U.S.-China Trade Deal Already in Doubt

 

Trump Chaos Rattles China Trade Negotiations Before They Even Begin

Just days after President Trump claimed success in trade disputes with China, disagreement over the details have emerged. That rings with a familiar tune.

The Trump-Kim Summit this past June in Singapore raised similar doubts about what, if anything, was actually accomplished. It turns out that even with a loosely worded document we now know that nothing was formalized after that highly touted success.

While North Korea continues to develop missiles and possibly more nuclear weapons, Trump complains he hasn’t been offered the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts. 

The Saturday Trump-Xi dinner in Buenos Aires didn’t even offer anything in writing and journalists were left guessing why applause erupted from behind closed doors as the dinner ended. There was no press conference or photo op to clear up the issue as Trump & Co. headed for the airport.

After landing, Trump claimed Chinese auto tariffs were being lifted. The White House has now walked that back. Trump claimed China would spend over $1 trillion on U.S. goods. His economic advisor Larry Kudlow said that was more aspirational than specific and would be determined by private entities and economic conditions. Trump said if China doesn’t make bold moves in ninety days, he’s Mr. Tariff, and then suggested the timeline might be extended.

No one knows what success looks like three months from now, and that’s a serious problem.

Now China has expressed its discontent with the White House version of winning it all. Yet again, Trump excels at undiplomatic posturing while others are left to clean up his mess.

The pattern here is clear. Trump’s erratic words cannot be trusted, only managed, even by those closest to him. It’s another episode of “Promises Made, Promises Broken.”

U.S. markets didn’t like that kind of uncertainty, and along with other negative financial news on Tuesday, they shed over 3% in one of the worst days in their history. 

Making matters worse, US Trade Representative Lighthizer replaced Treasury Secretary Mnuchin as lead negotiator. Lighthizer is a known China hawk, and while having someone strong-willed and skeptical at the table is an advantage, if the lead isn’t considered to be negotiating in good faith that will not end well for bilateral relations or the international trading system.

The most likely outcome at the end of February will be China claiming they did everything they said they would do and the U.S. saying whatever they did wasn’t enough.

Chinese state media has already started making the list and announced increased punishments for firms found guilty of IP theft, but will they be implemented?   

If Trump really wants to reduce the trade deficit, protect intellectual property, and remove investment barriers, he and his team are going to have to be far more disciplined than they have been to date, and that seems highly unlikely.

Playing loose and fast with the facts, tweeting exaggerated wins, and painting Chinese negotiators into a corner will not make this relationship work. Both sides have to be able win.

 

What the China Stock Market Crash Really Tells Us (and What It Doesn’t)

Monday morning headlines were more sobering than a double shot of espresso, adding anxiety to an already tumultuous few weeks in China. The Shanghai index dropped 8.5%, in one day, again. This after a see-saw struggle to regain momentum with similar drops from mid-June’s dizzying peak of over 5,000.

The consequences of such a serious correction, with a Monday close at 3209.91, are neither dire nor surprising and the ensuing panic will likely bring out a host of incorrect linkages.

Here are three misconceptions of what the crash seems to mean, but doesn’t.

1. The China market crash will destroy the U.S. economy

U.S. exports to China totaled a mere 7% of total U.S. exports year to date. Canada and Mexico represent a combined 34%.

Exports in general make up an extremely small percentage of the U.S. $18 trillion economy (about 8%) and exports to China represent an even smaller amount.

Over two-thirds of all U.S. economic activity is driven by consumers. The biggest impact on that activity is whether people feel they have more money to spend today than yesterday, not on whether day traders in Pudong are pulling their money out of Sinopec shares.

2. Shanghai and Shenzhen stock markets represent the broader Chinese economy  

Usually a broad-based stock market sell-off represents a belief that the underlying economy isn’t going to do as well going forward as it has in the past. That’s the rational explanation assuming near perfect knowledge of economic conditions. Even the U.S. market doesn’t work that efficiently (there are sell-offs even without new negative economic information.)

In China, knowledge of the broader economic slowdown has been around for a while. If the markets were rational they should have been dropping when the government announced lower growth targets back in March. They should have dropped as alternate economic measures hinted that the official 7% growth rate might not be reached.

Instead they continued to climb based primarily on two non-economic beliefs. The self-fulfilling prophecy that the market could only go up and that the Chinese government would prop up any market weakness. Win-win.

Since domestic savers have very limited choices of where to put their money, once the real estate two-step dance was over (buy one to live-in, buy one to hold) the stock market became the only game in town attracting a flood of capital. That rush caused prices to rise which attracted even more investment, much of it borrowed on margin. Thus the illusion of a perpetually rising market.

The Shanghai composite has now dropped below the magical 3,500 level where many believed the Chinese government would step in with massive buying to push prices back up. The illusion of invincibility appears to be faltering. Meanwhile online sales in the real economy continue to expand.

In this market there is no irrational exuberance with Chinese characteristics, just irrational exuberance as rationality returns to the market.

3. The China sell-off is similar to previous Asian financial crises   

In 1997 the Thai Baht came under heavy pressure resulting in large scale contagion throughout the region. A heavily reliance on trade with a market-determined exchange rates drove this spread. China has neither.

China’s yuan, despite recent changes, remains a managed currency. The government still decides on its opening daily price. That means speculators cannot significantly alter its value beyond a government imposed trading band of +/- 2 percent per day.

China’s economy is also far less reliant on trade than in the past as government investment in infrastructure as well as real estate development have become main drivers of growth. Of those industries dependent on trade China’s recent devaluation made Chinese exports cheaper (a dollar or euro buys more today than in the recent past).

What does the recent sell-off really tell us?

The Chinese government is going to have an increasingly difficult time trying to stop the carnage. Despite conventional wisdom, it does not have unlimited power. By even trying to manage the sell-off, policymakers have placed themselves in an extremely difficult situation.

If they can’t right the market as people expect the government looks weak. If they impose even more draconian rules to stop sellers from liquidating they may kill interest in the market as a whole. Lose-lose.

Apple’s Tim Cook, for one is not that concerned about purchasing habits in China. Let’s hope that the nascent middle class has more cash stashed at home that they’re willing to spend than most people think.

Meanwhile the China market crash has caused a flash sale on a host of solid U.S. equities.

China Devaluation Latest Sign of Market Weakness

The People’s Bank of China (PBOC) devalued the renminbi yesterday in the latest sign that market forces continue to weaken in the world’s second largest economy.

Exports have fallen. Growth is likely far slower than the official 7% rate. Electricity usage is down. Steel production has declined. Infrastructure investment yields less impact. Even demographics highlight a shrinking workforce (enter the robots). And then there’s the stock market, largely divorced from the underlying economy and gyrating like hips at a hula hoop competition.

Currency devaluation will do little to reverse these trends.

As a short term fix it may help exporters whose goods are now cheaper to buy abroad, slow capital flight (it costs more to convert renminbi into other currencies) and potentially attract more foreign investment into the country (a U.S. dollar today buys more renminbi than a dollar yesterday).

But the underlying economic uncertainty in China’s partial transition to domestic led growth will continue to weigh heavily on the minds of international investors and policymakers alike.

If China truly wants to make the renminbi a global reserve currency the PBOC will have to reverse itself and let the currency float freely like the yen, euro and pound. That requires giving up managing a trading band around a fixed daily rate. Economic conditions would have to improve significantly before moves in that direction resume (almost certainly a gradual step-by-step process).

None of this means a hard landing for China’s go-go economy, but resorting to a currency devaluation highlights the limited policy options left for a government navigating increasingly choppy waters.

Remaining moves (and ones largely ignored to date) include government heavily investing in a social safety net, improving health care coverage and promoting more affordable housing. That will allow households to free up some of their savings to spend and spur new business creation.

Until this happens expect more partial solutions and continued volatility.

U.S. Needs an Asia Re-Pivot

Legacy must be on Obama’s mind these days as his two-term presidency nears an end. It might seem early, but the approaching 2016 election cycle starts in earnest as soon as Hilary Clinton announces her candidacy. That could be only months away. Then the media cycle fills with coverage of every presidential hopeful’s latest utterance and Congressional paralysis settles in.

Little can be done in twenty months that hasn’t been accomplished in six years save for some much needed focus on longer-term policy. This positioning was supposed to include an “Asia Pivot”, loosely defined and broadly conceived. So far it has lived up to its conception.

Enter news of a China-led3-23_aiib_2 Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) featuring participation of major allies the UK, France, Germany, Australia, South Korea and now Japan*. Glaringly absent, the U.S.

What’s stopping U.S. involvement? Partly an inherited pride from post-World War II institution-building that created the IMF and World Bank. Opponents highlight the risk of the bank becoming a potential instrument of Chinese regional soft power, a potential lack of transparency and less stringent lending standards that may erode development criteria created over the past several decades. These include social imperatives, environmental standards and labor protections.

While these remain reasonable concerns, China already lends heavily throughout the region. No amount of outside pressure has influenced how this aid has been disbursed or under what terms.

Only involvement with this new multilateral institution opens the door to engagement with China and the region on development issues.  With little cost, potentially none at first except for some diplomatic formalities, the U.S. could play an influential role in the first round of serious regional economic institution building since the 1966 formation of the Asian Development Bank (ADB).

Foregoing a role, even a limited one, pivots the U.S. further away from Asia signaling that the U.S., while espousing support for regional integration, does little to back-up those ideals.

As regional trading patterns increasingly revolve around China’s economy a new constellation of partners will define the regional development agenda, with or without U.S. involvement. Avoiding the AIIB risks forfeiting hard won gains. Asia will then see the U.S. primarily through a narrow security lens.

Refusing to work with China and the rest of Asia, even when the terms are not ideal, is not a legacy worth leaving.

* Note: After publication Japan changed course and announced it would not be joining the bank at this time.

@brianpklein

For more on the issue see:

Image: Xinhua/Li Xin

What Does Xi Want?

South China SeaFor so many years now the rhetoric coming out of China was “peaceful rise” and “non-intervention”. And then by stealth, diplomacy and economic might a shift occurred turning a policy of biding one’s time into action. This new muscular foreign policy, under President Xi Jinping’s leadership, increasingly fractures a status quo that has maintained stability in Asia for over half a century.

Gaining control over the Spratley Islands and laying claim to the greater South China Sea have re-drawn long established boundaries and defied international norms. This is the new China order.

While countries throughout the region, including the U.S., continue to express their diplomatic discontent in press releases and regional gatherings, an unimpeded land and sea grab expands. Other nations talk. China takes.

Water cannon volleys between Chinese and Vietnamese ships have now escalated to hard objects and ramming hulls (water cannons were also used by Chinese “enforcement” ships against the Philippines back in February). An oil rig planted its drill within Vietnam’s internationally recognized economic zone without consequence. Chinese construction has begun on a hotly contested island chain also claimed by the Philippines.

All of these actions contradict in word and deed the pronouncements of the Xi government through APEC speeches, bilateral conversations, and international gatherings that no unilateral actions would upset the status quo. Consultation, not force, was meant to guide resolution of historical tensions.

What does the Xi government really want? — A reckoning with history to re-write the past and lay claim to what was “taken” decades and even centuries ago under a selective reading of China’s place in the region and the world.

And yet China has developed at remarkable speed, largely because of this very international system that provides it access to the world’s resources and markets. In a different time, a country would have needed to field a global military presence to keep the peace, maintain the shipping lanes and facilitate international trade.

These latest confrontations and a weak international response sets a dangerous precedent for the system that has long been welcoming China’s rise. President Xi doesn’t want to embrace a world not of his own making. He wants to re-write the world’s terms to reap even larger benefits at the expense of his neighbors. That includes re-drawing boundaries of influence throughout Asia.

Until countries take heed and begin working with concerted action, China will continue to free ride and impose its considerable economic influence to mold the world in its own image. A region not united will eventually be divided.

For more on the crisis:

“Road to Fame” Explores China’s Youthful Aspirations and Angst

Six pairs of eyes follow each single child in China says a teacher at Beijing’s prestigious Central Academy of Drama – parents and two sets of grandparents. That puts a lot of pressure on them to succeed.

In an economy undergoing dramatic change and slowing growth, the culture of competition long thought to be an artifact of western decadence and decline, quickly becomes the new norm. The striving for opportunity and material comforts has now become a common global culture.

Director Hao Wu’s documentary “Road to Fame”, which screened to a sell-out crowd at IFC Center as part of the DOC NYC film festival, explores these themes and more as he details the first ever Broadway-China collaboration on a student production of “Fame, the Musical”.

The subjects of the documentary reflect the hopes and fears of students faced with the daunting prospects of making a living for the first times in their lives – relatively sheltered university life colliding with class distinctions and the advantages wealth brings to any budding artistic career.

RoadtoFame

China’s “Generation Now” wants what it wants and expects to get it sooner rather than later – a not unfamiliar theme in modern “20-something” generations. At some point China will have its own version of “Friends” where the lyrics “my job’s a joke, I’m broke , my love life’s D.O.A.” will resonate as loudly there as it did for a decade and more in syndication in the U.S.

The film itself, in parts sympathetic and brutally honest about the future of performing artists chasing stardom reflects much of the musical’s own messages. Not everyone makes it. Talent takes you only so far. And who you know counts for more than anyone really wants to admit.

Perhaps most striking is the film’s acceptance in China itself as Hao hinted at a major broadcast sell in the mainland during the Q&A (the film received crowd-funding via Kickstarter and several grants). Xi Jinping’s “China Dream” rhetoric not withstanding, domestic interest in China’s own aspirational classes headline even state-run publications, a stark difference to the steel manufacturing output numbers of only fifteen years ago.

Potentially sensitive political undertones, including corruption and China’s one child policy, seep through in moments. But over the five years from original filming to final editing, China has changed. Luxury-goods sales are on the decline, attributed to the crack down on corrupt politicians, though cash cards are now the preferred currency of influence. The latest Communist Party conclave announced relaxed family planning restrictions, ostensibly an end to government forced abortions, clearing the way for officially recognized multi-child families.

Here “Road to Fame” captures those moments when youthful exuberance tempers with time as students face the brink of adulthood. One can only hope that China’s “gen now” matures into the next generation of reform where widening the door to opportunity for a broader spectrum of society becomes more the norm than the rhetorical exception – something the U.S. still struggles with itself.

Asia Tensions Reach New Highs

North Korea’s rounds of provocation tempered with inaction continue to challenge regional powers. Sanctions appear to have had little affect on the new regime, but perhaps some additional pressure from China, one of their last remaining allies, has put the fear of complete isolation into the minds of Pyongyang’s leadership. Now that the new Kim has shown his father’s generals he’s no push over maybe he’ll move on to the real work at hand – the economy. After closing Kaesong (one of the few legitimate hard currency earners for the regime) the North now wants to talk with South Korea about re-opening the joint project.

Nothing coming out of the DPRK should be taken at face value, of course – the propaganda machine sounding war drums, or conciliatory economic gestures. The regime still has a horrible human rights record, continues to pursue a nuclear capability and remains a card carrying member of the pariah states club (including Iran and Syria), but in the world of international diplomacy, where there’s more gray than black and white, it’s high time for some serious talk. Bilateral, multilateral, whatever works. Talk is cheap and it isn’t a reward for rattling the region, but it may just create an opening for Kim to try out a new tactic – engagement. Missile firings along with the capture of an American citizen have failed to gain him the audience he wants, except for a repeat visit by Dennis Rodman scheduled for August.

China’s New Law of the Sea – but Might Still Doesn’t Makes Right

Meanwhile, China’s “take first, ask questions later” approach to territorial disputes in the shared waters of East and Southeast Asia continues to rankle its neighbors. We’ve reached a new low in regional relations. What started out as fishing boat bravado has escalated dramatically into full-scale military involvement. Now the cat and mouse game plays out around the Senkaku/Diaoyutai islands with Japan upping the ante, and military budget, to confront an increasingly aggressive Chinese navy. Southeast Asia hasn’t fared much better. No agreement has been reached, despite diplomatic overtures for two years running, on how to resolve overlapping claims now completely subsumed under China’s self-claimed control.

Risks of accidental firings aside its now clear to everyone in the region that China’s “peaceful rise” has given way to a long rumored, now actualized policy of regional dominance. It might not be the Cold War part 2, but it certainly looks a lot like back-to-the-future with a new Chinese imperial sense of historical retribution for past colonial ills. The rest of the world has since moved on. Perhaps the “China Dream” should include a broader vision of regional integration without any one country needing to dominate.

Unfortunately for Asia the moment for a regional security architecture passed decades ago (about when NATO was formed and former aggressor states like Germany sat down with Britain and France). Now it’s left to the U.S. and its Asia pivot to cobble together long historical “frenemies” into a semi-cohesive whole. That attempt runs head long into China’s economic leverage that so far successfully divides the region (and ASEAN in particular) by holding trade hostage (from Philippine fruit imports that suddenly show signs of infestation to rare earth metals vital to Japan’s high-tech industry).

Countries are already trying to diversify their export markets and sourcing while the infinite promise of a large and expanding Chinese market comes under new strains. If cooler heads prevail, then the benefits of a cooperative future and greater regional integration will win out over a divisive re-playing of threats and counter-threats in the age-old struggle for power and control.

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Red Lines in the East China Sea

East China Sea[Short version on CNN GPS]

In many parts of the world the long curve of history continues dragging nations back to the brink of war. Take Northeast Asia where recent tensions between China and Japan risk erupting into conflict. The Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, home to rocky outcroppings and resource rich waters nearby has become the latest potential flashpoint.

What started as a manageable confrontation in the East China Sea between Chinese fishing vessels and Japanese Coast Guard cutters has now escalated well beyond natural resources. Chinese fighter jets have shadowed Japanese planes in the skies above. Japan has threatened to fire warning shots. A hawkish Chinese general has warned that would be their only shot while Beijing announced plans to formally survey the islands. The U.S. has weighed in against any unilateral action that challenges Japan’s administration of the area.

If there’s a red line where rhetoric and posturing turns into open conflict (intended or otherwise) we’re close to crossing it.

Neither side shows any signs of compromise with Shinzo Abe back as Japan’s Prime Minister, and Xi Jinping inheriting an increasingly nationalistic country in transition. In a January International Crisis Group report  Stephanie Kleine-Albrandt notes that:

“While neither Beijing nor Tokyo desires a major conflict, their tacit agreement to set aside the dispute has been broken and there is deepening pessimism on both sides over the prospects of a peaceful settlement.”

As Bill Bishop points out in his daily Sinocism report, stepping back from the brink becomes increasingly difficult.

“China’s relentless media campaign since the summer, the anti-Japanese teachings so prevalent in the Chinese education system and the imperative of any new leadership to not look weak, especially toward the Japanese, could mean that if an accident did occur, especially one that resulted in the death of a Chinese citizen, Beijing might have so painted itself into a corner that it would have respond with force…”

The spiral of escalation, once started, can be difficult to unwind including any real shots fired by the increasing number of naval ships (both Chinese and Japanese) now plying the nearby waters or jets flying overhead. Similarly if either side attempts to land on the islands the other side will counter with a landing of their own. Calls for retaliation will be hard, if not impossible, to resist.

Complicating this current territorial flare-up is a centuries old rivalry. An economically emboldened China, with a military budget to match, has begun reasserting itself as a regional power. For centuries it was the trading hub of the region and an imperial power coercing its neighbors into paying annual tribute for peace and security. To be fair, the long arc of Chinese history also includes imperial dynasties that eschewed regional intervention – a fact currently lost on current policymakers.

Schools to this day continuing painting the country as a weak, aggrieved nation. The lesson: China must defend itself against a mythical recurrence of exploitation at the hands of foreign powers. These slights of history dating back to early 1900’s treaty ports (a time of unequal trading relations) are re-lived as if they were yesterday. Yet, the more recent reign of Mao Tse Tung driving the country into devastating famine, financial ruin and global isolation gains barely a footnote.

The cognitive dissonance between present day reality: China as the world’s second largest economy, with one of the world’s largest militaries and more than equal inclusion in the global trading system; and views of a distant, weakened past continue influencing China’s foreign policy. In Japan as well, historical revisionists continue celebrating war criminals at Yasakuni Shrine. The current administration has also contemplated changing its account of the use of sex slaves during World War II.

On a limited but positive note Japan sent, and China received an official delegation to discuss the territorial dispute. Former Japanese Prime Minister Hatoyama visited China’s Nanjing Massacre memorial which marks Imperial Japan’s World War II atrocities. And U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and the Pacific Kurt Campbell has been making the regional rounds calling for dialogue.

For now at least lines of communication remain open while both sides try to reign in their political extremes. Space for rational discussion, however continues shrinking under the pressure of nationalistic vitriol. If push comes to literal shove the damage to the region and international trade could be devastating.

Conflict has never been pre-ordained. It is the result of decisions, by people, to follow a course into crisis. New histories can and have been forged. Consider the U.S.-Vietnam relationship of today versus forty years ago. Trade has replaced hostilities and Americans travel to tourist destinations in straw hats rather than as soldiers in helmets. The past should not be forgotten, but neither should it be allowed to replay itself in an endless, self-destructive loop. Hopefully that’s not a lesson lost on Beijing and Tokyo in 2013.

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The Once and Future Beijing Blues

China_tmo_2012346

Remember the Beijing Olympics of 2008? A world-renowned stadium. An opening ceremony of unparalleled power and vibrancy. Beautiful blue skies. It was a picture-postcard moment.

At the time visiting reporters regaled the wonderfully clean air, some even claiming the government could make the skies rain on command to wash away the pollution. But to Beijing residents accustomed to temporary prevailing winds, and more importantly subjective policy enforcement, clear skies were a welcome illusion. No one really expected them to last after the games concluded.

And soon after brown became the new blue. Skies darkened. The sun faded behind a familiar beige-orange haze. Factories, forced to shut soon made up for lost time clogging the skies with pollution. The “fog” had returned, though in truth it was an unnatural cousin to moisture trapped by cold fronts against a ring of nearby mountains. (See this China Air Daily/Asia Society slider  of June 2009 bad air vs. blue sky days).

Over the last week or so Beijing has suffered under an extraordinarily bad pollution epidemic with air quality measurements soaring to over 800 according to a U.S. Embassy monitoring station (“safe” levels hover closer around 35-75 depending on U.S or Chinese standards respectively). Even using lower Chinese government readings the numbers were staggering (note: just before the Beijing Olympics official monitoring equipment was moved further outside the city center and to no surprise air quality numbers improved dramatically so doubts remain about “official” statistics.)

Since 2008 two significant changes have occurred. The Chinese government finally decided to report measurements at the far more dangerous PM 2.5 level where particulates small enough to invade lung tissue can cause respiratory disease. The media has also been given extraordinary leeway (at least for the moment) to report on the pollution problem.

What doesn’t seem to have changed is the enforcement of Chinese environmental laws passed years ago meant to protect the public against this very kind of devastating human-made air disaster. Are state-owned enterprises, some of the worst polluters with coal-fired power plants and cement factories, using the scrubbers they supposedly installed? Apparently not, or maybe only when inspectors come to visit.

Have state or national level environmental protection bureaus dramatically increased staffing, equipment and enforcement actions against polluters, despite the billions of dollars spent in pre-Olympic pollution control? Doesn’t seem like it.

Political will remains the major determinant of blue skies over Beijing and elsewhere. In today’s changing China where tens of thousands of people increasingly protest over polluted water and unsafe plant emissions the status quo can’t remain unchanged indefinitely. Absent the power of the vote, physical demonstrations are the only outlet for an increasingly victimized populace. Postcards of 2008 are fading fast. The only key decision left is whether to raise public health above breakneck growth and entrenched economic interests. Slightly less than phenomenal profits in the service of breathable air doesn’t seem like too great a compromise.

Image: NASA satellite imagery 12/11/12 (taken before the latest record pollution levels)

Asia Integration Leaves U.S. Behind

Asia Integration Leaves U.S. Behind

You can’t blame them for trying. U.S. trade negotiators have been at it for years but conclusion of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) keeps receding over the horizon. A June deadline was floated and then passed quietly by. The end of 2012 came next (here and almost gone). Japan and possibly even Korea thought of joining when news broke that Mexico and Canada, already NAFTA members with the U.S., were signing up. Neither has committed.

Meanwhile, Asia is moving ahead with its own far less stringent version of free trade in two proposals: the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) launched at the annual ASEAN gathering in late November; and a trilateral China-Japan-South Korea free trade agreement announced in May (negotiations started in November.)

Holding a press conference and successfully completing negotiations are, of course, two very different animals. No doubt recent regional tensions over disputed islands in the East and South China Seas involving mostly China, Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines make any agreement extremely difficult to achieve. Still, all countries involved appear to be forging ahead despite the obstacles in their way.

Asia has taken a decidedly different approach regarding free trade in the region from the U.S. Starting with the lowest common denominators (goods) and through successive agreements working their way up the value-added ladder (limited, then expanded services, broader non-tariff barriers to trade, rules of origin, etc.) This incremental approach, especially when economies at significantly different levels of development are involved, has worked especially well for both China and South Korea in their agreements throughout the region.

The U.S. on the other hand seeks “high standard” agreements encompassing a variety of non-tariff barriers to trade, intellectual property rights protections and labor and environmental standards, all in one comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (FTA).

These are noble goals and of particular interest to U.S. companies who have an enormous number of laws regulating their business at home and abroad. For many with extensive intellectual property to protect the graveyard of international business is littered with the remains of products that have been copied and sold at lower prices. To truly level the playing field they need the additional protections offered in high-standard FTAs.

The problem lies in strategy, not substance. This all-or-nothing approach leaves potential deals on the table while U.S.-based firms continue losing out to their counterparts based in Asia. U.S multi-nationals are increasingly incentivized to locate production overseas where they can source and sell within a tariff-free zone. Even a few percentage points off duties can have a tremendous effect on profitability.

No solution to this problem is in sight. U.S. trade policy has focused almost exclusively on the TPP and purely defensive measures (e.g. WTO cases to remedy unfair trade practices). Asia meanwhile forges ahead. When RCEP comes to fruition India, China, Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand and the ten countries of ASEAN would become one integrated free trade zone. If current strategy doesn’t change soon (or the TPP keeps being delayed) the U.S. won’t even be on the map.

 

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Photo: Yang Shan Deep Water Port, China.