Trump Versus China: What’s Really at Stake

Why you should care

Because nature abhors a geopolitical vacuum, too. 

The author, deputy director and acting director of the CIA from 2000 to 2004 teaches at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

The economy of Asia is likely to drive the 21st century. Leaders of most nations would believe the United States should maintain and even expand its role there. And yet, the U.S. runs a very high risk of doing exactly the opposite — turning away from the region and ceding its leadership in Asia.

The new U.S. administration and its Democrat rivals seem willing to abandon the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) — the product of years of complex negotiations begun in the Bush administration and expanded under President Obama. At the same time, China continues to rise as a regional power with global influence. Indeed, China so dwarfs other Asian nations in size, population and economic heft that most of the regional economies depend heavily upon it. Even close American allies like Australia, Korea and Japan send China 34 %, 25% and 19% of their exports, respectively.

As the U.S. pulls back, or threatens to, leaders of these countries see China’s most ambitious ruler in decades, Xi Jinping, implementing expansive programs aimed at integration. The 57-member Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) has now been joined by nearly all Asian countries except Japan, along with most of our European and Middle Eastern allies and partners. Then there is Xi’s “One Belt, One Road” plan, under which China has begun work on rail, port and road facilities to connect it with the Middle East and Western Europe.

And most recently, Xi has been moving into the vacuum created by the U.S. moonwalk on the TPP by negotiating a trade pact of his own. This is the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which is pulling in 16 of the world’s fastest-growing economies, comprising 12% of global trade and one-half of the world’s population.

Experts can quibble about the merits and feasibility of all these Chinese programs, but the broader point, not lost on Asia, is that China is out front pushing ideas while the U.S. has given only limited substance to its five-year-old idea of an Asian “pivot.” Meanwhile, our two major political parties are either hostile to or divided on the TPP, a central tenet of the pivot — and one that many Asian leaders took political risk to negotiate.

In gauging Asian opinion, I find that Singapore, a tiny country that has managed to survive and prosper among giants, often produces the region’s savviest interpretation of trends. So the Singapore foreign minister probably captured the Asian sentiment well when he recently cautioned a Washington audience to avoid using military pressure as the main U.S. lever in Asia. “Trade is strategy, and you’re either in or you’re out,” he said (my emphasis added). “How can you be taken seriously if, having committed so much of your prestige to this, you don’t do it?”

This is essentially what I hear in private contacts with Asians, too. Yes, China’s power is growing, perhaps inevitably. But, they say, that’s all the more reason the U.S. should retain strong economic integration and influence in the region — as a balance to Beijing.

Experts certainly differ on many aspects of trade, but it’s clear that our nation’s middle class, the core of Trump’s constituency, gets much of its purchasing power from trade in the form of lower-cost goods. And while lower wages overseas account for the loss of some American jobs, the more systemic cause is the damage to U.S. competitiveness by lax labor standards and laws in other countries. This is precisely the sort of thing that the TPP would correct, making American workers more competitive and giving U.S. industry a level playing field.

Truth be told, Trump voters should be pressing him, and hard, to reverse his promise to cancel the Trans-Pacific deal on day one of his presidency. Without the TPP, his alternatives are all self-defeating. Raising tariffs sounds appealing, but it would only limit the availability of goods and hurt the poorest Americans. And negotiating bilateral deals with major Asian countries — most of which will be sucked faster and faster into China’s orbit — would make Trump’s business-world deals seem like Monopoly play.

Some years ago Donald Trump reportedly said: “You have to think anyway, so why not think big?” When it comes to Asia and trade, the president-elect would be wise to take his own advice. Evidently, China already is.

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