Donald Trump won the election by selling his voters a story about national humiliation. America used to win, he would tell audience after audience, but now all we do is lose. Lose to Mexico, lose to Japan, lose to China. Lose, lose, lose. Elect me, he promised, and that will change. I will show you that America has the strength to stick it to any country that disrespects us. And that, American voter, will heal your wounded pride.
The Communist Party of China doesn't do elections, but even dictatorial regimes need popular support. The CPC tells a similar story of national humiliation and redemption – with itself as the author of the continuing redemption.
China was once the world's greatest power, but it declined and faltered. It became a feeble giant, and by the late 19th century, other countries were carving it up.
But now, under Communist leadership, China is again a superpower. Once China was humiliated; now it can humiliate others. And every once in a while, it must – to prove it can. The CPC's slogan is not "Making China Great Again," but it might as well be.
Over the past few weeks, these two remarkably similar national neuroses have repeatedly clashed. First, Mr. Trump spoke with Taiwan's President, Tsai Ing-wen, in a direct challenge to America's long-standing agreement to not directly challenge Beijing's One China policy. Mr. Trump also referred to Ms. Tsai as "Taiwan's president" – another diplomatic no-no for Beijing, which insists that Taiwan is a Chinese province.
As a strategy for negotiating a better trade deal with China – Mr. Trump later suggested that was partly what all of this was about – it's not likely to be a winner. But the main audience for Mr. Trump was not Beijing. China's just a foil. He's really talking to his voters' bruised psyches.
In dealing with China, President Barack Obama uses careful language and tries to lower tensions. He's doing diplomacy; Mr. Trump is doing a kind of anti-diplomacy. He's more interested in proving to his constituents that, unlike that wimp Mr. Obama, he doesn't care about the sensitivities of the second-most-powerful country on Earth. #MAGA!
China for its part has long salved the psyches of its nationalists with gestures designed to show that China is strong enough to disrespect others and get away with it. China's project of building artificial islands in the South China Sea, installing military bases on them and then pushing its claimed territorial waters ever closer to the coasts of its neighbours is a replay of 19th-century European empire-building. Like the last gasp of the European land grab, the so-called Scramble for Africa before the First World War, it's mostly about impressing the folks at home.
And in their encounters with the rest of the world, Chinese leaders often feel the need to engage in remarkably Trump-like displays of dominance.
Sometimes these are petty things, like the time earlier this year when Mr. Obama arrived at a G20 summit in China and discovered that the steps that should have allowed him to disembark from Air Force One onto a red carpet had mysteriously disappeared. He was instead forced to exit from what headlines referred to as "the ass of the plane."
At other times, Chinese leaders act out their frustrations by deliberately raising tensions. Take the recent seizure of an American underwater drone in international waters. With Mr. Obama still in office, the United States has minimized this minor provocation. Mr. Trump, in contrast, reacted by tweeting angrily and quickly – so quickly, and so clearly without consulting anyone, that he called China's move "unpresidented." He meant unprecedented.
In fact, Chinese provocations are not unprecedented. For example, in 2001, an aggressive Chinese fighter pilot accidentally crashed into a U.S. surveillance plane in international airspace, forcing the Americans to crash-land on Hainan Island. China, hoping to pressure the United States into ending perfectly legal surveillance off China's coasts, held the crew hostage for 10 days. Washington responded with firmness and calm – it sought to defuse the crisis, not inflame it.
In 2001, Beijing played Trump and Washington played the adults. What happens when both sides decide they want to be Trump?