Nigeen, Srinagar: The United States is wearying down China and India on trade. China and India don’t compare on trade. China is the world’s number two economy though still distantly so after the United States and the world’s largest manufacturing nation; India is in economic regression with statism guiding policies. Being the world’s two largest economies, the United States’ highest tariffs so far on $360 billion of Chinese exports to that country have shaken the global economy and spooked stockmarkets from New York and London to Tokyo and Bombay. After the United States president, Donald Trump, announced a hiatus on further tariff impositions on more Chinese goods at the G-20 summit to restart trade talks between the US and China, the world economy has got a breather. But the celebrations in the Chinese camp, albeit muted, are premature and may even be unwarranted. As anyone who has observed an expert kite flyer at work would vouch, a kite soars steadily higher with sharp draw-ins of the line punctuated with tugs and lags. Donald Trump, a master bargain-hunter and deal-maker, is doing just that. The analogy of the consummate fisher may also be applied to Trump. He has got the hook into the Chinese. He will land them just where he wants with about eighty-five percent certainty.

Xi Jinping in his much anticipated talks with Donald Trump spoke of a revival of “ping pong diplomacy”. It is an odd bit of historical reminiscence. Ping pong diplomacy goes to the heart of the US-China reconciliation made possible by Mao Zedong and Richard Nixon in the backdrop of the ended and continuing wars in Korea and Vietnam with Henry Kissinger acting as courier (to employ spy lexicon) for Washington. This goes back to the early nineteen-seventies. Ping pong diplomacy, however, was set in the Cold War and rooted in geopolitics (Deng Xiaoping’s reforms were still six years away in an unrevealed future) and Nixon aimed to nudge the Soviet Union towards detente with the United States itself by making a part-show, part-real tilt towards Moscow’s bitter rival by then: Peking, as Beijing was called in those days. What Nixon’s opening to China lead to is another story, whose fruits he never enjoyed being drummed out of office for the Watergate scandal. Although Xi Jinping is a “princeling”, it is still strange that he should make an oblique reference to Mao and not the strongman who actually put him in the succession line for China’s leadership, Deng, in the G-20 conversation with Trump. Trump privileges geo-economics over geopolitics. Rightly, he abhors war, violence and bloodshed while detachedly but determinedly preparing the United States military to pre-empt or resist those contingencies. There is no geopolitical sharing of interests between the US and China but a contrary scenario of a Thucydides Trap is much current. The United States is pointedly opposed to China’s attempted hegemony in the South China Sea, the Indian Ocean, Africa and elsewhere. Xi’s mention of ping pong reveals his psyche which is mired in geopolitics and may yet be the cause for China’s unstoppable decline. Trump, on the other hand, is pragmatic like Deng, the builder of China’s economy, who spoke of colour-neutral, mice-catching cats. In the end, pragmatism will trump (no pun intended) ideology, and Xi Jinping won’t even understand what‘s going on. Trump has an election looming and cannot appear war-like. If re-elected, he will turn out the smartest practitioner of geo-economics much as Richard Nixon changed the geopolitical game.

India in the meantime, ruled by the religious right, is completely bereft of such an understanding of geopolitics and geo-economics. Having reached a cul-de-sac of summit diplomacy without results that can benefit the country politically, economically or strategically, the regime is doing more of the same while expecting dramatically different outcomes. It goes against the laws of nature. The slavish media, guided by foreign office handlers, is producing reams of copy about India’s wonderful outing at the G-20. To get a glimmer of the truth, you should always check the opposition statement. The Chinese have made the same mistake about Trump, although the Chinese and Indian economies are scarcely comparable. The Indian economy is flailing and China will reach that benighted state soon unless it comes to an understanding with the United States. China sees Trump’s pause on further tariffs as a victory of sorts. The US “readout” speaks of the pause as “for now". It is highly conditional. The US “readout” also gives an accurate picture of the US-India talks in the G-20. Indian spokesmen have mentioned peripheral issues like defence ties and cultural relations (whatever that means) and made negligible mention of trade. The US “readout” is prosaic about G-20 conversations with India and speaks entirely and solely about trade.

In interpersonal relations, Donald Trump may be nice. Being the world’s most powerful man, he doesn’t have to come across as an ogre. South Asians make much of personal chemistry. Does it render Trump any less a trade hawk? Far from it. If India chooses to make light of trade differences with the United States, it is in for a series of shocks which would in all likelihood administer the coup de grace to the economy.