US protectionism could weigh on Chinese export growth, narrowing the trade surplus further. Photo: iStock
The coronavirus has threatened the US-China trade deal. Photo: iStock

Current trade relations between the US and China see them locked together like embittered opponents, with America holding a gun to China’s head while it insists that China adheres to its demands.

It is in the interests of Japan and the rest of the world that China does not give in to American demands delivered under such circumstances. America may have gotten its way with countries like Australia and South Korea, but nothing can be compared to the potential knock-on effects of a US deal with China. As well as being the world’s second-largest economy since it overtook Japan in 2010, China is a rising power with growing influence on the international stage. It is also America’s strongest competitor and the only nation capable of posing a serious threat to the US.

If the US were to succeed in clipping China’s wings, this would be an ominous sign for Japan, as the outcome of US negotiations with China will present grave implications for Japan even as it seeks to negotiate its own trade deal with the US.

If the United States is allowed to get away with pressuring China into an unequal trade deal, what is there to stop the Americans from using the same tactics against Japan? The US has already imposed tariffs on Japan without facing any sort of retaliation from the Asian trading giant. Having made repeated attempts to soft-talk Trump, Japan has now realized the limited success of its strategy. Trump has also shown himself to be capable of making his own decisions by overruling his advisers to impose fresh tariffs.

Should Trump succeed in forcing China to cave in, he will surely conclude that his tariff tactic is one that not only works, but is a useful weapon with which to achieve his goals. He will be emboldened and tempted to turn against Japan. If this were to happen, Trump could continue to present himself as a tough negotiator and the consummate dealmaker.

Trump has prioritized his 2020 election prospects above everything else. He has based his foreign and domestic policy on how he is perceived by his voter base, and actions that are interpreted as Trump being tough on China will generate positive political dividends.

No one can stop Trump but himself.

In US political circles, Japan enjoys a far more positive image than China. Many US lawmakers from both parties view Japan in a friendly light, and Trump cabinet officials such as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have established close links with the Japanese government.

However in the Trump era, none of this really matters. In the past 2 years of his presidency, Trump has shattered decades of US foreign affairs norms. Now, only the opinion of the president matters and should Trump decided to impose fresh tariffs on Japan, none of his closest advisers will be able to restrain him.

President Trump has effectively broken a set of unwritten rules of engagement controlling how major powers should behave towards other players on the international stage. Through its recent behavior, the US is putting out a signal that it can and will employ any tactics it sees fit in its drive to win what it sees as a zero-sum game.

This is morally wrong. Relationships between countries should be based on mutual respect and the desire to promote win-win situations. The US in the Trump era is taking a transactional approach driven by a winner-take-all mindset. This must be stopped and Trump must not be rewarded for his behavior. The US has raised valid concerns about trade with China, concerns that China must take steps to address, but if any deal is to be reached, it must be done based on the need for mutual respect and mutual benefits.

However ironic it may be, China is doing a great service to Japan by resisting the pressure from the Trump administration.

Maa Zhi Hong

Maa Zhi Hong is a political analyst in Singapore who has written for Today, Asia Times, the South China Morning Post and Nikkei Asian Review. His official Instagram account is @maazhihongofficial.

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