Behind the tit-for-tat trade fight between Washington and Beijing, China is staking out an ambitious global agenda.
The last time nationalism was on the march, we experienced two world wars that killed tens of millions of people.
After the defeat of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, the United States created institutions deliberately intended to establish a multilateral, liberal world order. These included the United Nations, World Bank, International Monetary Fund, Marshall Plan and trade-liberalizing rounds that culminated in the World Trade Organization. The success seemed validated with the collapse of the Soviet Union.
But less than three decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, nationalism is back.
The European Union, crowning achievement of bringing peace to the bloodiest continent of the 20th century, is in trouble.
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German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the leading champion of internationalism since Trump’s election, has resigned as head of her party and won’t seek re-election. French President Emmanuel Macron, seen as an essential Merkel ally, was forced into a humiliating retreat from economic reforms. Liberalism, including democracy and the rule of law, is in retreat in Hungary, Poland and Italy.
President Donald Trump’s “America First” is the most troubling development. He dislikes international institutions, withdrew the United States from the Paris climate accords, antagonizes American allies and attacks immigrants.
Whatever the fate of “Individual 1” and his legal troubles, these pillars of Trumpism will endure with a substantial portion of the electorate.
With the defeat of internationalist Hillary Clinton and the withdrawal of America from President Barack Obama’s signature “high standard” Trans-Pacific Partnership trade (and geostrategic) agreement, America is retreating from world leadership. It’s uncertain if the next election or two can reverse this.
The same isn’t true of China.
With its ambitious belt-and-road initiatives (BRI), Beijing is investing in infrastructure across the globe.
According to the World Bank, the plans aim to bolster investment and trade between China and 65 other nations. Collectively, they make up more than 30 percent of global gross domestic product, 75 percent of known energy reserves and 62 percent of the planet’s population.
Another sign of China’s attempt to build a new order is the 16+1 summits involving central and eastern Europe. According to an opinion piece in The Washington Post, “China and its partners do not subscribe to a common set of rules that has any significant impact on their behavior. Nor is anything of consequence done by consensus. China’s multilateralism lacks depth, and it relies on stroking egos and dangling bilateral deals. Call it ‘flatteralism.’”
Beijing gives lip service to existing multilateral institutions, even as it games some World Trade Organization rules and denies the validity of the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s 2016 ruling in favor of the Philippines on the South China Sea. Indeed, Chinese President Xi Jinping has held China up as a protector of the world order in the face of new American isolationism.
But the belt-and-road is no substitute for American leadership.
The Economist magazine reported that “citizens of countries hosting BRI projects may come to regret their governments’ enthusiasm. Like all Chinese cash, the BRI billions come without pesky questions about human rights or corruption … (and) require the use of lots of Chinese labor. BRI countries risk piling up dangerous amounts of debt, which some fear is designed to give China a strategic hold over them.”
Regular readers know that when I arrived here 11 years ago, I thought Seattle was perfectly positioned to prosper in the “Asian Century.”
But this was before the rise of Trumpism and the sidelining of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Washington remains China’s largest trading partner among the states, but the U.S. pullback and China’s filling the void won’t work in our favor in the long term. Or in America’s favor.
Even Boeing, which sees strong future demand in China, can’t assume rosy forecasts amid the danger of a U.S.-China trade war. One way Beijing could painfully escalate retaliation for U.S. tariffs is turning more to Airbus — until its indigenous commercial airliners are ready for prime time.
Belt-and-road is fundamentally about extracting wealth, not creating it. As a result, don’t expect business for Washington firms, except perhaps on the most painful terms. So I may have been wrong, and Seattle might be highly vulnerable in the Asian Century as it’s playing out.
A reader told me, “A large part of our population and some in other countries believe that the global economy is evil and should be ended. But what really scares me is that our international markets are in danger of being taken over by the Chinese.
“It seems to me that the Chinese welcome this attack on the global economy and are aggressively seeking trade agreements with all the other countries in Asia and Mexico and South America as well …. I think this would be devastating for us and would result in a failed economy.”
Or worse could happen, as we should have learned from the hard schooling about the endgame of nationalism that began more than a century ago.
This is the big picture beyond the granular, day-by-day news reporting on the trade conflict.
Perhaps China will back down and make some concessions, which Trump can crow as wins. (This would stoke Chinese nationalism over a continued attempt to perpetuate its “century of humiliation.”)
But it’s highly doubtful that Beijing will stop requiring American companies to transfer technology as a price of doing business or stop stealing American technology.
Addressing this requires strengthening existing multilateral institutions, patient pushing-back against Chinese bad actions and broadening world trade. For this, America is indeed the essential nation.