China will move into any power vacuum created by Trump

November 28, 2016 15:31
President-elect Donald Trump has called the Trans-Pacific Partnership 'a potential disaster for our country' but keeps an open mind about the Paris climate change agreement. Photo: Reuters

Last week, President-elect Donald Trump confirmed his intention to withdraw the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership “from day one” of his administration.

In a clip posted on YouTube, he called the TPP “a potential disaster for our country” and said he would instead “negotiate fair bilateral trade deals that bring jobs and industry back”.

The trade agreement involving 12 Pacific Rim countries was the Obama administration’s attempt to deny China the right to “write the rules of the global economy”.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan has said that it would be “meaningless” for the 11 other countries to proceed since the TPP would be “meaningless” without US participation.

Indeed, from the perspective of Japan and other Asian countries, a major attraction of the TPP was to anchor the US in the Asia Pacific region.

Without the US, there is little point to continuing the exercise.

Worse, the US campaigned actively to get the other TPP members to sign on and quite a few governments had to take domestic political risks to accept American terms; now, the US itself is pulling out.

This is a very severe blow to American credibility and prestige.

It will certainly be much more difficult in future for the US to persuade other countries to adopt positions that may be unpopular domestically when they have no guarantee that Washington will not do a 180-degree turn when a new administration takes office.

President Obama had on more than one occasion said TPP was necessary to enable the US, not China, to set the rules of trade.

But now, with a president-elect who is openly opposed to multilateral trade agreements, the US has in effect ceded the ground to China, which will no doubt move in to fill the vacuum.

The same applies to leadership in climate policy.

Trump had said during the campaign that climate change was a Chinese hoax perpetrated on the US to cripple American business and manufacturing.

However, in an interview with The New York Times on Nov. 22, the president-elect said he had “an open mind” on the issue and accepted there was “some connectivity” between climate change and human activity.

“It also depends on how much it’s going to cost our companies,” Trump said. “You have to understand, our companies are non-competitive right now.”

So, it appears, Trump has not repeated his campaign pledge to pull the US out of the Paris climate change agreement, which entered into effect on Nov. 4.

But it is ironic that while he sees that agreement as an impediment to American growth, China sees it as a spur to the next cycle of its economic growth.

It is also ironic that, in 2009, the first year of the Obama administration, China and the US were on opposite sides of the climate question, with Washington putting pressure on Beijing to cut its emissions.

Today, China has decided that it is in its own interests to reduce its emissions and move toward a low-carbon economy given the severe pollution that its big cities are experiencing.

Now China is a major investor in renewable energy, such as wind technology, and is steadily reducing its reliance on coal, although it is still highly dependent on it.

China has already indicated that it is committed to a green economy and, in fact, is ready to assume global leadership on climate in the absence of the US.

As the People’s Daily-affiliated newspaper Global Times said, “Although there is a possibility that the US may betray its words, China will unswervingly keep its promise and seek to play a greater role in global affairs.”

As Washington withdraws from the global role that it has assumed since the end of World War II, China will inexorably play a bigger role.

“It is beyond imagination to think that China could replace the US to lead the world,” a Global Times commentary said.

Then it added: “But as China is rapidly developing, bringing about changes to the global power structure, its participation in global governance will be a natural and gradual process, which Beijing cannot rush or escape.”

That is to say, global leadership will, inevitably, be thrust upon China and the country will have to bear it as both a responsibility and a burden, just as has been the case with the US for the past 70 years.

Of course, if America were to withdraw faster, China’s pace would need to be quickened. After all, nature abhors a vacuum.

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.