Trump ally Steve Ban­non haunts Asia

Mint Asia ST - - News - WIL­LIAM PESEK

In her new book, Hil­lary Clin­ton aptly sums up Don­ald Trump’s baf­fling ap­peal: “You’ve got to give it to Trump; he’s hate­ful, but it’s hard to look away from him.” Clin­ton could eas­ily be talk­ing about Asia as it strug­gles to de­cide who to fear more—the US pres­i­dent or Kim Jong-un.

Asian lead­ers shouldn’t look away from Steve Ban­non, Trump’s eco­nomic al­ter ego, ei­ther.

Yes, this xeno­pho­bic na­tion­al­ist is out of the White House. Not out of Trump’s sphere of in­flu­ence, though, as Ban­non in­ten­si­fies ef­forts to goad Trump into trade bat­tles. Asia is in harm’s way as Ban­non says he’s “go­ing to war for Trump” via his Bre­it­bart News plat­form. His ini­tial tar­get, of course, is China.

“If we don’t get our sit­u­a­tion sorted with China, we’ll be de­stroyed eco­nom­i­cally,” Ban­non told Bloomberg. “The forced tech­nol­ogy trans­fer of Amer­i­can in­no­va­tion to China is the sin­gle big­gest eco­nomic and busi­ness is­sue of our time. Un­til we sort that out, they will con­tinue to ap­pro­pri­ate our in­no­va­tion to their own sys­tem and leave us as a colony—our Jamestown to their Great Bri­tain, a trib­u­tary state.”

The big­gest prob­lem with this world­view is tim­ing. It might have been help­ful in­deed if Wash­ing­ton played the hard­ball with Bei­jing that Ban­non and Trump favour 10 to 15 years ago.

But that prover­bial ship has sailed. Sure, we can gripe about how China ran cir­cles around the World Trade Or­ga­ni­za­tion (WTO) sys­tem—how it rolled Pres­i­dents Bill Clin­ton, Ge­orge W. Bush and per­haps even Barack Obama.

But this ret­ri­bu­tion ob­ses­sion ig­nores that the real threat to Amer­i­can jobs is now com­ing from within. Au­toma­tion, ro­bots and an in­ter­net-of-things (IOT) pro­duc­tiv­ity rev­o­lu­tion now threaten ser­vices-in­dus­try jobs pay­ing more than fac­tory slots China once stole.

There are plenty of rea­sons to take China’s Xi Jin­ping to task: hu­man rights; ram­pant pol­lu­tion; see-no-evil sup­port to North Korea’s regime; bul­ly­ing neigh­bours in the South China Sea; cen­sor­ship; gov­ern­ment-spon­sored hack­ing; sub­si­dies for state en­ter­prises; en­demic cor­rup­tion; and, sure, the in­tel­lec­tual-prop­erty theft that an­i­mates Ban­non and Trump.

But harp­ing on, say, cur­rency ma­nip­u­la­tion won’t Make Amer­ica Great Again any more than tak­ing a zero-sum stance against the world’s big­gest trad­ing na­tion.

If Ban­non thinks the US can eas­ily claw back that la­bel or bend the global econ­omy to its will, he’s dream­ing. That might have been pos­si­ble in the Plaza Ac­cord days of 1985; it’s sim­ply not 32 years later.

As Trump’s eco­nomic brain nudges the White House to wage war with the past, Amer­ica’s fu­ture is at stake. So is Asia’s, with economies from Ja­pan to In­dia caught in the cross­fire.

China, re­mem­ber, is Trump­world’s catchall phrase for mer­can­tilist Asians play­ing Amer­i­cans for suck­ers.

In mid-septem­ber, Ban­non vis­ited Hong Kong, “Asia’s world city”, for his first over­seas trip af­ter leav­ing the White House. The ti­tle of his speech, “Amer­i­can Eco­nomic Na­tion- al­ism, the Pop­ulist Re­volt and Asia”, and the tenor of his com­ments, re­minds us this isn’t just a Com­mu­nist China ob­ses­sion.

The Ban­non­ites are now trolling the no­to­ri­ously thin­skinned Trump to pounce. Trump is deeply frus­trated. Noth­ing has worked leg­isla­tively, and his vague Ron­ald Rea­gan-wannabe tax-cut plan is likely to die the same death as health-care re­form. Rus­sia probes are clos­ing in, as is fallout from scan­dals among his cab­i­net, hos­tile tweets and ad­min­is­tra­tive chaos. That leaves ex­ec­u­tive ac­tions. Trump can still do sub­stan­tial dam­age to Asia’s out­look with trade levies alone.

Count the ways Trump might over­re­act to per­ceived slights. A slid­ing Chi­nese cur­rency or Xi fail­ing to curb Py­ongyang’s provo­ca­tions could prompt Trump to make good on his threats of tar­iffs as high as 45%. Ja­pan’s Shinzo Abe fail­ing to dis­play suf­fi­cient fealty to “Amer­ica First” pri­or­i­ties could get Tokyo la­belled a yen ma­nip­u­la­tor. Might Trump, for sim­i­lar rea­sons, leave South Korea high and dry amid free-trade deal rene­go­ti­a­tions? Could shift­ing White House views on Pak­istan put Naren­dra Modi in a po­si­tion where he needs to re­buff Trump?

Drama sur­round­ing these land­mines and oth­ers would be, to bor­row Hil­lary Clin­ton’s line, “hard to look away from” for govern­ments and mar­kets alike. But Amer­ica’s nar­cis­sistin-chief is des­per­ate for a win, any win, to pla­cate his base. Few ploys would sat­isfy the Ban­non­ites more than show­ing China who’s boss. Never mind that this would be a Pyrrhic vic­tory as Bei­jing re­tal­i­ates—dump­ing $1.2 tril­lion of US Trea­suries, can­cel­ing Boe­ing or­ders, slap­ping re­tal­ia­tory taxes on goods US man­u­fac­tur­ers as­sem­ble in China.

Not a man of nu­ance, Trump may act re­gard­less. The plot thick­ens when you con­sider Ban­non is join­ing forces with Henry Kissinger, famed Richard Nixon staffer who’s vis­ited China some 80 times. Diplo­macy has noth­ing to do with it, though. Trump’s base wants him to toss grenades at the global or­der. Now that Ban­non is train­ing his guns on Asia— guns Trump may be happy to fire—it’s time to price in how a trade war might look.

Wil­liam Pesek, based in Tokyo, is a former colum­nist for Bar­ron’s and Bloomberg and au­thor of Ja­paniza­tion: What the World Can Learn from Ja­pan’s Lost Decades.

His Twit­ter han­dle is @williampe­sek

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Malaysia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.