With Trump’s rise, China must now lead in preserving the economic world order
Philip Bowring says with populist, self-obsessed leaders threatening stability, Beijing must stand firm with regional and Western allies to avert global trade wars, or worse
The world since 1950 has never been in such an uncertain and dangerous state. That’s not to say there is any imminent danger of global or nuclear war. Instant annihilation is perhaps less likely than at the height of the cold war when we were given “civil defence” lectures at school on how to limit exposure to nuclear fallout. But, otherwise, it was an era of optimism and progress.
The Korean war only momentarily threatened to move to China. There is nothing today dramatic, such as the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, when the world held its breath as the US faced down the Soviet attempt to install missiles in Cuba.
Perhaps 2016 cannot yet be compared to 1956, which saw both the Suez misadventure by Britain and France, and the Hungarian uprising against Soviet occupation. Nor to 1968, with its series of local explosions – the strikes and demonstrations which shut down France for six weeks, the Tet offensive against the US in Vietnam, the crushing of the Czech attempt to liberalise Communism.
The Vietnam war may have been longer and bloodier than the ongoing ones in Syria and Iraq but, unlike the latter, the struggle was quite straightforward and never seriously threatened to engage China or the Soviets other than as suppliers of aid to North Vietnam.
On the economic front, the US dollar crisis of 1971, when president Richard Nixon suspended dollar-gold convertibility, disrupted world commerce for a few months as nations struggled to the Smithsonian accord of December that year. Dollar devaluations were then followed by the gradual breakdown of fixed parity arrangements and the new world of floating currencies. The 1973-74 oil price shock, when prices rose fourfold, likewise disrupted world trade and led to a new era of debtors and creditors.
The 2008 global financial crisis showed the dangers of overleveraged banking in a world with few foreign exchange controls. But it was managed, albeit at a high price in debt and austerity for the Western countries that created it.
The common theme running through all the above was that the US remained overwhelmingly the most important actor. If its political and financial leaders behaved rationally, crises could be managed, conflicts contained.
Of course, there were major mistakes – notably the second Iraq war. But, generally, the main themes were of US power – the creation of broad alliances in Europe and East Asia and the promotion of more open trade and flow of capital. The Soviets had military might but an autarkic economy with little relevance globally, and lacked the “soft power” of culture, immigration and innovation.
Now, at a time when the US, despite the generally beneficial record of Barack Obama’s eight years in office, faces multiple challenges to its alliances and its ability to influence events, it has elected Donald Trump. It may be too soon to conclude that Trump will even try to do many of the things he promised. He may yet appoint informed and reasonable people to the offices which most impact US relations with the world. One must hope, along with Obama, that the realities of the office, and the deeper interests of the US prevail.
Yet, already, Trump has shown he can no more keep his mouth shut than can similarly self-obsessed Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. Does he care what an insult he delivered to Japan, the closest US ally, by committing to withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership immediately after meeting Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who invested much political capital in joining the TPP? Likewise, Singapore, Vietnam, Malaysia and Australia must be wondering if Duterte was not some sort of John the Baptist to Trump, with a doctrine of how to lose friends and influence people. Likewise, his suggestion that Britain appoint Nigel Farage as its ambassador to Washington showed the man is still a buffoon.
What next, one wonders? Further insults to Muslims to send President Recep Tayyip Erdogan rushing into the arms of Turkey’s old enemy, Russia. Or a casual order to bomb Iran or at least put the US at odds with the whole world other than the Saudis and Israelis by denouncing the nuclear deal?
With European politics in a fragile state following the victory of old, fat white men in the Brexit vote – the same cohort as that which elected Trump – can liberal conservatism still win? Will Russia’s Vladimir Putin create another crisis to divert attention from domestic problems? At least Angela Merkel and Germany look set to survive the surge of populism. This is not the populism of the disadvantaged or the rebellion of youth. This is the revolt of an old generation which has enjoyed astonishing progress in health and income but now resists change.
In all the mayhem, China, despite President Xi Jinping’s ( 習近平 ) self-aggrandisement, seems a rock of stability. But it can only remain so by avoiding its own economic nationalism, avoiding overt attempts to undermine the US in Asia (Trump will do that anyway) and standing firm with Europe, Japan, Korea, Canada, Mexico and Asean in resisting attempts to undermine the economic world created since 1955 – which has brought huge gains to 80 per cent of the world’s population.
Otherwise, the future will be one of trade wars, leading to financial crises and real wars.
Philip Bowring is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator