What if China paid for Donald Trump’s wall with Mexico?
Before you snort into your cornflakes thinking this might be a sick joke, just stop for a moment.
We have learned a number of things about Trump in his first few weeks as President. Principal among them is that he is a man of his word.
There may be concerns about the honesty of some of his comments, but he is fulfilling his election promises with shocking speed. Of all the things that differentiate Trump from a standard politician, this has to be number one. Trump did not say one thing in the election that he is not prepared to do in power.
He said he would change Obamacare. He has begun the process. He said he would implement a ban on Muslims. He has started. He said he would rip up the Trans-Pacific Partnership. It’s gone. He said he would renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with Canada and Mexico. He said he would build a wall with Mexico.
Regardless of whether you agree or disagree with Trump, you have to admit that he’s delivering on his promises.
What else did he say?
In his inauguration address, Trump quite clearly said “America First”. All partners of the US should take that as a rude wake-up call. Don’t think Trump will moderate later.
In his book The Art of the Deal he talks about a winning negotiation. To Trump a deal is always about someone winning and someone losing. This is fundamentally opposed to the rules of international politics.
In his treatment of Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, he has also shown he doesn’t understand one of the most important rules of diplomatic nicety: never embarrass your ally.
In discussions between world leaders as in trade negotiations, it is important that both sides can claim the conversation was good, constructive and a ‘win’.
If you add ‘America First’ to a negotiating mindset of ‘someone wins and someone loses’, then combine them with a propensity to embarrass even your allies, where will America’s friends be turning? Towards them, or away from them?
Which brings us to Mexico and China
What would you be thinking if you were the Mexican president?
You know that Trump wants to build a wall. You know Trump wants you to pay for it. You know that Trump wants to renegotiate NAFTA. You know that Trump’s character suggests that he wants to win, but he wants you to be seen to lose. You’ve seen him embarrass an ally like Australia.
If you were the president of Mexico you wouldn’t be looking for any help from Trump anytime in the next four years. Rather, you would be looking for alternative options.
Mexico is acutely aware that the ending of the Trans-Pacific Partnership has handed economic and political leadership in the Pacific to the Chinese through the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. Like Australia, New Zealand, the Philippines, Japan and other countries, Mexico needs to question both its ongoing relationship with the United States and its ongoing relationship with China.
And Trump is really pissing you off right now.
So what if the president of China called up the president of Mexico and said: “Have we got a deal?”
“Not only will we pay for that wall, we will give you a favourable trade agreement that makes up for NAFTA and the Trans-Pacific Partnership?”
All Mexico would have to do, perhaps, would be to allow a small Chinese military base to be built, I don’t know, somewhere near Tijuana.
Trump couldn’t complain that there was a Chinese military base right on the border could he, given that he had built an impenetrable wall there? And China paid for it.
Just a few short weeks ago a suggestion like this would have seemed fanciful beyond belief. Indeed, for China to do so would be against their interests as at the moment the Chinese are better off sitting back and watching how many allies Trump will push away.
Today, while there is no indication from either Mexico City or Beijing that this is being discussed, one can see a possibility that Trump’s actions could have unexpected consequences.
Unless Trump learns very quickly that in international relations life is about moderation, tact and that a deal is not about one side winning or one side losing, he may find he can ‘Make America Great Again’, but only by Making America Alone Again.
Andrew MacLeod is a visiting Professor at Kings College London, a corporate director in Australia and the US, a former high level UN official and former CEO of the Committee for Melbourne. He can be followed on @AndrewMMacleod