The Summit: 5 Things Trump Needs to Know before Meeting Xi Jinping

Xi Jinping at 2016’s U.S.-China Strategic Dialogue in Beijing. Flickr/U.S. Department of State

What happens when the Art of War meets the Art of the Deal?

President Donald Trump is readying himself to play host to Chinese president Xi Jinping this week at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida. Herewith, five largely commonsense insights. But as sci-fi master Robert Heinlein might put it: while these insights aren’t hard for Americans to fathom intellectually, they are hard to grok, or feel in the gut.

Here is what Trump should anticipate:

Expect Head Games

All Chinese Communist Party (CCP) supremos play head games with U.S. presidents, and Xi Jinping is no exception. This week’s summit takes place in peacetime, but a warlike precept from strategist Carl von Clausewitz suggests how President Xi may try to shape American thinking about Asian affairs. Writes Clausewitz, the “political object,” also known as the goal, governs how rational actors conduct power politics. That being the case, the value of this object must determine the sacrifices to be made for it in magnitude and also in duration. Once the expenditure of effort exceeds the value of the political object, the object must be renounced and peace must follow.

In other words, how much a competitor covets its political goal determines how lavishly it invests diplomatic, economic and military resources to acquire that goal, and for how long it sustains the investment. The Clausewitzian formula resembles the classic physics formula distance = rate x time. The magnitude of an endeavor refers to the rate at which a competitor expends resources—lives, treasure, military hardware and so forth—while the duration is the time it keeps up the expenditure. Run the arithmetic and you calculate an endeavor’s price tag.

How much a combatant wants it thus impels both the magnitude and duration of an effort. Place great value on the political object, and you spend a lot for a long time. Go into a venture more tepidly and you spend less, persevere for a shorter time, or both. Here’s the coda: if the enterprise becomes too expensive, or if it drags on for too long, or if political leaders stop caring about their aims enough to justify the investment, Clausewitz counsels them to cut their losses and abandon the effort on the best terms they can.

Cost/benefit logic opens opportunities for an opponent’s mischief-making. Think about Taiwan. How could Xi discourage Trump from intervening should Beijing opt to use force in the Taiwan Strait? Well, he can manipulate the variables in Trump’s Clausewitzian calculus. He can try to depress the value Washington assigns to the island’s de facto statehood. He can try to convince Trump that preserving Taiwanese independence against a PLA military onslaught in China’s backyard would cost America exorbitantly. Or he can do both.

On the value-of-the-object side of the function, Xi could depict Taiwan as an ally of negligible value to the United States. Relations with Taipei, goes this storyline, do little except entrap Washington in Asian quarrels that imperil U.S. diplomatic and economic interests. In effect, Xi could reprise Adm. Dennis Blair’s infamous quip that Taiwan is a “turd in the punchbowl” of U.S.-China relations. Xi could ask, sotto voce: how much value does America attach to a turd? Taiwan isn’t worth the costs, hazards and hardships of fighting China.

But if politics opens some space to play head games, Xi’s better tactic by far is to accentuate how much military intervention would cost America and for how long. That’s what China’s anti-access/area denial strategy is all about: threatening to impose costs so frightful that no president would order the U.S. military into battle. Trump might hesitate at a critical juncture. Or if Xi does his work well, then he might dishearten Trump altogether and persuade him to believe that such an undertaking would be foredoomed regardless of how many resources Washington sank into it.

Either way, cost/benefit logic would discourage an American defense of Taiwan. So there’s a Clausewitzian lens through which to refract Chinese diplomatic strategy vis-à-vis not just Taiwan but the Senkaku Islands showdown with Japan, maritime disputes with various contenders in the South China Sea, or really any controversy that pits the United States and its allies and friends against China. Comprehending an antagonist’s strategy constitutes the beginning of a wise counterstrategy.

China Is Relentless

This isn’t mere gamesmanship on Xi’s part, or a type of shenanigans CCP officials attempt only during meetings with foreigners. It is standard practice. Chinese strategists boast openly of waging “three warfares” during wartime and peacetime alike. That means deploying psychological, legal and media implements on a 24/7/365 basis to bend opinion in China’s favor.

This is an approach with a long pedigree in Chinese diplomacy and strategy. Millennia ago Chinese general and scribe Sun Tzu exhorted sovereigns and commanders to arrange matters so as to win without fighting. The victor, he insisted, won its battles before the army even strode onto the battleground. Only the defeated fought in hopes of victory.

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