Of all the cultural references that might explain Donald Trump’s trade war, the most apt is Heath Ledger’s Joker character in The Dark Knight.
As one character said of the villain from the 2008 blockbuster film: “Some men aren’t looking for anything logical, like money. They can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned, or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn.”
Much of this statement could easily refer to the “America First” president. Not the “money” part, given how he’s turned the White House into an ATM for his family businesses. But on foreign affairs and economic policymaking, Trump clearly has a Joker-like passion for setting the globe ablaze.
Trump’s signal on Friday that he’s ready to go all-in on China-slamming tariffs, tosses additional lighter fluid on an already raging blaze. It is telling, too. The tell is that Trump’s strategy to “make America great again” is to incinerate other economies in ways that will also scorch the US.
The timing is no coincidence. Trump is veering toward Defcon 1 just as Bob Woodward’s new book on this dumpster fire of a presidency burns up the best-seller’s list. Aptly named “Fear,” it depicts an off-the-rails administration driven more by paranoia and revenge than sane plans to raise America’s game.
Trump went ballistic last week over America’s most respected investigative journalist effectively calling him a charlatan. Also last week, the New York Times ran an op-ed by an anonymous senior White House official confirming as much. On Friday, Trump’s nemesis, predecessor Barack Obama, took to the podium to deride the “dangerous times” he’s helped foment.
Obama, one could argue, is swooping in, Batman-style, to challenge Trump’s assault on the global order. Yet isn’t it time Asia offered an assist?
Like Republicans in Washington, Asian leaders have been loath to go toe-to-toe with the tweeter-in-chief. One fear is becoming a target of early morning Trump Twitter rants. Another: joining China on Trump’s list of top enemies with all the tariffs that follow.
But where has that gotten the region? Just ask Prime Minister Shinzo Abe how that Trump Tower sprint worked out for Japan. Nine days after Trump’s shock election in November 2016, Abe raced to Trump’s New York lair to kiss the ring. That day, Abe normalized Trump, calling him a “trustworthy leader.”
Yet “trustworthy” isn’t a word Japan Inc. CEOs would use these days as Trump says he’ll go ahead with US$200 billion of taxes on Chinese imports. Before long, that figure might grow to $505 billion, the amount of goods China sent to the US in 2017. That would shoulder-check Abenomics, Tokyo’s five-year-plus effort to defeat deflation once and for all.
South Korea’s Moon Jae-in can share similar tales of woe. The president acquiesced to Trump’s demand to renegotiate a free-trade deal in effect since 2012. Moon trusted Trump, pulling him into Seoul’s North Korea détente effort. Yet all this may end in tears as Trump tosses more tariffs on the fire and the White House trades barbs anew with Pyongyang.
Traditional US allies from Singapore to the Philippines to Taiwan to Australia are left wondering what gives. All the more reason for the region to join hands and start pushing back. Asia could wait until November, when the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum hold summits (Trump is skipping both). Sooner is better, though.
Why not convene an emergency meeting – or even a conference call – between Asia-region leaders or finance ministers? Even if they demur on criticizing Trump by name, officials should make a strong, unequivocal joint statement against the abject mercantilism emanating from Washington. Abe, Moon and China’s Xi Jinping should be sure to sign on.
The Joker in the White House needs to know Asia supports the forces of globalization he’s determined to kill. It’s not like tiptoeing around the issue has gotten us anywhere. It’s time Asia stopped watching the global economy burn and began dousing the flames.