Duels have their charm. One highlight of the last televised presidential gunfight was this exchange. Donald Trump: “I mean, I sat in my apartment today on a very beautiful hotel down the street . . .”
Hillary Clinton: “. . . made with Chinese steel . . .”
But the presidential duel looks different when viewed from Asia, where I spent last week.
Many people in the West assume the Chinese fear a Trump win. After all, a recurrent theme of his campaign has been that American jobs have been lost to China and only protectionist tariffs and tougher trade deals will repair the damage.
He was at it again on Wednesday night. “China is growing at 7%,” he told the audience in Las Vegas. “We are growing . . . around the 1% level . . . Look, our country is stagnant. We’ve lost our jobs. We’ve lost our businesses. We’re not making things any more . . . Our product is pouring in from China.”
As Clinton — or rather her vast army of fact-checkers — pointed out, Trump has been saying such things for nearly 30 years. In 1987, when Ronald Reagan was president, Trump took out a full-page advertisement in The New York Times to lambast Reagan’s trade policy.
Clinton had her carefully sharpened stiletto at the ready when Trump began bragging about his “beautiful hotel”. But no one in Beijing will have been surprised by the revelation that the Trump International hotel in Las Vegas is made of Chinese steel, like almost every item of Trump merchandise you can buy on the campaign trail (apart from those “Make America great again” baseball caps).
Far from being fearful about the (now remote) prospect of a Trump presidency, my friends in Beijing have generally followed his campaign with amused scepticism. “He’s a businessman,” as one of them put it. “We know what he says on the campaign trail doesn’t mean anything. If he wins, we can do deals with him.”
It’s Clinton the Chinese worry about. “It was actually Hillary Clinton . . . who launched the [US] pivot to Asia,” wrote an indignant contributor to the South China Morning Post recently, “a provocative, overmilitarised gambit [that was] liable to spin out of control.”
The consensus in Beijing is that Clinton would be more forceful than Barack Obama in upholding freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, “which is code for the US navy forever controlling the sea lanes straddling China’s supply chain”, in the words of the Post.
Although Clinton has been forced by the left of her party to disavow the Trans-Pacific Partnership — “the China-excluding, Nato-on-trade-style arm of the pivot” — the Chinese view is that she will reverse her position as soon as she is elected.
Nor is Clinton disliked only as a hawk. China’s leaders have not forgotten the time when, as secretary of state, she accused them of “trying to stop history, which is a fool’s errand”. Their human rights record, she said, was “deplorable” . They had good reason to be “worried” by the example of the Arab Spring. Even in last week’s debate she could not resist a dig at China’s old policy of forced abortions. And let’s not forget her line about China’s “illegal dumping of steel and aluminium into our markets”.
On a visit to Singapore I picked the brains of the veteran diplomat Kishore Mahbubani, as shrewd a judge of the Asian scene as I know. For the Chinese, he told me, the choice between Trump and Clinton seems like a choice between chaos and cold war. The more they have seen of Trump, the less amusing they have found him. But they have seen enough of Clinton to know they can’t stand her. Mahbubani predicts 2017 will be a year of Sino-American tension if Clinton wins.
In election years the race becomes all-consuming. Then, even before inauguration day, we are reminded with a jolt that there is a big, bad world beyond the electoral map. All eyes turn from North Carolina to the South China Sea.
As the China Daily newspaper gloated earlier this month, this year really has “highlighted the defects in the US election system and the dysfunction of democracy”. Or, to be more precise, it has exposed the defects in the two-party system.
According to my Hoover Institution colleague Morris Fiorina, the binary character of US politics has become an anachronism in a world where nearly all democracies have become multiparty systems. Even Britain, the birthplace of Whigs and Tories, has followed this trend.
Yet nearly 40% of Americans define themselves as “moderates”, more than conservatives (roughly a third) and liberals (a quarter). About the same proportion identify themselves as “independents”, not Republicans or Democrats. On key issues, “centrists” predominate. Fiorina says voters can be divided into eight distinct groups in terms of their views on foreign, economic and cultural policy, so why, he asks, are only two of those groups catered for by a party? The others are bound to be disappointed by at least part of what they get.
What would have happened if the former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg had decided to run for president as an independent instead of stepping back, as he did on March 7? At the time Bloomberg reasoned that he could not win the 270 electoral college votes necessary to secure the presidency and that the unintended consequence might be to put Donald Trump in the White House — a risk he could not take “in good conscience”.
That was seven long months ago. It was a decision based on polls that naturally understated Bloomberg’s potential, as he had not been campaigning, while others had been at it for months. It was a decision that surely underestimated how disgusted voters would become with the candidates of the two main parties. It also underestimated how disgusted Republican congressmen would become with Trump.
If the contest had been inconclusive, with no candidate gaining the magic number of electoral college votes, it would have been referred to Congress, as the constitution requires. But might not Bloomberg still have won?
As he said at the time of his decision, the US political system needs nothing so much as a chief executive capable of brokering compromises between legislators on tax, welfare and immigration reform. There would surely be a better chance of such deals with an independent in the White House, even if the two parties maintained their dominant positions in the Senate and the House of Representatives.
Similarly, what the international order needs most is an American president capable of cooling hot heads and avoiding a confrontation with China over the South China Sea. In this respect, too, Bloomberg would have been by far the best candidate, for he has long understood the crucial importance of “Chimerica”, the symbiotic economic relationship between the People’s Republic and the United States that has been the engine of global growth since the 1990s.
We’ll never know what a Bloomberg presidency would have been like. But I am pretty sure that the day to establish a true Independent Party has finally arrived.
Enough duels. A three-party state is the right response to the challenge posed by a rising one-party state.