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Commentary: As political storms swirl, embattled Trump may ramp up China fight in 2019

Bill Emmott (Mainichi)

Over his two years in office, it has been hard to imagine that the political winds swirling around U.S. President Donald Trump and through the corridors of the White House could become any wilder and less predictable. But that is what looks likely to happen in 2019. And the typhoons promise to have big geopolitical and economic consequences.

    There are three obvious reasons why 2019 promises to be a dramatic year for Trump. The first is that the new House of Representatives that takes office on Jan. 3 will have a Democratic majority, which is sure to use its power to try to dislodge him from office, whether by forcing him to release his personal tax returns or by pressing for his impeachment, or by other forms of attack.

    The second is that the investigation by special prosecutor Robert Mueller into alleged crimes by the Trump campaign in 2016, including collusion with Russia, will come to its conclusion early in the year and will likely provide plenty of evidence to support those attacks. It is already clear that Mueller has found evidence of many crimes and of previously undisclosed contacts with Russian government representatives. The question that remains to be answered is whether those crimes and contacts will prove politically significant or not.

    And the third reason for drama is that Donald Trump will enter the year engaged in a battle of wills with China and its President Xi Jinping, officially over trade but in practice over defence, security and even global leadership. As the pressure from the House of Representatives grows and as the Mueller investigation yields more of its secrets, so the incentive to be more aggressive against China will increase, too.

    For all those obvious reasons, President Trump is going to have a tempestuous new year. What is not at all obvious, however, is where this will lead, for him, for the United States and for the world.

    We can make some fairly good predictions about how President Trump will behave in response. All the evidence of the past two years shows that when he feels attacked, he fights back, angrily and bitterly. Moreover, he has a ready-made form of political response, one which he has used before and which was used in the past in Italy by the previous political leader who most resembles Trump, namely Silvio Berlusconi.

    As prime minister from 2001-06 and again from 2008-11, the billionaire, narcissistic media mogul Berlusconi was beset by a series of scandals and legal attacks. He responded by casting himself as persecuted, a kind of martyr, a victim of politically biased judges, prosecutors, journalists and of course politicians. Trump already follows this playbook. In 2019, he will likely turn the victim tactic into a full-blown strategy, one even designed to try to win himself re-election for a second term in 2020.

    What President Trump is also likely to do in response is to present himself as a leader who is standing up boldly and bravely for American national interests and against foreigners. His slogan has remained "Make America Great Again," so he will surely do his best to look like he is personifying a renewal of American power in the world. That is likely mainly to mean confronting China.

    As the trade war with China has steadily ramped up during this year, with tariffs being imposed by both sides and even tougher measures threatened, it has generally been assumed that eventually a deal will be reached, or at least a ceasefire. In most of his other confrontations, such as over the trade pact with Canada and Mexico or North Korea's nuclear weapons programme, Trump has fairly swiftly backed down, eager to claim a victory.

    Yet the confrontation with China is different. It is not just a show of bravado, but is rather a strategic battle between the 21st century's only two superpowers that is being fought on many issues and not just one. It is about pre-eminence but also about strategic control -- control of security, control of technology, control even over each country's future. Moreover, this is a battle that gains support from a wide range of political constituencies in the United States, because fear of China is itself widely shared.

    On the Chinese side, there are also strong motivations to act and look tough. President Xi Jinping has built his own power on the basis of the centralisation of control and of strengthening China's economic and political status in the world. The domestic political weaknesses of the Trump administration are as obvious to China as they are to everyone else. That is likely to make China believe that domestic turbulence will ultimately weaken American resolve and perhaps inflict long-term damage on the U.S. constitution, too.

    What this means is that both these presidents will have good reasons to continue their battle throughout 2019 since neither will want to look weak or to be seen to be defeated. The more that President Trump becomes cornered and beleaguered, the tougher and more confrontational his stance on China could become.

    Certainly, he will have other options as to where to show his toughness and to try to rally patriotic and especially Republican support. One will be Iran, the country towards which he has already taken a tough approach by withdrawing from the nuclear agreement his predecessor Barack Obama signed jointly with the European Union, Russia and China. Another could be Russia, for there may seem to be no better way to disprove allegations of collusion during the 2016 campaign than by becoming more and more confrontational.

    Yet the most tempting target may well still be China. As the political typhoons swirl through the White House and up Pennsylvania Avenue next year, the effects of those storms promise to be felt far away, in the South China Sea, on the Korean Peninsula, in Japan and in the entirety of world trade. 2019 may prove to be an interesting, even exciting year, but it is unlikely to be a comfortable one. (By Bill Emmott)

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