On 15 November, on the sidelines of an Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit, chaired by Vietnam, the world’s largest regional free trade agreement was signed.
This RCEP (Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement) is an agreement involving all ASEAN countries (Indonesia, Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, Philippines, Vietnam, Burma, Cambodia, Laos and Brunei) as well as China, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand.
Covering 2.2 billion consumers (30 per cent of the world’s population) and a combined GDP of $26,200 billion (30 per cent of the world’s GDP), the RCEP is larger than each of the world’s other two major regional free trade areas, the European Union and NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement between Canada, the United States and Mexico).
By manoeuvering behind the scenes, without thunderous declarations, the Chinese have managed to fill to their advantage the political vacuum that Donald Trump had created in Asia-Pacific when he arrived at the White House in January 2017. The 45th President of the United States had torpedoed the TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership), the brilliant political and commercial instrument built by the Obama administration, which led to the Auckland Treaty of 4 February 2016.
Focused on 12 dynamic countries with a Pacific façade (United States, Canada, Mexico, Chile, Peru, Japan, Malaysia, Vietnam, Singapore, Brunei, Australia and New Zealand) representing 40 per cent of world GNP, the TPP was in fact a very clever diplomatic machine aimed at curbing Chinese trade expansionism, embodied by the New Silk Road.
Through the SPP, which included a whole series of standards and rules of good practice, the Americans had the means to force China to trade on their terms and to finally respect Western intellectual property.
In case the Chinese wanted to continue their illegal maritime expansionism, embodied in the military bases they have been building since 2014 in the South China Sea, in the Paracel and Spratly Reef archipelagos (considered by the Law of the Sea as terrae nullius, land that belongs to no one), the TPP had the merit of being able to easily transform itself into a military alliance.
Singapore controls the Straits of Malacca; Japan concentrates its navy in the East China Sea; Vietnam overlooks the island of Hainan, south of which the Chinese have built their largest naval base; the US Navy, by far the world’s largest navy, has naval bases or facilities in Korea, Japan, Vietnam, Singapore, the Philippines and Australia. Faced with such a strategic configuration, the Chinese navy just had to behave!
Trump could have decided to build, intelligently and patiently, an anti-Chinese commercial and strategic alliance in the Pacific (an ocean that the Americans had controlled without sharing since 1945). He could then have proposed to his European allies to join this treaty based on demanding rules.
The Chinese would then have had no choice but to bend to Western standards. Instead of choosing this progressive and collective strategy, Donald Trump opted for the personal rodeo. He did so on 26 January 2018, in Davos, at the World Economic Forum. His performance was brilliant because he said true things that no one before him had dared to say.
He said to the Chinese: “Stop stealing!”. It’s true that the theft of Western technology by the Chinese, via cyber-espionage or intimidation of Western companies established in China, was becoming worrying. Trump also dared to say that the Chinese had not respected the spirit, if not the letter, of the World Trade Organisation, into which the West had brought them in 2001 without taking the necessary precautions.
But Trump’s cowboy rodeo had no future because the American president was unable to transform it into a cavalry charge. The Chinese are indeed too big a piece to swallow alone. The West still had, when Trump became president, the means to impose its own rules on them.
Today it is too late. Certainly, on the strategic level, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has consolidated a de facto anti-Chinese alliance between the United States, India, Japan and Australia, the Quad. But in the economic confrontation with China, America has, through Trump’s fault, lost a crucial battle.
This article was first published in Le Figaro.