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.
From PM Lee’s speech: Thus, short of universal trade agreements, we should at least strive for regional or pluri-lateral arrangements. This may be a second best solution, but it is a practical way to incrementally build support for lower trade barriers and higher standards, which can then be adopted by other countries. This was the rationale behind the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). The US originally came on board the TPP because it saw the strategic benefits, although it ultimately withdrew. Fortunately, the remaining 11 members were able to preserve nearly all that had been negotiated, and so the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) is now in force. I am glad that more countries have expressed interest to join the CPTPP, including South Korea, Thailand and the UK. China is also watching the CPTPP carefully. They are not ready to join now, but I hope that they will seriously consider doing so sometime in the future. Similarly, I hope one day it will become politically possible for a US administration to rethink the US’ position, and recognise that it stands to gain, economically and strategically, from becoming a member of the partnership that it played such a leading role in designing. Meanwhile, countries in the Asia Pacific are working on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). The RCEP has a different footprint from the CPTPP. It covers all the key countries on the western side of the Pacific, including Northeast Asia and Southeast Asia, and also importantly India, Australia and New Zealand. This inclusive configuration minimises the risk of the RCEP being misperceived as a bloc that excludes the US and its friends. With such a wide range of participants, RCEP standards are naturally less ambitious than the CPTPP’s, and the deal is also much harder to negotiate. Nonetheless, I hope the participants can take the final step to complete the RCEP by this year, or if not, as soon as the domestic politics of the key players allow.
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.
This was supposed to be the year that the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) trade negotiations finally wrapped up. Once again, it will not happen. The 16 parties involved (Australia, Brunei, Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Japan, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, New Zealand, Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, Thailand, and Vietnam) have been talking since early 2013. After 24 formal rounds, at least 9 ministerials, multiple informal meetings, and annual leader’s meetings, RCEP remains a work in progress. Why is it taking so long to get an agreement? The short answer is two-fold—a lack of sufficient political will and serious technical challenges in bridging the gaps between widely different member states. The lack of political will seems surprising to many outsiders. After all, at a time of rising global trade tensions, surely this is the best time to lock down an agreement in Asia to keep trade lanes open for mostly export-dependent trading states?