While Asia has been an exporting powerhouse for decades, it has not been particularly focused on buying and selling goods and services to neighbors. This is changing. One thing that is missing, however, is a structure to manage an evolving economic landscape for Asia. The existing institutional arrangements do not suit a future order very well. There are only two organizations that might play a role: the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC). The former consists of 10 countries in Southeast Asia while the latter includes 21 members, many of whom are not in Asia. However, 16 countries have spent years working on a trade arrangement for Asia: the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). The 16 member governments (Australia, Brunei, Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Japan, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, New Zealand, the Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, Thailand, and Vietnam) are struggling to complete negotiations on the FTA for November. The stakes for RCEP are greater than most participants imagine. If the world is, indeed, watching a new “Berlin Wall” moment, RCEP is likely to become a critically important part of the new world order. It is the only readily available platform for managing trade and economic issues in Asia.
The latest batch of tariffs, however, are on items that are directly obvious to customers in stores, including clothing, shoes, phones, video games and practically every item on or under a Christmas tree. Trump’s latest move is likely to have been a shock to most observers. In fact, I had bets going with a wide range of people that Trump would not make it out of August without imposing tariffs on the so-called “List 4” products. Most argued I was crazy. Trump, they said, would not escalate the trade war at this time. He would most likely bide his time until next year, engaging in trade talks with China with just enough enthusiasm to say that he was working on the problem, but not enough to solve anything too soon before the election. Voters can have short attention spans and an early resolution of the China problem would not give him an electoral bounce in November 2020. The List 4 hearings in Washington in mid-June involved hundreds of companies across seven days and nearly 3000 submissions. Nearly all were united in arguing against more tariffs on China and about the damage to be done by imposing tariffs on the remaining products, which had been carved out of the previous tariff policies for good reasons. But I thought Trump would ignore this advice. Hearings in Washington took place already, clearing the way for the imposition of tariffs at any point. To expect Trump not to impose them was like asking a child not to play with an exciting new toy that has been placed within reach.
American trade policy has been like the proverbial frog in a pot, slowly simmering under increasing heat. At a certain point, the frog will not be able to survive, even if it were suddenly rescued. The US, it appears, has reached this juncture. Were any country other than the United States to have taken this set of steps in a week, Washington would have been aghast. Instead, it was largely shrugged off as “just another week in DC.” The fact that the United States could take such actions as escalating tariffs to 25% on potentially $500 billion in goods from China, possibly seal the fate of one of the most important telecommunications firms globally, make national security arguments about the threat level emanating from cars arriving from US allies, and continue to watch the multilateral trade system crumble and then argue that it is “just another week” is especially telling.
The latest Trump tariff threat, of course, is designed to facilitate conclusion of the trade negotiations. Talks are scheduled for Washington DC on Thursday. It is certainly possible that the impeding escalation of tariffs will concentrate minds once more, leading to a very speedy conclusion of talks. Or not. Either way, the coming few days promise more drama on the US-China front than trade watchers have seen in months-- a major escalation of the trade war will happen on Friday or a truce. A second notable set of events takes place early next week that will also help shape global trade for the future. Dueling meetings are scheduled for Geneva and New Delhi for May 13-15. The former is the setting for the first round of talks of what is called the “plurilateral” on e-commerce in the World Trade Organization (WTO). Not all WTO member countries have agreed to join negotiations on the topic, so only a subset of members (74 so far) will sit down to start.
Companies have forgotten how much the global trade regime matters to daily firm operations. If it did, in fact, collapse, the result would be a disaster. The global trade rules are like air. They have existed for so long that companies and consumers take them for granted. They don’t even notice them any longer. But, like air, if it suddenly went away, firms and consumers would discover to their great dismay that they actually like and need air (or the global trade system) very, very much. Why do firms need the WTO? Start with the obvious issues. Right now, 164 countries are constrained in what they can do with tariffs rates. Up until this past year, WTO members did not just randomly hike tariffs overnight. Keeping tariffs consistent has allowed firms and customers to have stability and reduce risk.