New Delhi: Conventional wisdom says that China will win the trade game of chicken with the United States. Is that the case? Not so fast.

Donald Trump, the United States president, starts off being on a weak wicket. He is no longer popular with a majority of Americans. The investigations of Robert Mueller into the Russian meddling in the presidential election that Trump won hangs over his head like a sword.

His administration is the most divided amongst recent presidencies. A secretary of state, two national security advisors, the FBI director, and a large number of White House aides to the president have been fired. The sacking of the FBI director, James Comey, has brought Trump closest to the charge of obstruction of justice which, if proved, would make his continuation untenable.

Donald Trump has also not assumed office with any great vision. It may be argued that this is not the age for great vision and that philosophic history is dead. Nevertheless Trump has touched bottom with such slogans as “America first” and “Make America great again.” Even in decline, America is matchless. It remains the greatest politico-economic and military power and it continues to lead in innovation.

Donald Trump’s single biggest handicap is that he is an elected leader. In a little over two-and-a-half years, he will have to participate in a bruising and nerve-wracking re-election bid. There is no guarantee that he will be re-elected. Xi Jinping, the other contender in the game of chicken with Trump, has just made himself president-for-life. He doesn’t have to bother about elections, ratings and nasty press coverage at least in mainland China. Trump has often spoken in envy of Xi and the other dictator, Vladimir Putin.

The trade war that Trump virtually has declared on China is not unjustified though. China has build up a massive trade imbalance with the United States running into $65 billion in just two months of this year and over $375 billion in all of 2017. Trump began with tariffs on steel and aluminium and has quantified duties exclusively to be levied on Chinese imports. US economists are divided on the trade war and Trump has fewer backers than he should like. They say Chinese retaliation will hurt Americans more than the Chinese who are inured to hardship and that China is targeting Trump’s core constituencies for immediate and special punishment. Economists and the American political class as a whole expect Trump to blink first and hand over victory to Xi and further advantages against the US economy.

This is the broad narrative of conventional wisdom and it is hard to challenge. Since economics and trade depend so much on sentiments, staying power, and so on, there is a particular danger of the fear of economic reverses becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. And yet, this writer is not entirely convinced of the gloom and doom picture. US vulnerabilities are systematically exposed but the frailties of China are somehow ignored.

For example, Xi may be a dictator for life, but he cannot risk economic decline any more than Trump. Indeed, he may have less room for failure. He has won himself perpetual rule on the condition of growth of China’s economic power. Democracies have resisted totalitarian states prior and won. The two world wars and the Cold War testify to this. If the American people put aside their differences and rally behind Trump, knowing his cause for a fight with China to be just, which it is, Xi’s confidence in the game of chicken will be shaken. He will sue for compromise. The China of today is different from the China of 1949. Today, China is built on the social contract reached between the state and the Tiananmen Square dissenters. If China slips economically, it will open spaces for political turmoil. Xi knows this and the Chinese communist party even better.

So Donald Trump does not come into the trade conflict with zero cards. And there’s Trump’s personality to consider in addition. A remarkable change has come over him. He refuses to be constrained by the aides who take the cautious and traditional line of establishment America. Against establishment advice, he has decided to confront China on trade. His toughness on North Korea has had some effect on Kim Jong-un. Trump seems like a man possessed today. He is very clear on China and the trade imbalance. He is right that the situation cannot be allowed to continue. It is still possible that he may blink first.

But somehow it does not look the case.