First is what might be called the “X Factor”—the multi-dimensional challenge posed by China under Xi Jinping to the U.S.-led international order, especially in the Asia-Pacific. There is an emerging consensus that the U.S. and China have entered a period defined by confrontation and competition that will be won or lost in the grey area short of kinetic action. At its core, this is a contest over divergent values and interests. It’s a contest between opposed political and economic systems, and between different visions for the future of Asia and the world writ large. On the political front, it’s a contest between authoritarian rule and democratic rule. On the economic front, it’s a contest between a state-led model and a market-based model. It’s a contest in which the U.S. must prevail. To compete effectively with China, it’s imperative for the United States to strengthen economic engagement in the Asia-Pacific through increased trade and investment, and not to succumb to protectionist impulses. I would note that every U.S. multinational enterprise worth its salt understands that they cannot be a successful global company unless they have a meaningful presence in Asia or a strategy to attain one. But American firms are working against considerable headwinds emanating out of Washington.
Policymakers should not assume that MSME firms will always stay MSMEs. Yet frameworks in many economies seem designed to trap smaller firms into a set category and entrench them into a “small” mindset. There will always be MSME firms. They form the backbone of most economies, as much as 97 percent of companies across Asia, employing the overwhelming share of workers. The goal of MSME policies should be enabling the current crop of smaller firms to grow, allowing firms in the “medium” category to reach large scale in relatively short order, while encouraging new entrants to the MSME ranks. Trade policy is one tool to help MSMEs grow. In most economies, the domestic market alone can be too small or even too competitive for success. E-commerce and digital technology, however, have allowed MSMEs to reach regional or global audiences.
1. US-China: The biggest story is likely to remain the ongoing battle between the United States and China. The most immediate deadline is March 1, when the US has promised to impose 25% tariffs on $200 billion in Chinese imports that are currently subjected to 10% tariffs, if the two sides cannot successfully negotiate their way out of the complaints lodged in the Section 301 case. Chinese officials are meant to travel to the US later in January to continue discussions, followed by more talks in mid-February. Given the rapidly closing timeline, however, getting a satisfactory conclusion to the long list of US objectives is unlikely. Three scenarios are possible: 1) US President Donald Trump accepts an outcome that does not really address the systemic complaints at the heart of the Section 301, but goes for a package that includes more Chinese purchases of US agricultural and energy goods plus some limited commitments on Chinese reforms; 2) the timeline is extended, as talks are making headway with a resolution closer to filling most of the Section 301 demands possible by mid-year; or 3) talks collapse and tariffs are imposed on the $200 billion in goods, ramping up to include all Chinese imports to the US before the end of the year.
Surprisingly, few Harley Davidson employees – many of whom are Trump supporters – appear disillusioned with the president’s protectionism. “He wouldn’t do it unless it needed to be done, he’s a very smart businessman,” one worker told the Financial Times serenely, encapsulating the “In Trump We Trust” attitude that persists among many in the President’s base. Many workers were, in fact, apparently quick to point an accusing finger at the EU and even Harley Davidson itself for leaving its traditional base in Wisconsin. They are resolutely defending Trump’s claim to be “just trying to save the US aluminum and steel industry” from the unfair trade practices of foreign countries. Other US presidents would surely have been crucified for less. Trade experts predicting that protectionism would threaten US jobs have been vindicated by Harley Davidson’s pull-out. Working class Trump supporters have the most to lose. Why then do American workers continue to support Trump’s flawed protectionism? It would be easy to dismiss Trump supporters as unwise or easily deceived. Yet, this would merely trivialize a more serious problem plaguing trade politics today. Caught up in a wave of identity politics, how a policy actually affects the US economy is now arguably less important to voters than who is actually articulating it.
In another APRU presentation, presidents noted the increasing integration of the cyber and physical worlds. Using artificial intelligence to innovate for the future sounds nice, but if not communicated to policymakers, it will not work as anticipated. Why not? Governments can shut down data flows. They can do so and they will do so. Government can do so by a variety of regulations that will make it difficult, complicated, expensive or even impossible to move information. Government will do so in many markets because many officials do not understand the needs of academics or companies. They do not understand the issues because the stakeholders in the system do not see that policy matters. Until and unless these exchanges take place better, we will not get the policies that make sense for everyone. Policy frameworks are not just the province of someone else—created by governments and driven by ideas drafted from somewhere else. Policy is supposed to be created for the benefit of stakeholders. But it requires that stakeholders actually participate in crafting policy.