New Delhi: Which side is likely to blink in the United States-China trade war? This writer’s candidate is China. The trade war really boils down to a simple question: Which side can sustain greater losses for a longer time? You might intuitively say China because it is totalitarian and does not have to answer to public opinion like the United States has to. Not so. Being a democracy, the United States can sustain greater shocks. Democracies are used to ups and downs. In contrast, totalitarian states are brittle. They will crack under unbearable distortions and pressures.

There is an old saying, “Thrice is he armed who hath his quarrel just.” Donald Trump, the United States president, has a just quarrel with China. With the marginal exception of Ronald Reagan, every single US president since Richard Nixon has supported China’s rise. This is partly in gratitude for China’s role in supplementing US efforts to contain the Soviet Union in the Cold War. China’s decision to stay substantially out of the Vietnam War also allayed suspicions of Red China generated during the Mao Zedong- Chiang Kai Shek clashes during the Chinese civil war.

Dark clouds of suspicion, however, gathered during the Tiananmen Square crisis which the Chinese were convinced had US intelligence roots. In counter, it could be argued that Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms could not have succeeded without America’s encouragement and participation. By then, the United States had also supplied its own justification for empowering the Chinese economy. China’s economic success, it was argued, was the most durable insurance against the spread of communism again. Home to masses of people, it needed a new deal.

The souring of America’s China dream nevertheless happened early but few paid it the attention it deserved. In that strain, Chinese mercantilism is scarcely new. China’s abuse of globalization is also settled history. That China manipulates the currency and grossly subsidizes production as to disqualify it as a market economy has been held against it by trade pundits for years. Although the more recent US presidents were aware of China abusing America’s open trade system; of coercing American companies to part with technologies and innovations as a price for remaining in China; of stealing US advancements outright where coercion was not possible, and so on, they chose not to act. Big business desired no disruption in US-China trade despite the ballooning deficit in China’s favour. Elected to office by impoverished Middle America, Donald Trump refused to accept the sustained assault on the US economy by mercantilist nations like China. He has refused further trade concessions to NATO allies as well but sees China as a top violator. Its tit-for-tat tariffs have incited the former real estate businessman and deal shark to fury. As the Chinese will come to know soon, Donald Trump plays hard ball when US interests are at stake.

The Chinese, on the other hand, stand on a weak wicket on account of their deceit. Hit by Trump’s tariffs, the Chinese whinge about the moral imperative of free and fair trade. How does a $375 billion trade deficit with the United States constitute fair trade? Just because past US presidents were tolerant of Chinese brigandage does not mean the loot will go unchallenged forever. Donald Trump means every word he says about “America First” and making America “great again”. Loathe him if you will, but more than half of America conceivable backs his tough trade measures. There is a reasonable chance that Western Europe and Canada could negotiate their differences with the United States because the survival of the Western Alliance hangs in the balance. But China’s brazen mercantilism is not easily forgotten or forgiven. Xi Jinping, the Chinese strongman, has to capitulate to Trumpism.

Capitulation does not come easily to the Chinese who fancy China as the universal Middle Kingdom. Capitulation would be still harder for Xi who has just recently made himself dictator for life. The Chinese leadership is paranoid about losing face. It is a cultural trait. They like predictability and incremental changes. Trump, on the other hand, prides himself as a disrupter. He could not be bothered that if Xi loses face in the trade war, he is finished as China’s super boss. The knives will be out for him. There is, however, another facet of the trade war that probably also gives nightmares to Xi. If the Chinese economy declines in consequence of the trade war, it would directly reflect on the Chinese communist party’s ability to helm the Chinese ship of state expertly and beneficially. Deng’s reforms led to prosperity in which the Tiananmen Square crisis with its core demand for political freedom was set aside. A downturn will likely return the cauchemar of Tiananmen. Donald Trump has cornered Xi Jinping.