Decoupling the US from Asia

November 21, 2018

Decoupling the US from Asia

Author: Editorial Board, ANU

Image result for Mike Pence and Xi


...[D]ecoupling or divorce from China, Cold War-style, is an option that would threaten economic and political turmoil and promise a global winter of discontent that stretched the Asia Pacific order to breaking point”.

Maybe US Vice President Mike Pence didn’t mean to fire the opening shots in a new Cold War with China in his 4 October speech at the Hudson Institute, but the global policy community can be forgiven now for taking the proposition seriously.


The idea of a new Cold War is of course not new: it had been canvassed in security circles in Washington and the chill has been cultured actively by some in allied capitals for some time. A range of President Donald Trump’s advisors and former advisors, Steve Bannon, Peter Navarro, John Bolton and Robert Lighthizer, all identify as proponents of political and economic decoupling from China to a more-or-less extreme degree. Navarro most recently advocated the idea in its most extreme form at his CSIS speech about how China was undermining US national security, giving the impression that an economic ‘self-sufficiency’ strategy, like that which has been so disastrous in North Korea, was the only way to keep America secure. Larry Kudlow, Director of the President’s National Economic Council, disavowed that thinking with an unequivocal declaration that Navarro had misspoken and had no authority to speak on the matter on behalf of the Trump administration.

The new Cold War narrative gained traction as President Xi Jinping consolidated his power and began to assert the discipline of the Chinese Communist Party across the government and society in China. It has been accompanied by a discernible shift right across the political spectrum in the United States towards a hard-line posture on China. The conflation of frustration with China’s military assertiveness in the South China Sea and the perception that its Party dominated political system qualified every commitment China had made under international law to the rules-based international economic system has been an easy logical slide even for those in the US policy community who had been architects of China’s entrapment within that system.

Make no mistake. There are real issues on the agenda for negotiation in securing a more efficient and more equitable foundation for the next phase of the economic and political relationship between China and the United States. China is no longer a poor, developing country aspirant to membership of the WTO but a very large, upper-middle income economy that is the largest trader in the world. While China’s entry to the WTO was on terms that were more onerous than that even advanced and established members of the WTO had to bear, issues beyond the coverage of the WTO, with respect to its foreign investment regime for example, and new issues, such as those related to digital trade, beg negotiation. Contrary to much of the new American narrative, it is not that China has flagrantly flouted the rules of the system to which it and its partners signed on in 2001 — it is rather that it has outgrown them bigtime.

Many of the issues for negotiation now that have the highest priority — to do with treatment of foreign investment, intellectual property, industrial subsidization and competition policy — were encompassed within the negotiations that had been on-going between China and the United States over a Bilateral Investment Treaty, that have now been suspended. There is also the issue of further trade liberalisation and industrial reform that the absence of progress with multilateral negotiations through the WTO has left unattended. Attending to these issues is not only in the interests of the United States and other countries, it is also in the interests of China in prosecuting the reform agenda that it has articulated as the path towards catching up with at least lower-end advanced industrial economies and avoiding the middle income trap.

All these things would seem eminently negotiable, if only President Xi and President Trump could agree to sort them and some others things out.

But as Gary Hufbauer warns in our lead essay this week, the Pence declaration last month represents a significant departure from ‘business-as-usual’.

‘Economic sanctions are the front line of the new Cold War, unlike the US–Soviet confrontation of yesteryear,’ says Hufbauer. ‘But military escalation cannot be far behind. Since the United States and China already possess enough intercontinental nuclear missiles for “mutually assured destruction”, and since the United States would be hopelessly outnumbered in conventional land battles, military escalation will focus on naval power and hypersonic short-range missiles.’

Hufbauer worries that the United States will ramp up its economic war, with the goal of securing an economic divorce from China. While the immediate complaints from the Trump administration are about the persistent US trade deficit with China and the appropriation of US firms’ technology, the real story is simply fear that China will overtake the United States economically and technologically as the arithmetic, however manipulated, suggests it will by 2030 or 2050, take your pick.

Hufbauer sees American attempts to decouple from the Chinese economy and the close down of US trade and technological ties as a loser’s game — a national science and technology strategy that stayed open to scientific and technological links would more likely keep the United States ahead of the game, incorporate less risk of pushing China back into a corner from which it posed a bigger threat and strengthen US economic and political security, he suggests. But he rates the chances of this outcome low, barring unlikely conciliation from Xi’s China. The new Cold War promises, he assesses, to be a lasting legacy of presidents Trump and Xi.

Yet, in a hard-headed if gloomy assessment of where China and the United States are at right now, Henry Paulson, Secretary of the Treasury under former US President George W Bush and leading US China expert, sounds a strong warning on the decoupling strategy.

Decoupling, he says, is easier when you’re actually a couple. But the United States and China are not a couple. They are part of an international economy that is multilaterally integrated on an unprecedented scale, especially within Asia.

The United States might well continue to pursue divorce through cutting back trade, capital and technology flows, but that’s a cost no Asian country, including US allies, can readily afford, Paulson says. The cost is a function of their geography, of economic gravity and of the strategic reality in which they live day-by-day.

Many countries around the world may share many of Washington’s present concerns. But decoupling or divorce from China, Cold War-style, is an option that would threaten economic and political turmoil and promise a global winter of discontent that stretched the Asia Pacific order to breaking point.

The EAF Editorial Board is located in the Crawford School of Public Policy, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.

8 thoughts on “Decoupling the US from Asia

  1. Lest we forget all those T F C quotas, and market for all those goods we have exported at a flat import duty of 2.5%, education, financial and many other benefits to Asia.

    Southeast asian countries have directly benefitted from the US in Vietnam. Put a halt to spread of communism. We may not agree now but at that time it was a real threat.

    Yes, PRC is on the rise but yet to arrive. Small and medium nation should keep our eyes wide open, ears to the ground and open mind to look for opportunities that will take care of our population that is doubling every 30 years.

  2. Top corporation in the US derives more than half their revenue from foreign countries. The newest and most successful companies derive even more and more revenue from overseas and China already the biggest share of that and getting bigger. Clearly US top company futures are overseas and topmost in China. Decoupling will initially hurt badly and eventually limit their future. US economy has long past prosperity from only within and nearby, the genie is out of the bottle. The US governance is inherently one that must look forward, it was designed over its history to be that way..Its not that simple just to look back and have no plan to move forward again. . “Never look back unless you are planning to go that way” – Henry David Thoreau and many other such quotes are inherently American.

    Decoupling is unAmerican.

  3. “it is not that China has flagrantly flouted the rules of the system to which it and its partners signed on in 2001 — it is rather that it has outgrown them big time.”

    This is the first time some truth is revealed in any article I’ve read this far. The blatant, and rather stupid, lies about China “cheating” its way in international trade has never been proved because of their utter falsehood. And yes, trade rules for China were indeed more onerous than that required for any other country, even those with a higher level of industrialization than the China of 2001. It was so unfair that I wrote in many blogs criticising China for accepting those rules which in effect condemned China into becoming another grossly unequal capitalist periphery.

    And I was right, as hundreds of millions of peasants worked for slave wages families were separated and sons and daughters became “left behind children.” The healthcare and basic education offered by communes disappeared as literacy rates among this class plunged to near bottom. Death rates also increased some years during the early 1980s – a time when migrant labourers remembered how different life was just a decade earlier was. Just as black slaves in the US sang gospel songs as reaction to their abject conditions, so did the working class popularised Mao songs during this period. Their oppressive government called it “nostalgia” but if the past were as bad as propaganda (which the West reinforced in order to support slavery in China) would’ve it, nostalgia wouldn’t have existed. Many of those migrants had lived through two systems, so they knew the difference between a people-oriented government and a government of the privileged, by the privileged, and for the privileged. Things became so bad that even Western media started talking about party princelings, the children of those who used political power to accumulate ill-gotten gains.

    The immense corruption was largely put to an end with the rise of Xi Jinping. One of the Xi’s first acts was to implement the old party policy of formulating policies according to the masses’ wishes, a process known as “from the masses to the masses” – Mao Zedong’s version of people’s democracy. Then Xi tackled the prostitution problem which flourishes in any society that commodify even human beings. Finally he struck at corruption that was rampant within the Communist Party itself.

    The West was appalled. From a polarised society China was threatening to become a united nation as it once was under before 1978, despite the Cultural Revolution. In short, China was becoming a version of Putin’s Russia. Capitalist, no doubt, but also assertive in their desire for independence. Such outcomes, most logical in proud, continental-sized countries, were anathema to the West, especially the Neo-cons.

  4. The speed and innovation of science, ITC advancements of the board-less world, would probably overcome the issues leading to perceived cold war, whether decoupling or divorce.

    US will sustain benefit more with Shared Benefits ,Contribution and Cooperation, and much less, with unilateralism.

  5. Innovation and scientific advancement, thus far, have largely been led by the US and Europe, with others coming in largely as interlopers and cloners. Whether China or other Asian powers can catch up and leap forward ahead of incumbent powers may be wishful thinking as one side moves forward the other side moves forward too. Some of the best Asian brains are incubating in US is a fact we should not dismiss.

    • That may be true in the past and also partially true currently. But the fact is – the US (maybe not Europe) had been complacent and not moving forward as much as it should in the last decade. Look at the state of its infrastructure. Look at the university enrolment in science, technology and mathematics. Yes, some of the best brains are incubating in the US. However, in recent years, many of them are returning to their home countries. Not as wishful thinking as you think. Already China is leading in super computers. It is catching up fast in AI. It is the biggest producers of solar panels and wind turbines. It is coming out with more scientific research. China spend most of its revenue on infrastructure and research. The US, OTOH, spent trillions on wars. This fact should not be dismissed.

    • The,
      In short, thanks for elucidated the details of my intended elaborations which I may not able to produce .

      In additions, their tenancity, focus and gritty discipline in objective and progress in getting, ahead are unmatched.

      Unlike the west , which depends much on foreign skill migrants, Chinese of 1.4 ( with many highly well educated, and are science intelectuals) have unlimited pools of talents to drawn from. Funding is no longer a problem. They are also highly practical and realists,
      While most US leaders and people are still in self-denial .

      I would not underestimate China potential capabilities and abilities, on self-reliance.

      It is consumption world .1.4 b spenders can mean a lot to the decent economic growth in other parts of world, including the US. Decoupling will hurt US more.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.