet to meet a savvy Madison Avenue type among them with a creative sense of what the foreign populace will go for, or even a clever ‘agitprop’ [political propagandist] who will cynically capitalize on an adversary’s gaffe. The risk fearing fluid that runs under their exoskeletons isn’t stout enough to be called blood. Instead, it’s a culture of deference wrapped in a cocoon of caution. Instead of the getting our message out there in a way that doesn’t offend, it’s about protecting the Ambassador from embarrassment, promoting some social engineering experiment or jingoistic boast, or promoting the Ambassador’s brand.”

US must find its voice

And explaining oneself is crucial when the opponent is a hyper-nationalistic, resentful dictatorship whose leaders will lose literally everything if they lose power – and not bounce between juicy think-tank, lobbyist, and academic sinecures while awaiting a return to the government payroll.

So while the US mumbles, Beijing excels at putting out a message and ensuring all parts of officialdom, media, and even business are in lock-step. Achieving such unity of effort is easier, of course, when a regime can ‘disappear’ people – or worse.

Time will tell how the US-China trade conflict plays out, but a stark sub-theme is the need for Washington to get its ‘voice’ – and not only about trade but on the fundamental principles of the American system of government. Such basic notions as consensual government, individual liberty, rule of law are increasingly under attack by the PRC and its few illiberal friends – and need defending.

The US Government really hasn’t had a ‘voice’ defending democratic ideals since Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Jeanne Kirkpatrick back in the 1970s and 1980s. In recent times former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley showed promise, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo sometimes does as well – though he often stumbles in the very next sentence.

Perhaps Vice President Mike Pence will fill this role? He’s interested in foreign affairs and gave a good speech on China in October 2018, and he reportedly has another ‘China’ speech in the works.

Regardless, without a convincing and repeatedly delivered narrative of one’s own all one hears is the other side. 

If America doesn’t get its ‘voice’, and fast, even a $750 billion defense budget may not be enough to protect it.