American Institutions Are Strong Enough to Handle a Muddled Transition


This op-ed originally appeared in Barron’s on 11/17/20


Angela Weiss/AFP via Getty Images

Outgoing President Donald Trump does not appear close to conceding the election. But for the incoming Biden-Harris administration, it doesn’t matter whether the president goes through a full cycle of election grief before he leaves office. Court case after court case challenging the election results has failed. The final state tallies will be official within weeks. And Republican leaders in key states have assured the public that there will be no switching of Electoral College votes against the demonstrated will of the electorate. 

Nothing Trump does will stop the arrival of a new administration. A career federal service, maligned and weakened over the past four years, will have prepared for the arrival of a new administration. That is the hallmark of a functioning democracy—institutions prevail.

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Right to vote: US must lead by example in presidential election to showcase its democracy


This op-ed originally appeared in the SCMP on 8/31/20.


Illustration: Craig Stephens

It’s not every day that the US Postal Service becomes national, even international, news.Mail delivery has never been a major global foreign policy issue. But in the pandemic year of Covid-19, delivery of mail-in ballots for the November US presidential election has turned into a serious concern. With social distancing still a priority, many voters are expected to avoid going to polling stations and instead rely on mailing their ballots.

The consequences of a botched election go well beyond Washington. Whoever occupies the White House in 2021 will be overseeing the lasting effects of the pandemic, a rapidly accelerating climate change crisis, and shifting great-power geopolitical risks. Even the perception of an illegitimate US election will further erode what’s left of Washington’s global influence.

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US’ tougher stance on the South China Sea is part of Trump’s re-election campaign

This op-ed originally appeared on 7/20/20.

The United States finally said what the world already knew: China’s claims in the South China Sea have no legal basis. It took four years after an international tribunal ruled on the issue. This raises the question why, with only six months left in the current administration, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made this declaration now?

Two reasons stand out – US President Donald Trump campaign’s attempt to bolster its tough-on-China credibility ahead of the upcoming presidential election, and galvanising the growing regional distrust of China to reassert the US as a regional power. If Beijing misreads either of these powerful political forces and provokes a confrontation, its geopolitical overreach will face a backlash that has long been brewing in the region.With US election season in full swing, Trump attack ads air daily in battleground states with hundreds of millions of dollars in play. The campaign has decided to use China as one of several lines of attack against Trump’s opponent Joe Biden. It’s going to be a tough sell.

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Trump’s China Trade War – Attack on Consumers

The next tranche of U.S. tariffs on $200 billion worth of Chinese goods are about to hit. Rather than being largely invisible to the public like the first $50 billion, round two includes seafood, bicycles, suitcases, bags, carpets, air conditioners, and sports gear (an exhaustive list of over 190 pages can be found as a USTR .pdf file here.)

(DoD Photo By Glenn Fawcett – Wikimedia Commons)

Other imports subject to tariffs this time around include auto glass, tires, engines, iron, steel, flooring, and construction tools. A visit to Lowe’s or a home improvement project will cost more, along with new cars that use China-made inputs.

This is the beginning of his attack on consumers, but not the worst yet. Some of the most popular consumer items including toys, cell phones, and pharmaceuticals, were not included. A consumer backlash is the last thing the Trump administration needs right now as polls continue to show Republican candidates struggling in the run-up to the midterms. The widespread business outcry would also be hard to contain.

Still, this latest round of tariffs and the failed recent trade talks suggest more problems ahead for the relationship as both Trump and Xi harden their positions. 

Some China policy advisors have concluded that Trump is hell-bent on weakening China. That view casts the tit-for-tat tariff struggle in a far more damaging political light. Xi Jinping will be easily backed into a corner where he has no choice but to fight and show his people how strong China has become.

Trump’s advisors meanwhile, including Larry Kudlow, are feeding him the false impression that China’s economy is on the ropes and ripe for disruption. With a “winner take all” approach Trump will have to keep ratcheting up the pressure, no matter how much he breaks in the process.

With so much distrust and misinformation flowing freely, expect this dispute to go well into 2019 and affect consumers far more than at present.

The U.S. can include almost $200+ billion more in traded goods. China, out of categories to include by then, can opt for a trade war by other means by restricting U.S. business operations and increasing scrutiny of foreign investment.

To be sure this is no easy win for Trump, no matter how many times he says it. Tariffs are a blunt instrument. Come January the domestic environment, including Congress, may not be so supportive of his “get tough” efforts, which will have done little except to increase consumer prices and the cost of doing business.