On the sidelines of the G20 summit in Buenos Aires, Argentina on December 1st 2018 the US President Donald Trump and the Chinese President Xi Jinping concluded a conditional trade agreement, according to which Beijing has to reduce its current trade surplus with the US by increasing Chinese purchases of soybeans, natural gas, commercial aircraft and some other US industrial goods. In contrast, Washington will maintain the tariff rate on Chinese exports to US of US$200 billion at 10 percent, instead of increasing it to 25 percent, which was due to come into force on Jan 1st 2019.
Although some commentators, politicians, or scholars over-optimistically described that deal as the end of the trade war, or at least a first step, between the two countries, including President Trump himself; but in fact by analyzing the reasons behind the two countries’ decision to conclude such agreement and whether this agreement paves the way for a final trade agreement or not, and what obstacles may stand in the way of reaching a final trade agreement between the two countries, it seems more likely to be a beneficial truce or a diplomatic solution to gain more time, calming the growing escalation of the trade war and to control its affiliated losses from both sides. Accordingly, the first question that may come in mind is how the future trade relations could be between the two countries?
The coming sections attempt to answer these questions by explaining the reasons behind conducting such agreement for the two sides, the main barriers or obstacles that may prevent reaching a commercial peace between the two countries, and the prospected future of US-China trade relations based on these factors as following:
Why to conclude such agreement?
Based on the rational choice approach, the simple answer of this question is that such agreement is beneficial for both of them; and in fact it is also beneficial for all the international economy, at least to stop the continued losses of both countries.
For the United States
In order to control the losses of the American economy since the beginning of the trade war, where the indicators of the American stock markets declined sharply during October and November 2018; large losses suffered by the American farmers because of China’s imports reduction of agricultural products and soybeans in particular, where 60 percent of its total US production were importing by Beijing; and the costs of the US Department of Agriculture increased for providing almostUS$12 billion as aid to farmers and breeders affected by the trade war.
Seek to improve the trade balance with China, where the Chinese trade surplus have been increased to $293.5 billion from January to November 2018, comparing with $251.3 billion in the same period previous year; combined with increase the Chinese exports to the US by 9.8% annually since November 2018, While imports fell by 25% during the same month.
In addition, to avoid any further economic damages or losses that may occur because of the continued escalation of the trade war between the two countries whether to the American or the international economy, Moreover, to face the internal pressure of his strong opposition, and for the re-election considerations.
The agreement came shortly after the G20 industrialized nations backed an overhaul of the World Trade Organization (WTO), which regulates international trade disputes, giving a symbolic victory for Trump administration, a sharp critic of the organization.
To reduce the negative impact of the trade war, where the Chinese economy suffered from a decline in the economic growth rate during the third quarter of 2018,the defaults in the payment of corporate bond yields, and the decline in property prices; in addition to the devaluation of the Chinese currency since May 2018 by more than 8%, Which is warning to slow the economic growth to 6.3 percent next year compared to the current growth rate of 6.5 percent.
To avoid increasing US tariffs that would undermine China’s economic growth prospects, and increase pressure on its financial markets.
In addition to maintain the stability of the international economy, in order to avoid any negative effects on the Chinese economic ambitions such as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) whether directly or indirectly.
– Based on the abovementioned reasons it seems clear that such agreement is a beneficial for both sides to gain more time and prepare themselves for a second round of the trade war, or at least to stop the terrible consequences of the trade war escalation.
Obstacles of a commercial peace between the two countries
There are many obstacles or barriers that prevent a long-term commercial peace between China and the US such as:
The low level of trust between the two countries because of many of the thorny issues among them such as addressing Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) protection, the synthetic opioid fentanyl being sent from China to the United States, non-tariff barriers, cybercrimes, cyber-security, services and agriculture; and especially after the United States accuses Beijing of forcing American and foreign companies in general to disclose trade secrets versus access to the Chinese market.
The different understanding of the agreement by the two sides and the lack of clear future trade talks between them are also stumbling blocks in commercial peace way; while president Trump pledged to freeze tariffs in exchange for China’s commitment to reduce bilateral trade deficit with the US, but it is still unclear what exactly Beijing proposed; where the reports published by China’s state-owned media completely deny Beijing’s commitment to reduce the trade deficit with the US. In addition, whether China can reduce its tariffs on the American products, also the quantities and timing to resume its purchases of American goods are not clear. In addition to tariffs on Chinese goods, Trump has imposed tariffs on steel and aluminum imports into the United States this year. Numerous countries have filed litigation at the WTO to contest the levies.
Arresting the chief financial director of Huawei Communications Technology in Canada (the daughter of Huawei’s founder, the second largest smart phone company in the world)on December 1st 2018 (the same day as the agreement was concluded); and the American requests to extradition on charges of posing a threat to US national security arguing that the technology it uses can be used by the Chinese government for espionage. Additionally, the US companies were banned from exporting to the Chinese telecommunications company ZT earlier 2018 due to Iranian sanctions had been violated. Accordingly, the Chinese Vice Foreign Ministry has summoned the US Ambassador to China on Dec. 9 in a protest over the arrest. There is no doubt that this issue will affect the scheduled talks between the two countries; While the Trump administration insists that it will not affect the ongoing trade talks, Beijing believes that it is just an American attempt to contain China’s technological ambitions. In response, Beijing may have to take some measures to calm the mounting public anger, bearing in mind that a Chinese court decision to ban the sale and import of most iPhone models on Dec 10.
The fact that the competition between the two countries is much farther than the limits of the trade warand trade is one aspect of this competition, where from the Communist Party of China’s perspective the United States seeks to bring about comprehensive changes may reach the extent of changing the Chinese political system, and obstacle the Chinese economic and political aspirations.
Indeed there are many indications that the Trump administration consider the issue as much greater than a trade war by aiming to contain or undermine China’s rise in the world and maintain the American economic and political hegemony over the world for instance the US national security strategy and Trump hint to withdraw from the Nuclear Weapons Agreement, the declaration of the free and open Indo-Pacific economic zone, and the American opposition to BRI as well as the Made in China 2025’splan. In addition, the adoption of the America First policy gives the impression that the United States is seeking concessions, not to improve trade relations, but to maintain American hegemony. Furthermore, the historical experience proves that the American perspective in dealing with the international issues mostly characterized by realism features, where as soon as it considered any state as their rival the caution will prevail on their relations and keeps working and set strategies to win the zero-sum game with this state.
The narrow timeframe of the agreement, which lasts for no more than 90 days for further talks with the aim of structural changes on some thorny and complex issues, therefore, it is difficult to resolve this long list of issues in that short timeframe.
Furthermore, the two countries are also at odds over some other issues such as the China’s extensive claims in the South China Sea and U.S. warship movements through the highly sensitive Taiwan Strait.
Future of US-China Trade Relations
Whether the two countries could reach a commercial peace or not is depending heavily on their ability to overcome the above challenges and the real willingness of both sides to take concrete steps to end their trade war.
From one side, there are some steps or measures from the both sides to contain and avoid the escalation of trade war such as President Xi’s agree to designate fentanyl a controlled substance during the meeting, the Chinese announcement to slash on US-made autos from 40 percent to 15 percent in an attempt to show its willingness to calm the tension with Washington.
In the same context, whether the annual sessions of the National People’s Congress, the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) scheduled for March 2019 may lead to substantial changes to China’s economic policy will be a decisive factor in determining the future of the US-China trade war. On the other hand, the announcement of President Trump on December 11 that he may intervene in the Justice Department’s case against the chief financial director of Huawei if it would be in the interest of U.S. national security and help forge a trade deal with China, gives an impression that both sides have a desire not to escalate the trade war or at least express their fearing about the consequences of this escalation.
From another perspective, it’s arguable that the US-China trade agreement is very similar to the agreement between Washington and the European Union in July 2018, which included strengthen the free trade measures and the announcement of more European purchases of the American agricultural products. But the agreement is in danger of collapse, with President Trump threatening once again to impose a 20 percent tariff on all cars and spare parts imported from the EU. The same scenario is possible with China as long as it serve the American interests, especially with the lack of a final agreement on what Washington considers as unfair trade practices by China in the areas of cyber espionage, piracy and intellectual property rights violations. With bearing in mind that the White House said talks would take place to resolve within the next 90 days specific US complaints such as forced technology transfer, or else existing 10 percent tariffs would go up to 25 per cent.
Importance of peace in Afghanistan is vital for China
There are multiple passages from Afghanistan to China, like Wakhan Corridor that is 92 km long, stretching to Xinjiang in China. It was formed in 1893 as a result of an agreement between the British Empire and Afghanistan. Another is Chalachigu valley that shares the border with Tajikistan to the north, Pakistan to the south, and Afghanistan to the west. It is referred to as the Chinese part of the Wakhan Corridor. However, the Chinese side of the valley is closed to the public and only local shepherds are allowed. Then there is Wakhjir Pass on the eastern side of the Wakhan corridor but is not accessible to the general public. The terrain is rough on the Afghan side. There are no roads along the Wakhjir Pass, most of the terrain is a dirt track. Like other passages, it can only be accessed via either animals or SUVs, and also due to extreme weather it is open for only seven months throughout the year. North Wakhjir Pass, also called Tegermansu Pass, is mountainous on the border of China and Afghanistan. It stretches from Tegermansu valley on the east and Chalachigu Valley in Xinjiang. All of these passages are extremely uncertain and rough which makes them too risky to be used for trade purposes. For example, the Chalagigu valley and Wakhjir Pass are an engineering nightmare to develop, let alone make them viable.
Similarly, the Pamir mountain range is also unstable and prone to landslides. Both of these routes also experience extreme weather conditions. Alternatives: Since most of the passages are risky for travel, alternatively, trade activities can be routed via Pakistan. For example, there is an access road at the North Wakhjir that connects to Karakoram Highway.
By expanding the road network from Taxkorgan in Xinjiang to Gilgit, using the Karakoram Highway is a probable option. Land routes in Pakistan are already being developed for better connectivity between Islamabad and Beijing as part of CPEC. These routes stretch from Gwadar up to the North.
The Motorway M-1, which runs from Islamabad to Peshawar can be used to link Afghanistan via Landi Kotal. Although the Karakoram highway also suffers from extreme weather and landslides, it is easier for engineers to handle as compared to those in Afghanistan.
China is the first door neighbor of Afghanistan having a common border. If anything happens in Afghanistan will have a direct impact on China. China has a declared policy of peaceful developments and has abandoned all disputes and adversaries for the time being and focused only on economic developments. For economic developments, social stability and security is a pre-requisite. So China emphasizes peace and stability in Afghanistan. It is China’s requirement that its border with Afghanistan should be secured, and restrict movements of any unwanted individuals or groups. China is compelled by any government in Afghanistan to ensure the safety of its borders in the region.
Taliban has ensured china that, its territory will not use against China and will never support any insurgency in China. Based on this confidence, China is cooperating with the Taliban in all possible manners. On the other hand, China is a responsible nation and obliged to extend humanitarian assistance to starving Afghans. While, the US is coercing and exerting pressures on the Taliban Government to collapse, by freezing their assets, and cutting all economic assistance, and lobbying with its Western allies, for exerting economic pressures on the Taliban, irrespective of human catastrophe in Afghanistan. China is generously assisting in saving human lives in Afghanistan. Whereas, the US is preferring politics over human lives in Afghanistan.
The US has destroyed Afghanistan during the last two decades, infrastructure was damaged completely, Agriculture was destroyed, Industry was destroyed, and the economy was a total disaster. While, China is assisting Afghanistan to rebuild its infrastructure, revive agriculture, industrialization is on its way. Chinese mega initiative, Belt and Road (BRI) is hope for Afghanistan.
A peaceful Afghanistan is a guarantee for peace and stability in China, especially in the bordering areas. The importance of Afghan peace is well conceived by China and practically, China is supporting peace and stability in Afghanistan. In fact, all the neighboring countries, and regional countries, are agreed upon by consensus that peace and stability in Afghanistan is a must and prerequisite for whole regions’ development and prosperity.
Shared Territorial Concern, Opposition to US Intervention Prompt Russia’s Support to China on Taiwan Question
The situation around the island of Taiwan is raising concerns not only in Chinese mainland, Taiwan island or in the US, but also in the whole world. Nobody would like to see a large-scale military clash between China and the US in the East Pacific. Potential repercussions of such a clash, even if it does not escalate to the nuclear level, might be catastrophic for the global economy and strategic stability, not to mention huge losses in blood and treasure for both sides in this conflict.
Earlier this week, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov stated that Moscow continued to firmly support Beijing’s position on Taiwan as an integral part of China. Moreover, he also underlined that Moscow would support Beijing in its legitimate efforts to reunite the breakaway province with the rest of the country. A number of foreign media outlets paid particular attention not to what Lavrov actually said, but omitted his other remarks: the Russian official did not add that Moscow expects reunification to be peaceful and gradual in a way that is similar to China’s repossession of Hong Kong. Many observers of the new Taiwan Straits crisis unfolding concluded that Lavrov’s statement was a clear signal to all parties of the crisis: Russia would likely back even Beijing’s military takeover of the island.
Of course, diplomacy is an art of ambiguity. Lavrov clearly did not call for a military solution to the Taiwan problem. Still, his remarks were more blunt and more supportive of Beijing than the standard Russia’s rhetoric on the issue. Why? One possible explanation is that the Russian official simply wanted to sound nice to China as Russia’s major strategic partner. As they say, “a friend in need is a friend indeed.” Another explanation is that Lavrov recalled the Russian experience with Chechnya some time ago, when Moscow had to fight two bloody wars to suppress secessionism in the North Caucasus. Territorial integrity means a lot for the Russian leadership. This is something that is worth spilling blood for.
However, one can also imagine that in Russia they simply do not believe that if things go really bad for Taiwan island, the US would dare to come to its rescue and that in the end of the day Taipei would have to yield to Beijing without a single shot fired. Therefore, the risks of a large-scale military conflict in the East Pacific are perceived as relatively low, no matter what apocalyptic scenarios various military experts might come up with.
Indeed, over last 10 or 15 years the US has developed a pretty nasty habit of inciting its friends and partners to take risky and even reckless decisions and of letting these friends and partners down, when the latter had to foot the bill for these decisions. In 2008, the Bush administration explicitly or implicitly encouraged Georgian leader Mikheil Saakashvili to launch a military operation against South Ossetia including killing some Russian peacekeepers stationed there. But when Russia interfered to stop and to roll back the Georgian offensive, unfortunate Saakashvili was de-facto abandoned by Washington.
During the Ukrainian conflicts of 2013-14, the Obama administration enthusiastically supported the overthrow of the legitimate president in Kiev. However, it later preferred to delegate the management of the crisis to Berlin and to Paris, abstaining from taking part in the Normandy process and from signing the Minsk Agreements. In 2019, President Donald Trump promised his full support to Juan Guaidó, Head of the National Assembly in Venezuela, in his crusade against President Nicolas when the government of Maduro demonstrated its spectacular resilience. Juan Guaido very soon almost completely disappeared from Washington’s political radar screens.
Earlier this year the Biden administration stated its firm commitment to shouldering President Ashraf Ghani in Afghanistan in his resistance to Taliban advancements. But when push came to shove, the US easily abandoned its local allies, evacuated its military personal in a rush and left President Ghani to seek political asylum in the United Arab Emirates.
Again and again, Washington gives reasons to conclude that its partners, clients and even allies can no longer consider it as a credible security provider. Would the US make an exception for the Taiwan island? Of course, one can argue that the Taiwan island is more important for the US than Afghanistan, Venezuela, Ukraine and Georgia taken together. But the price for supporting the Taiwan island could also be much higher for the US than the price it would have paid in many other crisis situations. The chances of the US losing to China over Taiwan island, even if Washington mobilizes all of its available military power against Beijing, are also very high. Still, we do not see such a mobilization taking place now. It appears that the Biden administration is not ready for a real showdown with Beijing over the Taiwan question.
If the US does not put its whole weight behind the Taiwan island, the latter will have to seek some kind of accommodation with the mainland on terms abandoning its pipe-dreams of self-determination and independence. This is clear to politicians not only in East Asia, but all over the place, including Moscow. Therefore, Sergey Lavrov has reasons to firmly align himself with the Chinese position. The assumption in the Kremlin is that Uncle Sam will not dare to challenge militarily the Middle Kingdom. Not this time.
From our partner RIAC
Russia-Japan Relations: Were Abe’s Efforts In Vain?
Expanding the modest elements of trust in the Japan-Russia relationship, talking through reciprocal concerns before they lead to conflict, avoiding bilateral incidents, and engaging in mutually beneficial economic cooperation is the way forward.
One year after the end of Shinzo Abe’s long period of leadership, Japan has a new prime minister once again. The greatest foreign policy challenge the new Japanese government led by Fumio Kishida is facing is the intensifying confrontation between its large neighbor China and its main ally America. In addition to moves to energize the Quad group to which Japan belongs alongside Australia, India, and the United States, U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration has concluded a deal with Canberra and London to provide Australia with nuclear-powered submarines which in future could patrol the Western Pacific close to Chinese shores. The geopolitical fault lines in the Indo-Pacific region are fast turning into frontlines.
In this context, does anything remain of the eight-year-long effort by former prime minister Abe to improve relations with Russia on the basis of greater economic engagement tailored to Moscow’s needs? Russia’s relations with China continue to develop, including in the military domain; Russia’s constitutional amendments passed last year prohibit the handover of Russian territory, which doesn’t bode well for the long-running territorial dispute with Japan over the South Kuril Islands; and Russian officials and state-run media have been remembering and condemning the Japanese military’s conduct during World War II, something they chose to play down in the past. True, Moscow has invited Tokyo to participate in economic projects on the South Kuril Islands, but on Russian terms and without an exclusive status.
To many, the answer to the above question is clear, and it is negative. Yet that attitude amounts to de facto resignation, a questionable approach. Despite the oft-cited but erroneous Cold War analogy, the present Sino-American confrontation has created two poles in the global system, but not—at least, not yet—two blocs. Again, despite the popular and equally incorrect interpretation, Moscow is not Beijing’s follower or vassal. As a power that is particularly sensitive about its own sovereignty, Russia seeks to maintain an equilibrium—which is not the same as equidistance—between its prime partner and its main adversary. Tokyo would do well to understand that and take it into account as it structures its foreign relations.
The territorial dispute with Russia is considered to be very important for the Japanese people, but it is more symbolic than substantive. In practical terms, the biggest achievement of the Abe era in Japan-Russia relations was the founding of a format for high-level security and foreign policy consultations between the two countries. With security issues topping the agenda in the Indo-Pacific, maintaining the channel for private direct exchanges with a neighboring great power that the “2+2” formula offers is of high value. Such a format is a trademark of Abe’s foreign policy which, while being loyal to Japan’s American ally, prided itself on pursuing Japanese national interests rather than solely relying on others to take them into account.
Kishida, who for five years served as Abe’s foreign minister, will now have a chance to put his own stamp on the country’s foreign policy. Yet it makes sense for him to build on the accomplishments of his predecessor, such as using the unique consultation mechanism mentioned above to address geopolitical and security issues in the Indo-Pacific region, from North Korea to Afghanistan. Even under Abe, Japan’s economic engagement with Russia was by no means charity. The Russian leadership’s recent initiatives to shift more resources to eastern Siberia offer new opportunities to Japanese companies, just like Russia’s early plans for energy transition in response to climate change, and the ongoing development projects in the Arctic. In September 2021, the annual Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok did not feature top-level Japanese participation, but that should be an exception, not the rule.
Japan will remain a trusted ally of the United States for the foreseeable future. It is also safe to predict that at least in the medium term, and possibly longer, the Russo-Chinese partnership will continue to grow. That is no reason for Moscow and Tokyo to regard each other as adversaries, however. Moreover, since an armed conflict between America and China would spell a global calamity and have a high chance of turning nuclear, other major powers, including Russia and Japan, have a vital interest in preventing such a collision. Expanding the still very modest elements of trust in the Japan-Russia relationship, talking through reciprocal concerns before they lead to conflict, avoiding bilateral incidents, and engaging in mutually beneficial economic cooperation is the way forward. The absence of a peace treaty between the two countries more than seventy-five years after the end of the war is abnormal, yet that same unfinished business should serve as a stimulus to persevere. Giving up is an option, but not a good one.
From our partner RIAC
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