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The New Geopolitics of Trade in Asia

The New Geopolitics of  Trade in Asia

By: Mireya Solís

The APEC Leaders’ summit meeting, which took place in Da Nang, Vietnam, crystallized the new geopolitics of trade in Asia. The leaders of the three largest economies in the world – the United States, China and Japan – each redefined the roles their nation will play in sustaining, torpedoing or adjusting the postwar trading order. Little is assured on how free trade and multilateral undertakings will fare as the three giants reposition themselves in their leadership bid. The only certainty ahead for us is that it will be a bumpy ride.

“America First” Flounders

Trade figured prominently in all of President Trump’s stops during his first official visit to Asia. But the throttle articulation of his “America First” trade policy was delivered in his speech at the APEC’s (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation) CEO summit. To a forum whose mission is to promote closer economic links among 21 member economies, President Trump confirmed that under his watch, the United States will not ink any regional or multi-party trade agreement because, he argued, these agreements unduly tie the hands of the United States. The president roundly criticized the World Trade Organization, stating it treats the United States unfairly, and warned that rampant cheating by others (reflected in US trade deficits) will no longer be tolerated. Jaws surely dropped when Trump placed the blame not on the cheaters (who, after all, the president noted, were just looking after their citizens in taking advantage of the United States on trade) but on all previous US governments.

In the more evocative part of his speech, the president spoke of an Indo-Pacific dream built upon a series of bilateral trade agreements that the United States stands ready to negotiate with nations willing to embrace fair and reciprocal trade. By and large, this is a dream of one: No Indo-Pacific nation (with the potential exemption of Philippines) has accepted the entreaty to negotiate bilaterally. Two powerful deterrents to countries signing on to Trump’s proposal are at work here: 1) countries see through the faulty proposition that trade deficits driven by macroeconomic forces can be wiped out quickly with trade negotiations; and 2) widespread understanding that multilateral deals promise larger economic gains by turbocharging global supply chains.

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