While the Trump administration was making its withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement official, representatives of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Bangkok were greenlighting what will be the biggest trade zone in the world.
It happened within hours. While the Trump administration was making its withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement official, representatives of ASEAN in Bangkok were greenlighting what will be the biggest trade zone in the world, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. It is an initiative dominated by the Asian countries (with the exception, for now, of India); it is led by China, and it excludes the United States. These two counterposed actions exemplify, yet again, the disengagement of the United States from globalization in its dispute with China, as well as Asia’s advancement.
For Washington, the RCEP will imply fewer markets and bigger supply chains with which to compete. And we can’t rule out the possibility that strengthening economic ties among the People’s Republic and some of its closest partners, such as Japan, Australia, South Korea and Indonesia, will give Beijing a strategic influence on these allies. The rapid advancement of the project is in response to Trump’s exit from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a treaty promoted by Barack Obama, seeking to bolster U.S. trade influence in Asia at the expense of China. Paradoxically, Trump’s hostility toward the multilateralism forged by his predecessors benefits a China that will not hesitate to occupy the vacuum left by the U.S. withdrawal, when the main asset to be taken into account in containing its Asian rival is precisely the reinforcement of the existing system.
As John Ikenberry has noted, in contrast to the Cold War, in the current world order, a group of open societies, with deeply rooted principles of democratic liberalism, with associated norms and institutions, predominates. It is the globalization model, with its shortcomings and limitations, that provides an unprecedented degree of cooperation and leadership. China is dependent on this model. The current global conditions are thus more important factors in the transition of power, the space in which the ultimate battle will be waged. By weakening these conditions, Trump is undermining the liberal environment that makes integration or transformation possible for Beijing as appropriate for them. China will be able to succeed in overtaking the U.S., but its growth figures are not so big compared with the growth figures of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, i.e., with the rest of the liberal world. In a competition between the U.S. and China, Beijing will have the advantage. But if the other party is the global regime, the balance will be inclined to it. Trump would do well to support the architecture that sustains the international system, strengthening its commitment on questions such as climate change, a struggle that requires a widespread framework for action and policies of consensus.
In the meantime, in Beijing, Emmanuel Macron and Xi Jinping reaffirmed their support for the “irreversible” Paris climate agreement at the same time that they finalized agreements worth millions in aviation and environmental protection.
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