Ray Dalio: Chinese-American misunderstandings, disputes, and wars

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From Ray Dalio:

A wise Chinese leader who I will keep unnamed told me that it pays to negotiate by finding out what the other party wants most and try to give it to them and to have them reciprocate rather than to find out what will hurt the other party and give that to them because little wars have a tendency to quickly get out of control to become big wars and anyone who has ever gotten into a big war wishes that they hadn’t because they are so horrible. He referred to World War I as the classic example, while noting that it was true for most wars. He hopes that the Chinese-US trade disagreement doesn’t move from a dispute to a war of any sort.

What is moving the disagreement from a dispute to a war is the fact that there are no international rules or international organizations (like WTO) that the disagreeing parties are willing to go to for binding arbitration, so they use carrots and sticks to test each other’s strengths, pushing each other until one backs down. Because Chinese and American leaders have all sorts of carrots and sticks (e.g., economic, military, cyber, etc.) that they can use, they are now determining which ones to use, how far to push the testing, and how far the other will go in inflicting pain and enduring it. The escalations come in the form of tit-for-tats—i.e., a series of escalations that can become progressively larger and more painful, and that take different forms that can extend beyond trade (e.g., to include capital wars). It’s this series of escalations that the wise Chinese leader that I referred to conveyed can easily get beyond anyone’s control.

In response to the US putting on its $50 billion of tariffs, the Chinese responded saying, “the Chinese side doesn’t want to fight a trade war, but facing the shortsightedness of the US side, China has to fight back strongly. We will immediately introduce the same scale and equal taxation measures, and all economic and trade achievements reached by the two sides will be invalidated.” The Trump administration threatened to retaliate to that by adding another $100 billion of tariffs. Right now, these numbers are very small in relation to the US’s nearly $20 trillion economy and China’s economy, which is of comparable size in purchasing power terms, so that the shots that have been fired have been more of symbolic and political significance than of material economic significance. For that reason, it’s too early to get excited about them though, as the previously referred to Chinese leader said, they can escalate to become very serious, so we are all watching intently.

While I and people who are more knowledgeable than I believe the trade-balance issue can be solved so that everyone is better off, the more challenging disputes revolve around how the two countries believe their countries should be run and how that affects their perceptions of what “fair trade” is and how their companies should be supported.

The Fundamental Differences in Values and Approaches

A different wise and high-ranking Chinese official told me the most important cultural difference between Americans and the Chinese arises from the fact that to Americans the individual is of paramount importance while to the Chinese the family is most important. He explained that these deep-seated differences extend to how Americans and the Chinese run their governments, noting that the two characters that make up the word country in China are “state” and “family.” As a result of these deep-seated differences in views about what is best, leaders in China seek to run the country the way a family head would run a family, from the top down, putting the collective interest ahead of the individual’s self-interest, with each member knowing their place so the system works in a harmonious way. In the US, the opposite is true. Individuals are of paramount importance so the country is run from the bottom up, putting the interests of the individual ahead of the interests of the collective, with more open conflict and less respect for authority considered preferable. These differences become manifest in all sorts of ways. For example, when a highway needs to go through personal property, individual property rights will more likely stand in the way of that happening in the US than in China, and when leaders are chosen, it’s more from the top down in China while it’s more bottom up in the US. Similarly, leaders in China manage the companies in key industries more from the top down in support of the national interests, whereas the opposite is true in the US, where how companies are managed comes from the bottom up. That’s where the rub lies…

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