Trump’s ‘America First’ could torpedo Asia’s free-trade instincts

opinion November 17, 2017 01:00

By The Straits Times 
Asia News Network

As a metaphor for the wisdom of turning swords into ploughshares there could have been no better venue for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) forum than Danang.



The Vietnamese port city was once the storage hub for Agent Orange, the deadly defoliant chemical used by the Americans during the Vietnam War. Now striving to be an economic hub, the city’s new airport is emblematic of the improving infrastructure being installed in the nation. Vietnam’s fortunes hinge on the openness of trade as it woos more foreign investments. The superstitious though would have read an ill wind in the typhoon that battered the city just ahead of the summit.

Unhappily, they were not wrong. The leaders gathered for the Apec summit had hoped for affirmation from the world’s pre-eminent power. After all, it was America which once championed the values of openness – qualities that had helped to make it not only the most powerful nation on earth, but also the most admired. Instead, what they got was a harangue by President Donald Trump about “America First”. For good measure, he advised the summiteers to put their own narrow national interests first. Those who had expected the last 10 tumultuous months in office to mellow the populist notions of the real estate mogul were predictably disappointed. Trump’s priorities remain unchanged, as he stokes the sentiments that voted him to power.

It is obvious to US allies, particularly in Asia, that the old order is changing and they must learn to fend for themselves collectively. This is why Japan, under Shinzo Abe, has been fervently working to salvage the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement, which Trump has spurned. The 45th US President has no appetite for multilateral agreements, preferring bilateral deals that allow him to push his agenda. Taking this to heart, the other 11 member-nations of the TPP have decided to go ahead with their own trade deal. This is the wise thing to do, even though for many nations the allure of TPP was really about getting improved access to the world’s richest marketplace.

The Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, as the new deal is named, dilutes some of the high-aiming provisions of the original TPP, including those on intellectual property protection. The grandstanding by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who did not show up for the signing ceremony at the last minute, underscores the bumps in the road ahead. Yet, this is a small price to pay for keeping the trade momentum moving forward. Free-trade believers must close ranks so the doubters do not succeed in destabilising multilateral trade initiatives. US attitudes towards trade, exemplified in Trump’s “zero-sum” thinking, have the potential to unravel the economic knitting painstakingly built over the decades. That would be a great pity.