- As China grows in economic and military might, it has less need for multilateral institutions. Meanwhile, the US president has made his contempt for globalism clear
- In calling on American CEOs during his speech at the deal signing, Trump was letting them know who is now in charge when it comes to dispute resolution
In the days that followed last week's signing of the phase one US-China trade agreement in Washington, the general consensus was that China gave more than it got.
If you didn't want to bother poring over the details of the agreement, you could just watch the footage of Vice-Premier Liu He standing a few feet behind US President Donald Trump as the US leader reiterated a list of grievances about how China had taken advantage of the US, how America had been on its knees because of Chinese scheming and how Trump himself slew the menacing red dragon.
Optics aside, the outcome of the phase one deal was much more about cooperation than competition than most analysts have acknowledged.
The accord nudged the world closer to the kind of order that suits the top leaders of both countries. This may have helped Liu stand silently during the victory lap that Trump ran around him in the form of an endless monologue that felt more suited to a mafia don's anniversary banquet than statesmanship.
Indeed, Trump had a reason to brag. The agreement's enforcement mechanism was more than Beijing ever would have agreed to previously and certainly not for any of Trump's predecessors. China had long insisted that commercial disputes should be litigated within the World Trade Organisation's framework.
What changed? Beijing has faced growing international condemnation over the past year about issues including its internment camps in Xinjiang, its refusal to acknowledge that most citizens of Hong Kong reject the kind of governance that defines the mainland, and the "nine-dash line" Beijing is determined to enforce in the South China Sea.
Moreover, Beijing's detention of two Canadians in an apparent retaliation for Canada's arrest of tech giant Huawei's chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou continues to highlight the contrast between China's highly politicised legal system and international standards of due process.
Meng resides in luxury and has the entire city of Vancouver at her disposal as her hearings play out, while Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig, for all we know, may not have seen the light of day since December 2018.
As attention to all these issues keeps them in the news cycle, China has become more dismissive of international consensus. It was already dealing with the headache of the Permanent Court of Arbitration's ruling in 2016 in favour of the Philippines in the South China Sea arbitration. Beijing's solution was to dismiss the ruling, and the adjudication body, as irrelevant.
As the country has emerged as an economic and military force making progress towards parity with the world's only other superpower, Beijing has less need for multilateral institutions dictating the rules of engagement.
That orientation squares well with Trump's world view. After all, one of his administration's key default positions is disdain for globalism. He has made this clear in the way his administration has blocked reappointments to the World Trade Organisation's appellate body.
Former Chinese trade envoy wants four more years of Trump. Here's why
When Trump spent time calling on American CEOs at last week's signing ceremony, it wasn't a show of gratitude. The US president knows the old organised crime adage well: keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.
As he kneecapped the WTO, which many of these companies might have seen as a channel for impartial resolution of disputes, Trump effectively told American multinationals that they had better be nice to him if they want a favourable resolution to trade disputes with China. The international route is now shut.
Trump is still under the spell of his former strategist Steve Bannon, who is actively pursuing "nationalist-populist" movements worldwide to undercut the world's globalists. Trump wants to bring about an order that resembles the Game of Thrones more than it does the one guided by international institutions that every administration before his has tried to strengthen to foster free global trade.
So when we look at the significance of the phase one agreement, let's forget for a moment the details of who's buying how much and the increased access that US financial firms will now have to China.
Let's understand it as a template set by the G2, very much in the interests of the two countries' leaders, and a continued diversion away from the global trajectory of the past few decades.
Robert Delaney is the Post's North America bureau chief
Sign up now for our 50% early bird offer from SCMP Research: China AI Report. The all new SCMP China AI Report gives you exclusive first-hand insights and analysis into the latest industry developments, and actionable and objective intelligence about China AI that you should be equipped with.
Copyright (c) 2020. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.查看原始文章