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.
The net result, for Trump, is that he did what he wanted and it worked. Flush with this victory, it is highly likely that Trump will double down on his strategy in the future. After all, he will reason, his advisors argued against his Mexico gamble and yet it paid out so well for him. Why, then, should he listen to them if they advise against similar trade and tariff policies again? Trade is now a tool to be used for non-trade objectives, as we have noted previously. While clearly illegal, such a distinction does not matter. Trump was willing to impose tariffs on Mexico in direct contravention of existing World Trade Organization prohibitions, NAFTA rules and the upcoming NAFTA 2.0 rules. He used a dubious interpretation of the American emergency powers act to justify his decision domestically. The gloves, so to speak, are clearly off. And, having won a big match in this way, there is every reason to believe such tactics will be tried again. Future opponents should be forewarned.
Arbitrary or capricious rule changes are a significant danger for foreign firms looking to diversify out of China into other markets in Asia. It certainly does no good to open a new warehouse or building, only to have a regulatory change that renders it unusable or be saddled with new requirements on staffing that drive costs into the red. Most of the markets in the region that are currently expecting to capitalize on the trade war struggle with at least some—and usually all—of these problems. An honest assessment of market conditions in hopeful “winners” could bring about some necessary changes. There is certainly an opportunity for many markets to capture new gains from trade in areas that have not been “in play” for years. But absent some significant improvements in the ease of doing business in a remarkably short period of time, many of the locations that expect a windfall from relocations are likely to be bitterly disappointed.
The United States, of course, is not Australia and has a customer base that is hard to ignore. Marketplaces will likely continue to deliver, despite higher costs, but will pass along these higher postal rates to customers who will pay more. In the meantime, firms will search for alternative markets outside the US to continue to grow their businesses. Governments outside the United States may follow suit and withdraw from the UPU as well, leaving US exporters, including many of the most vibrant global e-commerce vendors, at risk of failing to reach their own customers in fast-growing overseas markets where last mile delivery is always the most challenging part of e-commerce for firms. Withdrawing the United States from the UPU may seem like a small victory for Trump, but the implications and collateral damage it could cause to American consumers and companies alike may be significantly more than the relatively minor amount Trump claims the US Postal service is currently forgoing.
Although most Asia-Pacific countries continue to pursue trade and economic liberalization — for example, through the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership — these initiatives will not compensate for the damage caused by a trade war. Beyond the economic loss, strained ties between the United States and China will make it harder for them to cooperate on other pressing issues such as the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, regional security, nonproliferation and climate change. None of these issues can be solved without the full participation of both countries. If any of these disputes escalates and destabilizes relations between the United States and China, the consequences for the world would be disastrous. Competition between the United States and China is to be expected. But whether this competition takes place within a framework of interdependence and generally accepted international rules makes all the difference. Ultimately, what is at stake is war and peace, and the security and stability of the world. The United States, China and the rest of the world have too much at stake.