Why Trump played the ZTE card

The intensity of the -infamous- mercurial attitude of Donald Trump is very unpredictable. At times he displays extreme resentment on a certain matter but within few days he is seen taking altogether an opposite line on the very same issue. There are numerous examples that can be given to validate this unpredictability of Donald Trump and many analysts have put forward various theories to explain this impulsive trait in his management style. However, one thing is certain that he is ruthlessly selfish when it comes to gains and benefits. We have seen this trait in most of his strategic decisions.  But the manner in which has shown an “about turn” on the matter of rescuing Chinese electronics maker ZTE, more than a few people are shocked. Trump has long vehemently projected that China “is raping us” through unfair trade practices, and, therefore, snatching American jobs. Thanks to Trump’s decision to slap Chinese imports with a variety of tariffs, Washington and Beijing are currently engaged in intense talks to avoid a protracted trade war. Just a month ago, Trump’s own Commerce Department had put a ban on transfer of American technology to ZTE for seven years, saying that the company deliberately violated American sanctions against countries including Iran and North Korea and lied about punishing employees for doing so. As a result, ZTE had to stop major operations in the US—an outcome that must have pleased the belligerent Trump, considering he’d just imposed aluminium and steel tariffs on “national security” grounds, and ZTE was also threatening national security. So it was a bit weird to see Trump showing a complete 180, suddenly vigorously insisting that the company and its “75,000 Chinese jobs must be saved”.

“President Xi of China, and I, are working together to give massive Chinese phone company, ZTE, a way to get back into business, fast,” Trump further thumbed in his tweets. “Too many jobs in China lost. Commerce Department has been instructed to get it done!” What makes the matter more “unusual” is its timing. These words are coming from a sworn defender of American jobs. The man who has frequently alleged that China steals American jobs and technology and is causing a loss to the US to the tune of US$150-billion in tariffs. The most odd part of the whole episode is the timing of these tweets. These came just 72 hours after the developer of a theme park in Indonesia, MNC Lido City, signed a deal to receive $500 million in Chinese government loans. MNC Land signed a framework deal with China Jingye, a subsidiary of Chinese state-owned construction firm, Metallurgical Corporation of China (MCC). The Trump Organization, which is now being run by his sons Donny Jr. and Eric, has entered into a deal with MNC Land to license its name and provide technical support. This is where the opponents of Trump have been trying to find the link between his soft tweets about ZTE and Chinese investment in MNC Lido City project.

President Trump has failed to come up with a plausible explanation to justify his sudden about face on the ZTE matter. “Nothing has happened with ZTE except as it pertains to the larger trade deal,” is how he tried to muffle the growing criticism of controversial tweets. The media is suddenly rampant with stories pointing towards a conflict of interest in his policy shift towards ZTE.  Within 3 days after his ZTE tweets, Trump has been rebuked by the House Appropriations Committee which adopted an amendment requiring the Commerce Department to keep its sanctions against ZTE in place. The committee approved the amendment to the 2019 Commerce, Justice, and Science Appropriations bill by a unanimous voice vote. This amendment has not only apparently halted the efforts of President Trump to give some “concessions” to ZTE to save Chines jobs for the time being, but also intensified the anti-Trump rhetoric. Trump’s ZTE tweet has signalled a potential shift in administration policy heading into a week of high-level trade negotiations between the US and China. Washington and Beijing have threatened to impose tariffs on tens of billions of dollars of each other’s products, fuelling fears of a full-throttle trade war. One explanation is that President Trump, knowing well in advance that House Committee will pass the amendment to plug the possibility of any reversal on the ban of ZTE, has deliberately tweeted this matter at this time just to get media attention and the sympathy of Beijing - by showing his concern over loss of Chinese jobs – before the start of forthcoming round of talks. According to this theory, being a shrewd strategist, Trump knew well that things had gone out of his control to rescue ZTE, so he just tried to win some softness in the Chinese quarters by doing this “lip service”.

Whatever may be the true intentions behind these ZTE tweets, one thing is clear that a big chunk of the American media is not ready to spare President Trump and he is being brutally grilled on this matter. For example, The New York Times columnist, Paul Krugman went to the extent of using words “betray” and  “bribe”. “Did the president of the United States just betray the nation’s security in return for a bribe from the Chinese government? Don’t say that this suggestion is ridiculous: Given everything we know about Donald Trump, it’s well within the bounds of possibility, even plausibility”. Paul Krugman wrote in his column.  These are certainly very harsh words but Trumps has always loved and enjoyed such ruthless censure that keeps him in the limelight. He has always flourished in such situations. Also don’t forget that he needs China’s support in next month’s North Korea summit. It is always difficult to read his strategy properly.


The writer is a freelance columnist.

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