It’s too early yet to fully appreciate the significance of the trade agreement sponsored by China between more than a dozen countries in the Asia-Pacific region, including Japan, South Korea and Australia, but anything that pulls together 2.2 billion consumers, one-third of the world’s trade volume and a quarter of the global gross domestic product is worthy of everyone’s attention, including the United States, where Joe Biden is less than two months from assuming office as well as taking on the challenge of countering China’s global ascension, incidentally one of the few points of continuity with the outgoing Donald Trump presidency.
If the world were a chessboard with XI Jinping representing China and Trump, albeit reluctantly, ceding the American position to Biden, we would say that the American president-elect has not even sat down and he’s already confronted with a check move. Not checkmate, as China is still far from being able to assume a position of dominance over Washington, but a check position nonetheless, reversible with a good defense, yet nevertheless a move that demonstrates some impudence from the player still regarded as the weaker opponent.
Trump’s role in this situation cannot be ignored, as much as it is clear he’ll have to cede his place to another man, since it was his strategic error at the very beginning of his term in 2017 that created a breach on the American side: the abandonment of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, an agreement that was to join together a dozen countries, including North American giants like Canada and Mexico, but also great Asian economies like Japan, and even Australia.
Not a fan of multilateralism, the promoter of a trade war with China (a strategic rival), but also a critic of Japanese protectionism (a strategic ally), the outgoing American president was eager to assert his country’s status as the world’s most powerful economy and force Xi to pull back some his pieces, including the queen that went by the name of Huawei. He preferred his multilateral alliances to be military ones, such as what we are seeing in the same Asia-Pacific region, where, in a bid to counter Chinese ambitions, particularly in the maritime arena (with a third Chinese aircraft carrier about to be launched), the United States is joining forces with Japan, Australia and India.
It is generally understood that the duel between the United States and China is not easily comparable to the Cold War, since the Soviet regime largely kept the country out of the global trade system, only engaging with oil and gas exports toward the end of its era. But we should also not be overly confident that the close economic ties between the U.S. and China today guarantee that there would not be a military conflict. We need only remind ourselves of the supposedly close ties between Germany and Britain on the eve of World War I. What is for now still Trump’s America continues to be China’s largest trade partner, but that does not mean they might not find themselves at war, whether it’s over the South China Sea or the result of any sort of military aggression directed at Taiwan.
And even Japan, South Korea and Australia (India has some doubts about the China-led trade agreement, which is noteworthy) cannot put too much faith in the assumption that economic ties with Beijing will be a guarantee of peaceful political relations, or that Xi will keep business and diplomatic affairs separate. Each of these countries has had relatively recent political conflicts with China that resulted in economic boycotts, at times masquerading as coincidence: Japan in 2012 in a dispute over islands; South Korea in 2017 because one of its business conglomerates sold land to the U.S. military so that it could install a missile defense system theoretically aimed at North Korea; and Australia more recently in 2020 when it raised suspicions about the origins of the virus that led to the current pandemic.
By decision of the regime in Beijing, or as a result of social media campaigns with the official acknowledgment of the regime, Toyota could find it harder to sell cars in China, South Korean soap operas might no longer be available and Australian wines could struggle to move off the shelves.
Even with all these risks of economic retaliation, the attraction of China (the world’s second largest economy, on its way to becoming the first, something novel in the last couple of centuries, but not historically unprecedented) is enormous, so much so that even Vietnam – whose own Communist regime went to war with its giant neighbor in 1979 – has signed on to the agreement. There is no shortage of small islands in the South China Sea that might increase tensions between the comrades in Hanoi and Beijing, but Trump has greatly distanced America in the last four years. Vietnamese leaders must look back longingly on that day in 1995 when Bill Clinton, two decades after the fall of Saigon, arrived in Hanoi to bury the past and pave the way for a new alliance. In 2015, he returned to celebrate the 20th anniversary of his first visit and the reestablishment of diplomatic relations between the two former foes, whose conflict provided Hollywood with so much material.
Now we have to wait for Biden to assume the presidency in order to see what China’s strategic approach might be. Xi, as is the rule among master chess players but also with great Chinese leaders, is certainly already trying to predict Trump’s successor’s first move.
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