Pres. Donald Trump campaigned behind the “America First” agenda and railed against China and international trade pacts, including the Trans Pacific Partnership championed by his predecessor. At the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Vietnam, he vowed America would no longer tolerate “chronic trade abuses” but in a way that somehow also affirmed his own protectionist predilections.
Pres. Xi Jinping joined the APEC leaders’ summit flush with success following the recent Chinese Communist Party Congress. Reports indicated that the congress report and party constitution revisions have elevated him to the same exalted status as Mao Tse Tung. He has become China’s most powerful leader that makes it harder for his rivals. Mr. Xi’s central message of restoring China to greatness is not too unlike Mr. Trump’s “American First” battle cry. However, it diverges on one critical point – Mr. Xi believes globalization is irreversible and steers his nation based on that premise.
That Mr. Trump decided to play nice with his Chinese counterpart – barely mentioning Beijing’s voracious expansion in the South China Sea, for instance, could seriously undermine America’s credibility among Asia Pacific allies. He never brought up China’s appalling human rights record, nor his threat during the campaign to label China as a currency manipulator. Gone was the bombast, the angry rhetoric against China’s unfair trade practices as Mr. Trump blamed instead his White House predecessors.
“You’re a very special man,” he told Mr. Xi in an appearance before reporters, possibly signaling a change in America’s tack. Mr. Trump has made the calculation that he can go farther with flattery. Of course, the President is free to choose how to conduct the business of state, but that approach also suggests that for the moment at least, the US needs China’s help more than the other way around. And nothing reeks as much the odor of weakness.
This stench can easily be picked up by countries around the Asia Pacific region (or as Mr. Trump now likes to call the “Indo Pacific region”). While he was assailing Beijing on the campaign trail last year, Mr. Tramp was also calling the TPP a “disaster”. Without the US, the door opens wider for the world’s 2nd biggest economy to pursue its own Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).
China is already the biggest trading partner for most Asian countries and it’s gradually increasing its political and economic sway by leading projects that impact the region, including the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and the “One Belt, One Road” infrastructure program. That has prompted many countries to recalculate their ties with Washington, including the one in Manila. Pres. Rodrigo Duterte’s economic managers had early on placed their bets with RCEp and the AIIB.
This shift in American policy has heightened the pressure on Japan to try to fill the perceived void left by the US and by extension, contain Beijing growing clout in the region. Small wonder that though the TPP is virtually dead, Tokyo is helping the remaining 11 nations on the bloc to cut deals with the US. Without TPP, some observers say, Japan and perhaps even Australia will have to rely on economic aid to gain influence in Southeast Asia – something that’s already obvious in their dealings with the Duterte administration.
Speaking after Mr. Trump in Da Nang, Pres. Xi’s emphasis on free trade only highlights the choices that Asia-Pacific nations face today. The US leader was clear in his disdain for trade deals. America is open for business, Mr. Trump said, but only on America’s terms. In his retort, Mr. Xi called for support for “multilateral trading regime and practice open regionalism to allow developing members to benefit more from international trade and investment.”.