As Trump fawns over Xi, global politics is now a ‘strong man’ game | Will Hutton

Trade agreements are being torn up in a brutal exercise of economic force by the most powerful

It was an extraordinary moment, so small wonder there was an audible intake of breath from the huge audience in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People. Here was Donald Trump, visibly flattered by the pomp and magnificence of the welcome mounted by the Chinese Communist party, saying in his big speech he did not blame his hosts for China’s enormous trade surplus with the US. What?!

Trump made China public enemy number one on his campaign trail. China, he declared repeatedly, had raped the US economy. It had to stop. He was going to brand it a currency manipulator on his first day in office, opening the way for a range of punitive responses. There would be swingeing tariffs on Chinese imports into the US, with steel singled out for early action. Jobs in industrial America had to be protected. A year on, nothing, apart from a couple of reviews, has happened.

Now this. Trump’s admiration for the world’s strong men who “get things done”, regardless of the hindrances of law, treaties, human rights and democracy, is well known. But this broke new ground. His fawning to President Xi, a dictator, seemed to increase by the hour, congratulating him in his speech on his warmth, graciousness and ability to deliver. He had readily agreed that after their speeches there would be no vexatious questions from the press, which would inevitably be about China’s human rights abuses or his failures to act as he promised. Much better to head off to a swanky banquet in the depths of the Forbidden City, the labyrinth lair of emperors past and present.

The country wants a free run to achieve “China’s dream’’ of becoming the world’s number one power during this century, making global rules on its own “socialist” terms. The aim is for a country of 1.3 billion people to become a fully developed nation by 2050, with the military power to match. There is a $900bn ambition to build two new “silk roads” to further globalisation on Chinese terms – one overland to Turkey and Europe and one by sea through the Suez Canal, involving a string of Chinese-controlled ports. This will unlock $8tn of infrastructure spending in more than 60 countries, say the Chinese, a vast extension of Chinese hard and soft power, along with accompanying asymmetric trade deals.

US Secretary of Commerce, Wilbur Ross, told the CBI that Britain would have to adopt US standards in any post-Brexit trade deal.
US Secretary of Commerce, Wilbur Ross, told the CBI that Britain would have to adopt US standards in any post-Brexit trade deal. Photograph: Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP/Getty Images

The Chinese know a little flattery goes a long way, especially when the object of flattery has an ego as large and fragile as Trump’s. Last week’s summit achieved its objective. Trump signalled he had no intention of trying to frame China’s expansion within any kind of multilateral framework or internationally agreed rules. Good luck to China is his message: your huge trade surplus with us is our fault because successive American governments have not bent the rules to their advantage as you have. We won’t strengthen the international framework through arrangements such as the Trans-Pacific trade pact, which the US has abandoned. We will try to play the same one-sided game as you.

Thus, China may pay lip service to free trade, multilateralism and the World Trade Organisation, but President Xi does not mean it. The new world is dog eat dog, which,in a bewildering tirade at the Asia Pacific Economic Co-operation summit in Da Nang in Vietnam, Trump claimed the feeble WTO was doing too little to suppress. It turned a blind eye to too many members flouting its rules and permitted gross trade unfairness. Now, he declared, he looked forward to doing deals with individual countries on a reciprocal basis of “mutual benefit”. The WTO is to be sidelined.

What this means is the rule of the strong. It is not China that has felt the first wave of swingeing tariffs to achieve trade deals of “mutual benefit”, but less-powerful Canada, with up to 300% tariffs to be imposed on Bombardier’s new jets. The US has told Canada and Mexico, signatories of the North American Free Trade Agreement, that it wants proposals from both on how trade can be “fairer” – ie more tilted towards US interests – by Christmas or it pulls out of the agreement. Nor in future will there be any disputes resolution via international tribunals; these will be repatriated to US courts. It is the brutal exercise of economic power.

Nothing less should be expected. It is the same in Saudi Arabia, where Trump unashamedly backs crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, de facto ruler as his father ails, as he potentially squares up for a regional war against Iran. The prince is Saudi Arabia’s strong man, but he also confers huge arms deals. Similarly in France. President Macron has emerged as the strong man of Europe, so Trump is his new best friend. But Macron, with the EU behind him, is not going to invite the US to the climate change talks in Paris next month unless the US finds a way of recommitting to an international effort to contain climate change. Trump may embrace isolation, but he can see where power lies.

He is no less clear sighted about Britain’s weakness as we are about to find ourself in the same relationship to the US as Canada. I am told a senior State Department Trump appointee told his staff that “the Brits are on the ropes. There are going to be some rich pickings – our job is to make sure we get them.” Helpfully, US commerce secretary, Wilbur Ross, explained what that might mean for any post-Brexit trade deal with the US at the recent CBI conference. Britain would be expected to adopt laxer, ultra business-friendly US standards and its approach to standard-setting. There was no indication of any reciprocal concession. There is no need. The Brits “are on the ropes”, so they must accept whatever is offered. The WTO is too weak to offer any help, even if it could.

Fear not. The government is preparing for this brave new world. Liam Fox, international trade secretary, published his trade bill last week, allowing Britain to secure quickly and expeditiously the multiple trade deals that will allegedly follow Brexit. Importantly, he will be given prerogative rights to do whatever deal he can negotiate, without any recourse to parliament.

Britain, in short, is set to become economic carrion preyed on by mercantilist vultures, away from parliamentary scrutiny and without the strength in numbers provided by the EU. Donald Trump’s speeches in China’s Great Hall of the People and the Asia-Pacific summit should be mandatory reading for every member of parliament. Our legislators swear an oath of allegiance to the crown as personifying their obligation to protect the public interest. Brexit, as it is developing, is a betrayal of that oath.

Contributor

Will Hutton

The GuardianTramp

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