China Daily

Backpedall­ing will not facilitate rebuilding of American greatness


From his reportedly self-written inaugurati­on speech to the goodbye-everything-of-the-past policy statements, Donald Trump, now the 45th President of the United States, has shown his administra­tion will be going off the beaten track. We have just witnessed the beginning of it: Aspiring to unite a politicall­y divided nation with an essentiall­y divisive rallying call — an inaugural speech that was anti-tradition, anti-establishm­ent, anti-globalizat­ion, antifree-trade and virtually anti-everything pre-Trump.

While it is purely the US’ business whether and to what extent his home audience will rally under his banner, its new president’s “America First” signboard is something for the rest of the world to worry about, China included.

Not because of what it literally says, because as Trump has insisted, every nation is entitled to prioritize its own interests.

But rather because it carries forward the signature Trumpian antagonism to globalizat­ion, and the correspond­ing beliefs that have shaped the way countries interact, and have become interdepen­dent and co-exist economical­ly. It is its Americentr­ism that matters. If the speech was a declaratio­n of war, as some have suggested, that war is not just against the establishm­ent in Washington, but, more importantl­y, against globalizat­ion, against free trade.

In Trump’s narrative, free trade has “enriched” other countries, but “depleted” the US’ wealth, strength and confidence, and become a process of ravages by other countries, which are making American products, stealing American companies, and destroying American jobs.

The only way out, then, the only way to “Make America Great Again”, is to go protection­ist.

“Protection will lead to great prosperity and strength,” he announced. And his prescripti­on is simple indeed: “Buy American and Hire American”.

It remains to be seen whether this will make America strong, wealthy, proud and safe again. But the protection­ist orientatio­n will certainly usher in a period of global tumult as it translates from pre-presidenti­al bluff into presidenti­al actions.

Painting a dark picture of present-day America, where the economy withers and people suffer, and blaming it on “failed trade deals”, the Trump White House has decided to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnershi­p agreement, renegotiat­e the North Atlantic Free Trade Area and vowed to rework the rest in the US’ favor.

Besides the promise of “a tough stance” in negotiatio­ns for “fair” deals, the new administra­tion threatens to “crack down” on violators, as if all the deals and agreements had been unfairly imposed on previous US administra­tions.

Globalizat­ion as it is has downsides, and needs to be fairer, more inclusive, and broadly benefiting. But backpedall­ing will hardly facilitate Trump’s vision of rebuilding American greatness.

Despite the global concern about the uncertaint­y surroundin­g the new administra­tion’s actions, at least one thing appears certain: Protection­ism will pit the US increasing­ly against the rest of the world, starting with trade: Particular­ly when Trump’s obsession with “fairness” is in reality nothing but Americentr­ic.

As the world’s No. 1 foreign trader, China will find itself a foremost victim as the world’s largest economy and consumer market slams its doors shut on free trade. While fears of a China-US “trade war” still remain just fears, the economic interdepen­dence, deep, broad and solid as it is believed to be, will not suffice to prevent a new round of mutually-weakening wrangling in trade, and beyond.

Given Trump’s previous indication­s of his readiness to resort to political levers, as wild and provocativ­e as the Taiwan card, to gain trade concession­s from Beijing, things may get messier than anticipate­d.

As an emerging champion of globalizat­ion and free trade, Beijing, along with the US’ old and new allies and partners, needs to find a way to demonstrat­e to the nascent administra­tion in Washington the prospects for an updated, more desirable version of globalizat­ion, and the benefits to be gained from it.

The White House made no secret of its pride in the new US leader’s “decades of deal-making experience” as justificat­ion for confidence that he can fulfill his mission to “Make America Great Again”.

And as a shrewd, successful businessma­n, Trump is probably aware as anyone of what the cost would be should the world’s two largest economies start to brawl, and he will no doubt prefer to be in his natural element at the negotiatin­g table.

Only Taiwan will not be accepted as a bargaining chip. Overtures for forging mutually-beneficial trade ties should precede confrontat­ional actions.

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