Thomas Pauken is often introduced to new audiences as a Trump supporting American who has worked in China for over a decade and admires Xi Jinping and his government. Seeing as China and the US are supposedly on a neo-Cold War collision course, many find such a description beguiling. That not withstanding, even after the first two chapters of Pauken’s new book, US vs. China: From Trade War to Reciprocal Deal, one instantly begins to realise that totemic predictions regarding an inevitable (or even desirable) conflict between the US and China are largely fantastical – even though hardliners on both sides tend to wish this dangerous fantasy to become a reality. The devil in fact is in the details and luckily for readers, the details are endlessly more interesting than a manichaean approach to contemporary relations between America and China.
Pauken’s book begins by outlining specific quantitative, political, sociological, historical and cultural differences between China and the United States. He then offers a specific play-by-play of how China’s economy and society has generally gone one way since the late 70s whilst the US has tended to go in another.
What is notable about these sections is that Pauken mercifully avoids the equally perilous temptations of sentimentality and egg-headed pomposity. As such, Pauken is able to explain with clarity, both the successes and mistakes that both countries have made. Beyond this, he is able to do so without drawing any irksome value judgements. To be clear, Pauken who lives in Beijing is as critical (at times more so) of China’s methods than he is of America’s, but on the whole, Pauken remains cool headed when discussing the virtues and flaws of both countries over the last forty years.
The fact that when comparing and contrasting recent developments in both countries, Pauken provides ample statistics without resorting to inundating the reader with difficult to read tables and charts, is a further credit to his clear and inviting style of writing. Pauken has successfully turned both the contemporary histories of the world’s most important nations and the trajectory of the trade war into a narrative that is ultimately easy to follow in spite of its detailed progression over time.
The middle sections of the book are devoted to both charting and analysing the specific history of the current trade war. One of the main themes that Pauken deals with is how an American ignorance of Chinese culture and practices and an equal and opposite Chinese ignorance of American culture, each contributed to prolonging and intensifying a trade war that neither side seemed to think would last as long as it is lasting.
Pauken carefully dissects these concepts, exploring issues relating to policy, personalities (on both sides), interactions between the two sides and the future that each side seeks to play in the global economy. One of the major points made in this section relates to how even two nations seemingly guided by economic developments are able to succumb to personal misunderstandings. In this sense, high stakes trade negotiations aren’t all that different than the kinds of negotiations an ordinary businessman might face in his daily life.
The final sections of the book are one part analytical and one part unambiguous guide book for those with an interest in observing and contributing to the wider global discussions about the 21st century’s biggest trade war. Here, Pauken challenges assumptions that somehow China and the US cannot survive without a good trade deal with one another whilst also highlighting how a win-win trade deal which rejects the late 20th century’s model of liberal globalism can be a healthy win-win outcome for both the US and China. The fact that this section invites readers to think for themselves about what is happening in the news and what might happen in the near future, makes it all the more enticing.
As the trade war is seemingly far from over, Pauken’s book may well evolve into something of a sage like document which offered an untainted perspective on the potential for China/US cooperation in an era in which policy makers in both economic superpowers acknowledge the failures of past models.
Alternatively, if a trade deal is either long delayed or if the US and China do become bitter economic foes as the 21st century progresses, the first half of Pauken’s book will forever be a guide as to what went wrong. This is the case as Pauken has by no means shied away from explaining the pitfalls that have already and that could potentially make a difficult trade war into a phenomenon that crosses a point of no return.
Whilst such a scenario sounds ominous, Pauken’s overall tone is buoyant rather than depressing and this too corresponds well with both the attitude of Xi Jinping and Donald Trump – two leaders who in spite of their many differences, are nevertheless figures that exude optimism about their respective countries.
If one has heard about the trade war but never seriously investigated it – this book is for you.
If one has investigated the trade war but wants to know who is telling the truth and who is lying about how the world arrived at a China/US trade war – this book is for you.
If one wants both an introduction to the issues surrounding the trade war as well as expert analysis on what the trade war means for the future – this book is one you should read at least twice.
If you believe that China and the US are destined for some sort of clash of civilisations in spite of all else – this book might not be for you…or it might just open your mind to the possibility that neither Donald Trump nor Xi Jinping actually desire conflict.