Buy Korea, buy Japanese, buy Taiwanese, buy Australian, buy Singaporean, buy Thai, buy Vietnamese, even buy Chinese. Forget about Apple, McDonalds, Goldman Sachs, Citibank, Ford, Boeing – there’s always an alternative.
That is the message that President Donald Trump has sent around the world and most of all to America’s supposed allies in Asia. The withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the 12-nation omnibus trade pact under development for the past seven years, was expected but the manner in which it was done in Trump’s first full day in office was salt on the wounds for the countries that had done so much themselves to push the idea of this extension of trans-Pacific cooperation.
It was accompanied by more generalised threats of new unilateral tariffs and thuggish threats against US companies which invest abroad for export to the US, with Mexico first in the firing line. Quite how much of this 180-degree reversal of bipartisan US trade and foreign policies will become reality remains a matter for conjecture.
Meanwhile, conspicuous by its absence is a roar of outrage from the US business community in Asia which for years has been pressing for more open trade and always quick to condemn Asian governments for backsliding on trading and investment commitments.
Amchams: explain your silence. Are your business leaders so dominated by Republican loyalists that you now treat as dispensable the values you have been preaching for decades? For the US to have gripes against specific countries or products is one thing. They can be addressed on a case by case basis. But Trump is waving a sword which cuts indiscriminately.
It may be true that the US originally gave China too easy a ride into its markets and the WTO and got inadequate access in return under the illusion that economic success would make China more liberal and democratic, as well as more open to US products. But that was then. Now crude anti-China measures simply endanger the very global trading system that the US has, mostly to its benefit, wrought over the past 60 years. If the US can treat its TPP friends in that way he has done, one shudders at what he may want to do with China.
Retaliation is premature but at least must be considered for the not so distant future. Australia, perhaps surprisingly, has made a good start by urging that TPP go ahead anyway without the US. The key now must be to prevent US protectionism from becoming generic. That does not mean no retaliation but that any retaliation is specific. Meanwhile individuals can have their own trade policies, starting with any business named after Trump or which supplied any of the leading figures in his administration.
The US could start by getting away from the fantasy that its economic problems are the fault of its trade deficit. Once the US-owned brand and intellectual property costs, and returns on its investment in overseas manufacture, are factored into the overall trade picture, the deficit shrinks. The official current account deficit is only about 2% of GDP, very much less than countries such as Australia and the UK have been exceeding for decades. Include all the profits of thousands of US-owned companies, held in offshore tax havens and there may well no current account deficit at all.
The delusions about trade are even more marked in the case of China. The domestic value added in China’s exports to the US averages only about 65 percent compared with 85 percent in exports from Japan. In cases of items such as electronics the Chinese component is significantly less due to high value components from Japan and elsewhere. The US would be crazy to assume that labour-intensive, low value products like toys and sneakers, where the China valued-added percentage is highest, have a place in the US goal of reviving manufacturing employment.
But now that the US electoral system has brought to power someone as detached from reality as Trump, craziness seems set to triumph, at least for a while.