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Lessons from the America-Japan Trade War of the 1980s

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The National Interest, with James Amedeo, 2 July, 2018

The current wisdom is that there are no winners in trade wars. This message is inherent in nearly all coverage on the United States President Trump administration’s tariffs campaign on China, the European Union, and Japan. However, is this really true? History tells us that sometimes, there are winners in trade wars—all it takes is for one side to blink first.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the White House was faced with a powerful Asian economic power that manipulated its currency, subsidised its companies, and erected stiff non-tariff barriers to imports. Washington’s response was to put 100% tariffs on electronics, force voluntary restrictions on the aggressor’s auto, steel, and machine industries, and adopt laws that restricted the country’s steel, lumber, and sugar industries. But this wasn’t a nascent People’s Republic of China (PRC), it was the U.S. treaty-ally, Japan.

For approximately a decade, Japan and the United States engaged in a small-scale trade war. The United States achieved a tactical victory in the war with the 1985 Plaza Accord when the U.S. argued that it and Japan should abandon the fixed exchange rates that had prevailed after the Second World War. The result was that U.S. imports dropped in price as the dollar fell and Japan entered the bubble economy, which was ultimately to lead to the Lost Decade.

While there are many differences between the PRC now and Japan in the 1980s—the PRC is an authoritarian power and a peer competitor, rather than a U.S. ally—there does seem to be similar structural features in how the two approached trade, and how they approached access to their home market.

Thus far, the PRC’s strategy has been to respond to U.S. measures in kind. This reciprocity is somewhat ironic, given widespread complaints about Beijing’s lack of market access reciprocity. President Xi’s economic adviser, Liu He, has been the central player behind this approach. Shortly after Trump gave the green light on tariffs worth $50 billion of Chinese products Beijing retaliated with tariffs of their own that totalled up to $34 billion. Liu He even went so far as to pick the same date to enact their tariffs, July 6.

The difference between the two sets of tariffs lies in the contents. The Trump tariffs focus on parts and components used in high-technology manufacturing, machinery, automobiles, and transportation, while Xi’s tariffs focus mainly on agriculture exports like soybeans. This latter strategy seems odd until one realizes the Chinese dependency on U.S. high-tech. These items are unlikely to be targeted by Lieu He as long as Made in China: 2025 is a crucial part of Xi’s platform. Under that plan, China aims to improve its domestic production of high-end technology.

The Trump team has, of course, realized this, and therefore focused primarily on this area, both to stop the loss of valuable American intellectual property and to put pressure on the PRC through the threat of urban job losses. The example of the Chinese company ZTE is telling. With 74,000 workers jobs risked by its expulsion from the U.S. economy, Beijing focused the entirety of its next move on attempting to remedy this. While the PRC’s attack on farmers—who are a part of Trump’s voter base—threatens success in the Midterms, the White House’s attack on ZTE was much quicker, and some would say, more effective at moving Beijing.

There is a lot of noise around Trump’s tactics, saying that he represents chaos or anarchy. However, if one looks at the U.S.-China relationship since he came into office, one can discern a pattern.

First, communicate with the other side that you are unhappy and want to negotiate. One could argue that this occurred during the Presidential campaign when Trump consistently repeated the trope that China was “killing the American economy.” Second, develop a personal relationship with your opponent and give him time to make an offer. This occurred when President Xi was invited to the President’s estate at Mar-a-Lago. Filled with personal bonhomie, the president also joked during the Press Conference that Xi had not given him anything yet.

Second, if you are ignored, give the other guy something to think about. Cause him pain. This is not meant to be punitive, but to prod the opponent into really engaging with you. Famously, Beijing has promised structural reforms to previous U.S. administrations, only to renege. The first round of steel tariffs was a sign that Trump’s patience had finally run out. Perhaps symbolically, the replacement of Gary Cohn by Peter Navarro at that time as Trump’s key economic advisor was a message the U.S. would now be taking a more hard-handed approach.

Whatever the drivers are for the tariffs the end goal should remain the same for the Trump administration—Washington needs to focus on structural reform in China rather than on the reduction of the trade deficit. The trade deficit of $375.57 billion has become a useful political tool in Washington and, while it may be powerful, it is also dangerous. This is because it focuses on the symptoms, rather than the cause. In the words of former U.S Under Secretary of Commerce Frank Lavin, “If they give you a check, watch out. They’re sort of buying you off and getting you just to go away for that money.”

Trump could ‘win’ this trade war by getting Beijing to blink by seriously addressing the structural and intellectual property concerns raised in the March U.S. Trade Representative report. Whether Xi can make these changes and continue his China Dream, on the other hand, is debatable.

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Hindustan Times, Prasun Sonwalkar, May 27, 2018

Britain needs to focus on the Indo-Pacific region to avoid being caught between two worlds– not quite a European power nor a global power – post Brexit, a leading think-tank has said .

To do this, Britain will need to go to Asia by sea, even if it may remind many of its erstwhile empire built mostly through its naval power, a study titled Global Britain in the Indo-Pacific by the influential Henry Jackson Society says.

The analysis by John Hemmings has been released in the context of the recent visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi when, for the first time, the phrase “Indo-Pacific” was mentioned in an India-UK defence statement on future plans of the Royal Navy and Indian Navy.

The report says: “Despite the threats and challenges on the UK’s periphery like Russia and the Middle East, the fact is the future of global trade, global geopolitics, and global power are trending toward Asia and the UK must go there or risk being left behind.

“There are also trends in maritime trade and maritime security that mean that if Global Britain is going to go to Asia, it must go by sea. While such maritime arguments sound like a Britain harking back to a glorious past, in fact a Global Britain that renews its naval and maritime commercial capabilities will one that is preparing for a prosperous and engaged future.”

Mentioning the so-called “quad countries” of India, Australia, Japan and the United States, the report sees much potential for Britain to engage closely with the group in the context of China’s growing presence and plans in the area, including the Belt and Road Initiative.

Hemmings writes: “Britain and India are developing robust security ties across a broad range of ties; I suggest that the Indian Navy and the Royal Navy – who are brothers with a common history and common traditions – could do so much more together, both bilaterally, or in conjunction with India’s other partners: France, Japan, the US, and Australia.”

Besides the existing strengths in India-UK ties, the report says that Britain could work with Japan to financially support India’s desire to match China’s infrastructure projects. It also sees the potential to develop a UK-India-France trilateral maritime cooperation.

The report specifically recommends that Britain offer diplomatic support when key states – such as India, Singapore, or Japan – come under pressure within the region. It also calls for the utilisation, along with India, of the Commonwealth to bolster democracy with other states in the Indo-Pacific such as the Maldives, Fiji, Malaysia, and Sri Lanka.

It also calls for the UK investing in Asian language programmes at British universities, particularly focussing on Hindi, Japanese and Chinese.


India’s Ambiguity and the Chinese Threat

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RUSI Commentary, with Tanya Sen, 24 May, 2018

Nearly eight months after the Doklam border stand-off, the leaders of Asia’s two largest powerhouses met for informal diplomatic talks, in what seemed to be an attempt to reset their bilateral relationship. Thus far, media in both countries has presented the meeting as a great success, citing new diplomatic beginnings and lauding the pragmatism of their respective leaders. The apparent thawing of diplomatic ties echoes the Hindi-Chini Bhai Bhai narrative of the 1950s and comes after the two countries reached a record trade value of $84.4 billion in 2017. Yet despite the public hyperbole and the evident enthusiasm of China’s state-run media, it is not clear that one meeting can overturn the structural drivers of Indo-Chinese competition.

China and India are both focused on restoring their status as great regional and even global powers following periods of imperial predation by European states over the past two centuries. They are both heavily influenced by social, economic and political theories that are rooted in Western intellectual trends. Still, such similarities are trivial in the face of structurally-driven competition. With large territories, massive populations and expanding economies, both have the ability to shape their regions along with areas further abroad. Consequently, their rivalry is fed by the desire for dominance over the other – something that is best explained through a realist lens. The deeper explanation is the status of insecurity that results from the security dilemma, whereby both countries are constantly looking to gain a competitive advantage in terms of regional accommodation, and the future global order. This justifies the fears of Indian leaders that they may be lagging behind China in this grander global race.

The old non-alignment orientation is falling out of favour with Indian policymakers for this very reason. While this decades-long policy has been a defining model in Indian politics in the past, Prime Minister Modi’s state visits and multilateral engagements point to a departure from India’s non-aligned ways, towards multi-alignment that better fits today’s global order. Yet despite this shift, India’s grand strategy seem to lack clear direction. For, while India might be equipped with the resources, it lacks the strategic mobilisation needed to rival China’s own assertive vision.

The concerns and suspicion have steered India towards the adoption of an odd hedging relationship with Beijing that is by now familiar with scholars of Chinese foreign policy. Nearly every country must determine the trade-off between economic reliance on China and concern over its ambitions; Australia’s prime minister summed up this dilemma last year, by saying that Canberra’s China policy was based on ‘fear and greed’. In response to this conundrum faced by many others, Indian policymakers are identifying key partners to offset Chinese power. The most notable of these is Japan; after all, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was the pioneer of the Indo-Pacific concept. His proposal for the creation of a  Quad – an informal four-nation strategic dialogue encompassing Japan, India, the US and Australia – was revived in 2017 after laying dormant for around a decade. India’s efforts seem to be overshadowed by the setbacks in its way, many of which have been present for a large part of its political history.

As the two powers rise in the same region, attempts by China to secure its energy supplies by land and sea inevitably involve Pakistan. This competing set of regional interests can also be seen in China’s ‘String of Pearls’ relationships with Sri Lanka, Pakistan and even the Maldives, all of which traditionally lie within India’s sphere of influence. China’s ‘all-weather friendship’ with Pakistan is a continual irritant to relations with India. The truncated power asymmetry acquired by Pakistan, with immense support from the Chinese, has ensured an enduring rivalry and the encirclement of India. The Indo-Pakistani conflict has long dominated India’s foreign policy, and constant contestation in India’s immediate neighbourhood has prevented it from taking on a leadership role in South Asia. Finally, the lack of an alternative Indian grand strategy to non-alignment works against its own power ambitions. On one hand, India is keen to be taken seriously as a world power. On the other hand, Indian foreign policy elites seem stuck between contrasting narratives of India as a developing power or India as a superpower. This confusion over India’s power acts as a drag for its policymaking elites in reshaping a new grand strategy for dealing with China.

China, by contrast, has been quick to identify its rival’s weaknesses and even quicker to develop and realise its foreign policy ambitions. Such has been the rate of China’s successes in its Belt and Road initiative, that India’s lack of organisation means that it seriously risks adversely affecting its primacy in its own back yard. While this hedging approach might be the most politically expedient method for dealing with Chinese manoeuvres, it is holding India back from creating its own alternative vision for the region. So, while the rapprochement with China may be part of this hedging approach and might appear to be enough to relieve short-term tensions, structural factors will continue pushing the two Asian giants in opposing directions. And none of this will substitute for India’s need to wake up to the perils on its periphery, by developing a more robust foreign policy community and seeking a clearer strategy for its region.


Global Britain and an emerging India in the backdrop of the Commonwealth Summit

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Observer Research Foundation, with Tanya Sen, 4 May, 2018

British civil servants responsible for the recent Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting held in London breathed a sigh of relief seeing India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi walk down the aircraft stairs. Waiting alongside the High Commissioner to greet Modi was Boris Johnson and a retinue of senior officials from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. There had been a lot riding on Modi’s attendance; after all, the leader of India represents more than 50 percent of the Commonwealth’s total population. It is as much an Indian endeavour as a British one, in that sense. Certainly, London’s diplomatic corps were out in style to greet leaders from 53 countries and to explore the future prospects of an institution — the Commonwealth — that might be a key plank in Britain’s global posture. Modi’s attendance was crucial to the event, and given the fact that no Indian leader had attended in 10 years, his acceptance was a significant message to London. Back in India, the media portrayed Modi’s attendance as an effort to step up its role across global forums. While the overall summit has been judged largely a success, the real significance is where an emerging India stands in relation to a Global Britain.


Modi’s attendance was crucial to the event, and given the fact that no Indian leader had attended in 10 years, his acceptance was a significant message to London.


Brexit is occurring at a not⎯auspicious time. The current international political order is in flux, perhaps the victim of its own success. As this ORF paper notes, it is a “period of unprecedented global structural changes and shifts in balance⎯of⎯power equations.” While some have portrayed this as “the rise of the rest,” this has evolved into a more traditional binary — with the rise of China and India falling into geostrategic, Mahanian patterns over the future of what is now being called the Indo⎯Pacific. The New Great Game is manifesting itself in both maritime and naval interconnectivity — and the implied control of sea lanes and ports — and in “development diplomacy.” Xi is redrawing the map of the Asian landmass with the Belt and Road Initiative, while securing China’s energy and trade routes through a ‘String of Pearls’. India, surrounded — and some might even say “contained” — by China’s grand projects, is wary of Beijing’s ambitions in its near⎯abroad. Are these projects built to extend Chinese power or diminish India’s? Of late, view from India has pointed toward the latter of these two options.

The New Great Game is manifesting itself in both maritime and naval interconnectivity — and the implied control of sea lanes and ports — and in “development diplomacy”.

In response, India has turned East with its Act East Policy under which it is improving relations with countries like Vietnam that Beijing might view to be inside its own 9⎯dashed sphere of influence. Paralleling Beijing’s own tactics in Sri Lanka, the Maldives, and others, New Delhi is using trade and diplomacy as a basis for these relations, and interestingly promoting Buddhism as a unifying element. In direct response to China’s apparent encirclement, India has also been working to become more active in its own maritime domain by initiating agreements and projects with its neighbours and allies. One major project, which might push Indian life into the Asian continent is the new International North South Transport Corridor (INSTC) linking India, Russia and Iran by a land route through 13 countries. This year will mark the official operation of this trade route, potentially leveraging Indian soft power in the region. While the recent Xi⎯Modi meeting was designed to press the “reset button” on bilateral relations, structuralists will argue that the two Asian powers are bound to continue to compete as they rise.

No longer the great imperial power it once was, Britain has a delicate dance to perform in this grand sweeping maelstrom of events. Global Britain remains an aspiration, a dream, and perhaps even — a slogan for UK trade missions. But there is room for optimism as well as cynicism, given the UK’s own government language on the “rules⎯based order.” In freeing itself from the European continent, Britain’s primary concern remains Russia. But there is a genuine search for a new global role among London’s foreign policy elites. One saw this in the miles of red carpet rolled out for its historical partners in the Commonwealth and the Anglosphere. The dynamics in the Indo⎯Pacific are far away, but they remain of deep strategic interest to London because of the maritime and trading aspects. After all, many of the region’s newest powers are merely mimicking what Britain perfected over 300 years — the synthesis of great power strength through a maritime trading empire.

In the modern era, the Sino⎯Indian competition compels Britain to a certain posture. While China remains an important trading partner, its links to India are much greater, across the political, legal and civil sectors, and across peoples. Lest we forget, 1.5 million Britons are of Indian ethnic origin; the largest minority in the UK. The presence of such a strong diasporic network enriches cultural exchange, forming a ‘living bridge’ between the two countries. While there is a large scope of improvement in the areas of trade, business and economy, there seems to be hints of optimism pointing to the outlooks. Modi’s April visit saw the two agree to a new Tech Partnership and a Trade Partnership, with the motive of driving a 15 percent jump in trade. Given India’s population, its rapidly advancing economy and its growing importance in the world order, Theresa May’s government is only one of a long line of recent Prime Ministers who view the bilateral is punching below its weight.

While it is too early to tell, the possibility that over the next few years the Commonwealth might become an Anglo⎯Indian project, is now in the air. After all, if the UK gives a greater role for India, it becomes a tool for Delhi to exert a global leadership that it has yet to satisfy through BRICS and the SCO. For its part, by aligning with Delhi, London takes a major step into the Indo⎯Pacific as a strong partner to the rising power that respects democracy and human rights. It also enables the UK’s elites to refashion rhetoric around the rules⎯based order, into a framework for Global Britain. On the other, India would have to itself ‘a prospective forum for its power projection’ in which China is not a member. The India⎯Commonwealth Small and Medium Enterprises (SME) Trade Summit hosted in 2017 is an example of the scope of integration the Commonwealth could achieve in the future should member countries be given a greater say. One cannot disregard the political scope of an institution with 53 member countries spanning five continents in today’s increasingly interlinked and complex world order. Britain and India are both in need of ways to further their foreign policy agendas and strengthening bilateral ties. As an international platform, the Commonwealth could play a pivotal role in the pursuit of their short⎯term and long⎯term strategic goals. To quote Modi, “Once we have decided to do something, we can go miles ahead.”


The New Great Game in the Indo-Pacific

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E-International Relations, 23 April, 2018

This past March saw a mini-crisis develop in the Indian Ocean and it all revolved around the tiny island nation of Maldives. The crisis began in earnest after Maldivian President Yameen Abdul Gayoom declared a state of emergency after rejecting a Supreme Court ruling to free opposition leaders. Indian media reported on the movement of Indian military units around the country, the implication being that they might interfere. Within days, however, a squadron of Chinese naval vessels entered the East Indian Ocean, putting India on the back foot – the chain of 1,192 coral islands that make up the Maldives is a mere 400km from India’s southern coast. President Modi put India’s military on alert, but did nothing in the end, perhaps due to the Chinese flotilla. While the crisis seemed to finish almost as quickly as it started, it highlighted a growing trend of Sino-Indian tussling for influence in a region traditionally dominated by India. In recent years, Beijing and Male have increased economic ties as the Maldives joined China’s Belt and Road Initiative and signed a free-trade agreement. The Maldives is but one such country in India’s neighbourhood that China has taken under its Belt-and-Road wing. To outside observers, it is clear that a new Great Game is underway, one that sees China using a combination of infrastructure development and loans, to develop its maritime trade and naval power. In response to China’s growing influence in a region it considers its own, Delhi has begun partnering more actively with Japan and the US, particularly in development projects and strategic groupings like the Quad.

Prior to 2012 China didn’t even have an embassy in the Maldives. Due to the island country’s strategic location in the Indian Ocean, however, it’s not difficult to see why the Maldives may have become the latest pearl in China’s ‘string of pearls’. It has already developed a major commercial port in Gwadar, Pakistan and a military logistics base Djibouti, its first overseas. Strategically, Djibouti is located near the Bab al Mandab, allowing for access to the Red Sea and Suez Canal. The country is also in dire need of infrastructure improvements, which China, through Belt and Road, is offering to finance. This isn’t the first time China has invested billions of dollars in the name of development – especially to strategically located countries. Pakistan, a long-time rival of India, has received support from the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to build a hydropower plant in its Punjab region, which is estimated to cost $1.42bn. In total, China has pledged $62bn to fund the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) – again, right in India’s backyard. The same has been happening in Bangladesh, where in 2016 President Xi signed deals worth $21.5bn, showing interest in developing a deep sea port in Pyra.

India and Japan are now taking a page from China’s playbook, treating economic development as strategic leverage. The two have made regional moves into Bangladesh and North-eastern India, however their strong suit is their Asia Africa Growth Corridor, where they are working to create routes in the Indian Ocean region that circumvent China. The Iranian port Chabahar will be especially useful to India—who has pledged $20bn for its construction—in light of the fact that Pakistan currently blocks India’s over-land route into Afghanistan. Of course, even in Africa the India-Japan duo is contending with high levels of Chinese investment. However, there may be space for more sustainable investment in both Africa and the Indo-Pacific region by the two, as an increasing number of recipients of China’s largess fall into the ‘debt trap’ laid by Beijing. Laos is in a $6.7bn hole (a fourth of the tiny country’s GDP) due to a Chinese-led high-speed railway, meant to connect China to mainland Southeast Asia through Laos and Thailand. Similarly, Djibouti’s debt to GDP ratio is now at 85%. A recent report by the Centre for Global Development has warned that Djibouti and seven other countries “face a significantly increased risk of sovereign default if planned BRI projects are implemented”. Sri Lanka has become the poster-child for China’s debt diplomacy after Beijing’s $5bn investment into Hambantota port led to the country leasing the portback to China for 99 years to avoid default. For a country that had seethed about the 100 years of humiliation and predation by foreigners, China certainly seems to be making an about-face.

Watching with increasingly alarm, Tokyo and New Delhi pushed hard to resurrect the US-Japan-India-Australia Quad – as an ‘alternative’ to Belt and Road. Thus far, talks have focused more on the importance of keeping the Indo-Pacific region “free and open”, especially with regard to “maritime safety and security”, only hinting at an alternative infrastructure strategy, however this is rapidly changing. This Great Game is less about ‘containing’ China as Beijing would have us believe, and more about diversifying choices available to countries in the region. Naturally, there is a geostrategic ‘balancing’ element to this as well. Canberra, bullied by Beijing in a domestic scandal involving Chinese interference in its domestic affairs, has pushed for closer relations with both the United States and ASEAN as a way of balancing China’s interference in its domestic affairs. It is beginning to find the true cost of having China as its largest trading partner, and has begun a national debate on how to respond to this, racked by cynical accusations of racism. While the Trump administration consider possible policy options in a ‘free and open strategy’ – see Eric Sayers excellent prescriptions here –  Japan and India are already moving forward on their own infrastructure diplomacy.

As countries begin to realize the implications to Beijing’s ‘debt diplomacy’, there’s definite scope for Delhi and Tokyo to make headway as an alternative type of development pact. While Sri Lanka has been seeking increased investment from Tokyo and Delhi in recent months to unburden itself from Chinese loans, the two need to be more forward-reaching in what they can offer. They also need to design a broader strategy, rather than merely reacting to China’s development plans on an ad hoc basis. This reactive strategy has already cost them the ‘race’ in countries like Nepal and the Maldives. Due to their geographic locations, both countries have historic ties to India, however both have aligned by China over infrastructure investment. The BRI is financing a fibre optic network throughout Nepal (with a command centre in Kathmandu), ending the country’s dependence on India for internet bandwidth. The Maldives Ambassador to China, Mohamed Faisal, noted that though India was offered “a number of projects”, they “did not receive the necessary finance” to be brought into the development stage. Now, India is facing a security problem in the region, as China’s ‘string of pearls’ strategy ties up countries right on India’s doorstep.

There is something Mahanian in the way China is building up its maritime power and increasing influence over trade in the region. Mahan, a 19th century American naval strategist who viewed the domination of maritime routes for both commercial and strategic gain, has become obligatory reading among Chinese naval thinkers. Tracing the logic identified by Mahan a hundred years ago, Chinese moves look very hegemonic in design, adding the supplemental development twist as bait. This strategy seeks to safeguard and control vital sea lines of communication (SLOCS), bringing trade and energy from Europe and the Middle East. In doing so, China also seeks to contain India’s own rise and stop it from dominating its own ‘near abroad’, the height of hypocrisy considering the US’ support for its own rise and its own strategy in the South China Sea.

Sadly, the Indo-Pacific is swiftly becoming the locus for a re-emergence of geopolitics, writ large, and all the professions of “win-win” are fading into the background as Chinese merchants and bankers are increasingly being followed by Chinese navy vessels. This new Great Game sees India and Japan competing with China for SLOC security in the Indo-Pacific and may see a re-emergence of gun-boat diplomacy if we’re not careful. Robert Zoellick once called for China to become a “responsible stakeholder”, and while Beijing claims it is not a status quo challenger, the fact is that it is redrawing the rules of the game. While there is some justice in this, China’s authoritarian regime type makes the prospect of a Chinese-led hegemony an untenable one for liberal democracies. How the new Great Game plays out in the Indo-Pacific depends on the willingness of Asia’s other great powers to defend a system, rather than contain an empire.

Jeremy S. Maxie

Energy & Political Risk Consultant

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