Outlier

FIRST PERSON By Alex Magno

US President Donald Trump invested 12 days in a blur of summitry and state visits. The trip took him to Japan, South Korea and Beijing for state visits. This was followed by trips to Vietnam for the APEC Meeting of Leaders and finally to Manila for the ASEAN Summit.

It must have been a very long 12 days for Trump. He had nothing important to tell his hosts in the region. He had no clear message for the countries of what is now the most dynamic region of the world.

Trump clearly struggled to matter. He substituted flattery for substance. That caused a complete reversal of his position on China, a country he once denounced as a “currency manipulator.”

All the leaders Trump met during this tour either had refreshed mandates or enjoyed strong political support. By contrast, Trump struggles with record low approval ratings. When he returns to Washington DC, he will have to deal with a growing political controversy involving his innermost circle.

No one has said Trump shone brightly during this trip. In Vietnam, he kept using the phrase “Indo-Pacific.” No one uses that phrase and this only underscored the extent to which the American leader kept himself unschooled in diplomacy.

By contrast, Japanese Prime Minister Abe just won a snap election he called in impressive fashion. Chinese president Xi Jinping, only days before meeting Trump, was elevated to paramount status by the National Congress of the Communist Party of China.  That brings him to the same status as Mao Zedong.

Xi is recognized in China as the architect of a new epoch in the country’s development. It was important for Xi to project onto the global stage the new status China achieved. The Trump visit was an important moment to begin doing that.

Everything was carefully choreographed during this state visit to project the optics Beijing wanted. China was no longer the secondary power it once was. It is now at parity with the US. Beijing wants the rest of the world to see that as vividly as possible.

Beijing won more than it wanted. With Trump bungling at every opportunity, with no clear strategy for the region, China emerged as the steadier power in a region in search of leadership.

China’s Belt and Road initiative, supporting the massive infrastructure build-up of neighboring countries to support more intensive trade, provides a clear framework for regional cooperation. The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), the main institution providing funding for new infra projects in East and Southeast Asia, is a Chinese initiative. By contrast, the US has no clear strategy for shaping the region’s future.

China has taken the lead as the region’s advocate for more comprehensive free trade. Trump, on the contrary, has argued against free trade, driven by some archaic economic nationalism no nation takes seriously anymore.

The countries of East Asia, Southeast Asia, Australia and New Zealand are reviving the Trans-Pacific Partnership initiative originally broached by the US under Obama but rejected by Trump. The initiative will continue without the US.

While Trump’s Asian tour was in progress, Syria formally acceded to the Paris Climate Accord. That leaves the US, under Trump, the only country not participating in this global effort. Because of his peculiar views, Trump becomes the only national leader not invited to participate in the forthcoming summit on climate change.

Due entirely to Trump, the US has abdicated its traditional leadership in all transnational efforts from climate change to free trade. The US has become an outlier in global affairs. That, sadly, has not dawned on Trump.

Li Keqiang

At the ASEAN’s 50th anniversary summit, Premier Li Keqiang is in town to represent his country. This is his first foreign mission since the conclusion of the 19th CPC National Congress. It underscores the Philippines’ rising importance in Beijing’s order of things.

As China’s head of government, Li will grace the groundbreaking ceremonies for the two bridges across the Pasig that Beijing supported with grants. He will sit down with President Duterte and the leaders of Congress to discuss common concerns. The two countries are expected to issue a joint statement reflecting their points of consensus.

Things have not been this warm between Manila and Beijing. The last visit by a Chinese premier happened a decade ago. During the Noynoy Aquino years, Philippines-China relations reached their lowest point.

With Duterte as president, our bilateral relationship with China took on a new glow. The investment and trade agreements signed over the past year, including one where China commits to import $1.5B in tropical fruit imports, have been vital to our economic emergence.

In the course of his visit, Premier Li is expected to sign more economic cooperation documents. Many of these relate to the Build, Build, Build program of government that is aligned with China’s Belt and Road initiative. Quite a few are livelihood projects with direct and immediate impact on the lives of the poor.

This year, China has become our largest trading partner. In the first seven months of this year, our bilateral trade reached $27.86 billion. This reflects a 7.6 percent increase over the same period last year.

Our fruit exports to China jumped by 50 percent while the number of Chinese tourists to the Philippines surged to 250 percent. Today, an average of 1,400 Chinese tourists enter the country each day. This is attributable to China’s lifting of travel restrictions to the Philippines.

In 2016, direct investments from China rose by 47 percent over the year before. This is likely to jump even more dramatically this year.

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