2020: Don’t let Trump — or China — make all the running

United States President Donald Trump answering questions from reporters at the Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida recently. During the course of 2020, there are dangers of Trumpian grandstanding, especially in foreign affairs. AFP PIC

ALAS, there is going to be a lot of Trump next year. He has been impeached by the House of Representatives, only the third US president to suffer the ignominy.

But the Senate is not likely to convict President Trump and evict him from office, given his Republican Party majority in that chamber.

From the time the Senate trial starts in January or whenever, long or short, right through to
the US presidential election in November it will be one long narrative of an alleged witch-hunt by the Democrats against Trump since his triumph over Hillary Clinton in 2016.

On being impeached, his six-page letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was vitriolic and expansive on his achievements as president.

The vitriol and the proclaimed glory he has brought to America will be a long thread to the US presidential election on Nov 3, 2020.

If he is re-elected, we might see Trump in Malaysia for the Apec summit soon after. In that week, whether in Kuala Lumpur or Washington, we will get President Trump 2.0, which would make 1.0 look like a picnic. So beware.

It is going to be an extremely bitter presidential campaign. Support for Trump has remained steady but there are signs of its cracking up following the impeachment. One ominous sign for him is Christianity Today, an influential magazine founded by the late Reverend Billy Graham, coming out against the president for “profoundly immoral” conduct in offic

But Trump is likely to pull out all the stops to get his supporters into an unthinking frenzy. Whoever the Democrats might put up against him, one is reminded of the rueful comment by 1950s presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson on being told he had the support of every thinking American: “Yes, but I need a majority.”

There is every likelihood of the Democrats putting up someone who appeals to the thinking American. So we shall see where America is at on Nov 3, 2020.

Whatever, win or lose, during the course of 2020, there are dangers of Trumpian grandstanding, especially in foreign affairs.

In June this year Trump had ordered airstrikes on Iranian radar and missile sites following Iran’s downing of a US drone, but reversed his decision just 10 minutes before the strikes, with American planes already up in the air.

During the 2017 missile crisis with North Korea he had ordered that Seoul be evacuated, a move that would have been read in Pyongyang as preparation for an attack on the north. Luckily, James Mattis, the then secretary of defence, quietly ignored the order. There are hardly any such characters now in the US administration.

With Trump back to calling Kim Jong-Un “Rocket Man” and Kim calling Trump a dotard, any replay of tensions in Northeast Asia during the US presidential campaign would not be funny.

There is now a ceasefire in the US-China trade war, to be signed in the new year. The first-phase agreement will halve the tariffs imposed on US$120 billion of imports from China from 15 to 7.5 per cent, with no more new US tariffs to be imposed, in return for an increase in a variety of American imports into China, mainly agricultural products, by US$200 billion over two years. There are also some promises by China on intellectual property protection.

Any number of things can still go wrong. The US Trade Representative is the arbiter of the agreement. Disputes can arise. US-China relations have been seriously damaged. Third countries, such as Australia, Brazil and Canada may object to violation in the agreement of WTO non-discrimination provisions particularly in agriculture.

Even if the ceasefire holds, will Trump next train his protectionist guns on the EU, while lapping it up with Britain after Brexit? The US has a US$180 billion deficit with the EU. The American president has been straining at the leash to escalate trade confrontation with the Europeans.

Already punitive tariffs have been imposed on US$7.5 billion of EU goods since last October. The perennial conflict over subsidies between Boeing and Airbus may worsen, especially as Boeing is in turmoil following the 737 MAX debacle and the recent sacking of its CEO.

Trump is also going after imports of Italian cheese, French wines and, before Boris Johnson’s election triumph earlier this month, British whisky. He seems set on imposing levies on countries that were promising digital sales taxes on American companies, starting with France.

Just recently, Indonesia also announced the introduction of such sales taxes. Malaysia also has such intention.

Vietnam is being watched for its sharply rising trade surplus with the US. Indeed this month, perhaps as a foretaste, US duties of up to 456 per cent were imposed on imports from Vietnam of corrosion resistance steel (CORE) — although in this instance there were valid grounds based on US anti-dumping and anti-subsidy duties.

Nevertheless, the clear signals are, in an American presidential election year, with Trump under the cosh, we can expect in 2020 an international security situation fraught with risk, and no world economic peace.

All other states should STAND UP and SPEAK OUT for a rules-based international order. That, however, would not be enough. They should WORK AT and ACT to form associations and relationships which affirm the rules-based order they proclaim.

I our region, Vietnam takes over the chair in 2020, and has chosen “Cohesive and Responsive” Asean as the theme. As usual with Asean, these are mere words. What about being also ACTION-ORIENTED?

Beyond the theme, Asean should roll out its 2020 priorities to be adopted by the first leaders summit in April-May.

First, work out a common stand to be taken at the G-20 summit on Nov 21-22 in Riyadh; also, support for shared prosperity at the Apec summit in Kuala Lumpur earlier that month.

External trade and geopolitical pressures are a great risk to Asean’s future progress and growth, with trade accounting for 90 per cent of its GDP. Trade is Asean’s lifeblood. Protect it.

Engage considerable economies such as the EU, Japan, Korea, Canada, Australia and India. Indeed third-country substantial presence in Asean would be strategic diversification.

Second, get the RCEP signed which, if done early in the year, could come into effect on Jan 1, 2021. Even without India the 15-state RCEP would be the largest trading bloc in the world, and India’s absence would only minimally affect the growth rates of each member state, with the prospect of intra-member state trade now accounting for 32 per cent of the total being enhanced.

Thid, and most importantly because of its developed integration plans, MAKE IT HAPPEN: the Asean single market and production base, with seamless connectivity of people, capital and services. The US$3 trillion fifth largest economy in the world is an aggregate. Just imagine if it was truly ONE economy. The present average growth rate of 5.2 per cent could at least be realistically sustained. What more with new technologies which should not be hindered from bringing the benefits they offer.

Alas, intra-Asean trade has stagnated at about a quarter of its total trade, 77 per cent of its merchandise trade being with extra-regional markets. Intra-Asean FDI has also stagnated, for the last eight years, at 15-20 per cent of total flows. Now more than ever — the world in 2020 likely to be unruly — Asean has to stop mouthing platitudes and work to realise its full potential.

Fourth, Asean should strengthen its relationship with China by earning Beijing’s real as opposed to feigned respect. Fear to antagonise China or China-can-do-no-wrong is a sure way to realise the replaced domination of one great power by another.

China benefited from the rules-based world trade order since it joined the WTO in 2001, but “rules-based” also encompasses standards other than just in trade.

Thus unfair practices such as in particular project and financing arrangements under the BRI (Belt and Road Initiative, for example Malaysia’s East Coast Rail Link) are something Asean should look out for — as indeed it should work out more generically the synergy envisaged with the regional grouping’s MPAC (Master Plan on Asean Connectivity) 2025.

The objective for sustainable infrastructure development, for instance, was identified in the Asean-China Strategic Partnership Vision 2030 signed in Singapore in 2018.

Asean must protect its environment and not allow, for instance, the kind of transformation over the last 40 years of the Mekong to cause it future grief. With the Mekong, dams built in China and now in Laos, have posed a danger to fish stocks and limited the flow of vital sediment. Climate change is a growing threat to the river, particularly to cities and settlements in the Mekong delta.

Massive damage awaits. Irresponsible infrastructure development such as this cannot continue.

In respect of the South China Sea, Asean cannot concede that just because China makes an extensive claim of sovereignty other countries have no right to make theirs.

Just recently, on Dec 12, Malaysia filed a submission with the UN to establish the limits of its continental shelf in the South China Sea. Beijing responded by claiming Malaysia’s action “infringes on China’s sovereignty, sovereign rights and jurisdiction, and also violates basic principles of international law” — this after an international tribunal had found in 2016 that China’s nine-dash line claiming almost all of the South China Sea has no basis in international law.

Indeed, as against China’s contention of its ancient rights, eminent historian Wang Gungwu has written that the first maps to claim the South China Sea were Japanese and were inherited by Nationalist China.

The point is, if China begins to act as if what it says is law, then Asean and the region would be in a worse position than it was under American domination. This is something China too might want to think about.

Asean should remind China of its often expressed policy respecting the sovereign rights of other countries and the rules-based international order. Here we have China challenging the rules-based order in areas it views as impinging upon its national sovereignty — as determined in extenso by Beijing alone.

Asean should in 2020 take the reasonable stand by calling for respect for the sovereignty, equally, of each of its member states.

Give them a free rein, Trump’s America or Rising China, will put other countries between a rock and a hard place.

The writer, a former NST group editor, returns to write on local and international political affairs. He is also a member of the Economic Action Council chaired by the prime minister

By Munir Majid.

Read more @ https://www.nst.com.my/opinion/columnists/2019/12/552096/2020-dont-let-trump-%E2%80%94-or-china-%E2%80%94-make-all-running

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