Book Review: Dr Shankaran Nambiar –Malaysia in Troubled Times


May 11, 2017

Book Review: Dr Shankaran Nambiar –Malaysia in Troubled Times

by Tricia Teoh

“THE absence of good institutions and transparency in public undertakings, government procurement, and … the design of public policy has the potential to shake investor confidence” is how economist Shankaran Nambiar sums up the macroeconomic conditions of Malaysia.

In his latest book, Malaysia in Troubled Times, which compiles Nambiar’s articles in newspapers between 2014 and 2016, he deftly articulates his positions on issues. He grapples mainly with the question of “where is the economy headed towards”, which he asks numerous times across his pieces, an evident sign of his deep concern over the trends taking place in the country.

Nambiar articulates what many observers of Malaysian issues have struggled with: despite our economy not hitting negative growth, not being in danger of defaulting on sovereign debt and the fact that the central bank having adequate reserves to cover shortfalls, he states clearly that yes, indeed, we should still exercise great caution with respect to the Malaysian economy.

And why so? Various pieces indicate why observers should be worried – an outflow of foreign funds, the sharp decline of oil prices, which has in turn led to a growing federal fiscal deficit, and … “doubts on the efficacy of government linked companies”.

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When Malaysia is in trouble, follow Idris Jala and play the Guitar

The challenges facing Malaysia stretch beyond our borders, and here Nambiar wades through regional waters to help readers understand the dynamics behind the now-dead Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement, the Regional Cooperation Economic Partnership, and the Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific, which he highlights is indicative of China flexing its muscles in the region.

Malaysia, he says, “has a special, valuable relationship with China, which places it in an excellent position to help establish a stable security landscape in the region”. Of course, the “special relationship” we have with China would now be interpreted in a very different light today, given the many bilateral deals Malaysia has now signed with China. Apart from arguing for how ASEAN can build itself up as a stronger regional pact, it is also refreshing that he brings in Asean-India economic ties and goes on to push for greater Malaysia-India improvements in trade and investment, which apparently our neighbours Singapore and South Korea have put a lot more effort in than we have.

Above all, Nambiar is a faithful believer of Keynes, whom he quotes several times in the book, saying that “positive expectations and ‘animal spirits’ spur aggregate demand and economic growth”, and that “at the moment it seems that the animal within the economy is wounded”. He cleverly works his critique of the economy through metaphors such as these, but stops short of blatantly dismissing any efforts being made by policymakers to improve the economic conditions of the country. He could also have done more in providing solutions to what he considers to be ailing our economy.

Despite the nuanced tone of his writings, it is clear that he harbours silent frustration with public policies and their implementation in Malaysia. Although the book focuses mainly on technical economic matters, Nambiar also ventures into “getting the big picture right”. He questions Malaysia’s dismal performance in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) and Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS). He emphasises the importance of good public transport, education, human resource development and healthcare. And perhaps most importantly, he questions whether our politicians and policymakers are truly connected with the economy “as experienced by traders, technicians, taxi driver and executives”.

It is now almost two years after one of Nambiar’s pieces titled “Do we need to create scenarios for a future Malaysia?” and yet it seems even more imperative to do so today. With the elections near, this is what policymakers ought to do. And if they are not, then citizens ought to instead, and demand that their representatives pave the way for the right future to actuate.

An imagined future has to be one that, Nambiar argues, goes beyond motherhood statements like “being united in diversity and sharing a common set of values and aspirations” that he considers merely “dreamy visions of the future”. One has to concretely build scenarios based on concrete issues such as income distribution, incorporating input from a “constraint approach” (what are the stumbling blocks?) as well as a “global basis approach” (how does Malaysia fit into this matrix based on global trends?).
It is on this note that the book hits the nail hard on its head. Nambiar’s voice that constantly urges and pushes for the creation of the “spirit of this big picture” reminds us that simply, there is none of this presently that so inspires. His is a thoughtful, objective and incisive perspective of a nation that could be much more – and his desires for a better, more productive, wealthy Malaysia are evident.

Policymakers and politicians serious about addressing challenges to the Malaysian economy would benefit from a thorough reading of Nambiar’s book. They should also take heed of his advice that in thinking of the long-term, they must be “realistic about the present state of affairs”. This would be a good first starting point.

Comments: letters@thesundaily.com

The Education of Donald J. Trump (and US)


April 30, 2017

The Education of Donald J. Trump (and US)

by Fareed Zakaria@www.washingtonpost.com

https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/the-education-of-president-trump-and-us/2017/04/27/2da36c02-2b89-11e7-b605-33413c691853_story.html?utm_term=.944f5c4df8a7

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There are so many unusual, unprecedented aspects of President Trump’s first 100 days in office that it’s hard to know where to begin. By his own yardstick, the number of promises unfulfilled is staggering. During the campaign, Trump said he would ask for a bill repealing Obamacare “my first day in office.” He said he would deport 11 million undocumented immigrants, starting with 2 million “criminal aliens” within his “first hour in office.” The liberal blog ThinkProgress counted 36 policies that Trump promised to roll out “on Day One.” He did just two on his first day.

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But more striking than the policies unfulfilled — some of which might still be proposed or implemented — have been those reversed entirely. Never in the annals of the presidency have there been so many flip-flops so quickly, and with so little explanation. Trump had called NAFTA “the worst trade deal maybe ever signed anywhere, but certainly ever signed in this country.” He promised to label China — “the greatest abuser in the history of this country” — a currency manipulator on, yes, “Day One.” He described NATO as “obsolete,” suggested that he might eliminate the Export-Import Bank and implied that he might support Syria’s Bashar al-Assad.

Within days of becoming president, Trump’s flip-flops began. He said that he had discovered, perhaps through secret intelligence briefings, that China was not actually manipulating its currency, that NATO was engaged in lots of crucial operations, that the Ex-Im Bank helped lots of small U.S. businesses and that Assad had been committing war crimes. He announced these reversals cavalierly, as if he surely could not have been expected to know these facts previously, when he was running for president. As he said in February, “Nobody knew health care could be so complicated.”

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I suspect that his next education will be in tax policy. Trump’s proposals, outlined this week, are breathtakingly irresponsible. They would add trillions of dollars to the debt and are not even designed for maximum stimulative impact. (Abolishing the estate tax, which is paid by 0.002 percent of Americans each year, would not cause a rush to the stores, but would cost $20 billion a year.) Tax negotiations will be an interesting test for Republicans. A party that claims it has deep concerns over the national debt is considering enacting what might be the biggest expansion of debt in U.S. history (in absolute dollars).

The larger education of Trump and, one would hope, his supporters, is surely that government isn’t easy. His appeal for so many was that he was an outsider, a businessman who would bring his commercial skills and management acumen to the White House and get things done. Washington’s corrupt politicians and feckless bureaucrats would see how a successful man from “the real world” cuts through the fog.

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Donald J. Trump is hard to read and predict–A Combination of Negative Dick Nixon and Conservative Reagan

Instead, we have watched the sheer incompetence of Trump’s first 100 days — orders that can’t get through courts, bills that collapse in Congress, agencies that remain understaffed, ceaseless infighting within the White House and the constant flip-flops. It turns out that running a family-owned real estate franchising operation is not really the same as presiding over the executive branch of the U.S. government. It turns out that government is hard, “complicated” stuff.

While there are plenty of problems with Washington, the real reason so little gets done there is that the American people have wildly contradictory desires. They want unlimited amounts of health care, don’t want to be denied such care because they are sick (have “preexisting conditions”) and yet expect that costs should plummet. They want government out of their lives but revolt at the prospect of any slight cuts to its largest programs (Medicare, Social Security) or the removal of tax benefits for health care and home mortgages.

This condition has been building for years. In a 1995 book, Michael Kinsley explained what he saw as the roots of the then-raging populist anger at Washington that Newt Gingrich had exploited with his “Contract with America.” Kinsley wrote, “[American voters] make flagrantly incompatible demands — cut my taxes, preserve my benefits, balance the budget — then explode in self-righteous outrage when the politicians fail to deliver.”

He titled the book “Big Babies” in honor of the American people, and he opened it by quoting Alexis de Tocqueville: “The French under the old monarchy held it for a maxim that the king could do no wrong; and if he did do wrong, the blame was imputed to his advisers. . . . The Americans entertain the same opinion with respect to the majority.” Let’s hope that the greatest education of the Trump presidency will be that Americans come to realize that Washington is dysfunctional not because of the venality of the politicians but rather because of the appetites of the people they represent.

 

International Finance Ministers Discuss Growth Strategies at The George Washington University


April 26, 2017

International Finance Ministers Discuss Growth Strategies

GW-hosted event, “Growth Strategies in a De-Globalizing World,” brought finance ministers from Colombia, Indonesia and Paraguay.

Finance ministers Mauricio Cárdenas, Sri Mulyani Indrawati and Santiago Peña

Finance Ministers Mauricio Cárdenas, Sri Mulyani Indrawati and Santiago Peña discussed their countries’ growth strategies, including focusing domestically in an uncertain global market. (Logan Werlinger/GW Today)
April 20, 2017

 

https://gwtoday.gwu.edu/international-finance-ministers-discuss-growth-strategies

As the International Monetary Fund and World Bank Group spring meetings loomed, the George Washington University on Wednesday hosted international finance ministers and other experts to discuss the global economic landscape and implications for countries trying to grow in a “de-globalizing” world.

The event—hosted by GW’s Institute for International Economic Policy, GW School of Business and the Growth Dialogue—brought together the current finance ministers from Colombia, Indonesia and Paraguay and was moderated by Danny Leipziger, GW professor of practice of international business and managing director of the Growth Dialogue.

“The world is not in a good place,” Dr. Leipziger said in framing the discussion, adding many “warning signs” show countries’ difficulties with growing their economies, particularly at a time when others, including the U.S., are questioning globalization.

Does that mean that countries’ development strategies need to shift? And if so, how? Many agreed that looking inward is important during times of global uncertainty.

“We have to rely on domestic forces,” said Mauricio Cárdenas, Colombia’s minister of finance and public credit, adding infrastructure and brokering national peace and stability are important factors in growing his country’s economy.

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Sri Mulyani Indrawati of Indonesia

Sri Mulyani Indrawati, Indonesia’s Minister of Finance, added that while increasing revenues is important for a country, so is a good spending plan when every dollar counts. “How you spend it, and how you spend it better, is going to also be very critical,” she said.

Looking at trade inter-regionally could also be an important tactic if engaging with the broader globe is difficult, said Santiago Peña, Paraguay’s minister of finance. Many countries in Asia have been able to do this and have coped better with global changes, he said.

Panelists also said growth worries are compounded by uncertainty surrounding some of the rhetoric and policy actions of the Trump administration with respect to globalization and declarations that certain countries have a trade surplus with the United States.

“I hope that GW is also playing an important role in this location because you have a moral responsibility to continue pushing back the policy trend which is worrying for many countries in the world,” Ms. Indrawati said.

Adam Posen, president of the Peterson Institute for International Economics, had some advice for the finance ministers with respect to engaging with the United States.

“One just has to assume for the next couple of years at a minimum that the U.S. is going to be, at best, a bad actor,” when it comes to trade and other international partnerships, he said.

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The Insecurity of Inequality


April 12, 2017

The Insecurity of Inequality

by Kaushik Basu

https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/rising-inequality-globalization-by-kaushik-basu-2017-04

Image result for kaushik basuKasuhik Basu

“In our globalized world, inequality cannot be left to markets and local communities to solve any more than climate change can. As the consequences of rising domestic inequality feed through to geopolitics, eroding stability, the need to devise new rules, re-distribution systems, and even global agreements is no longer a matter of morals; increasingly, it is a matter of survival”.–Kaushik Basu

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Global inequality today is at a level last seen in the late nineteenth century – and it is continuing to rise. With it has come a surging sense of disenfranchisement that has fueled alienation and anger, and even bred nationalism and xenophobia. As people struggle to hold on to their shrinking share of the pie, their anxiety has created a political opening for opportunistic populists, shaking the world order in the process.

The gap between rich and poor nowadays is mind-boggling. Oxfam has observed that the world’s eight richest people now own as much wealth as the poorest 3.6 billion. As US Senator Bernie Sanders recently pointed out, the Walton family, which owns Walmart, now owns more wealth than the bottom 42% of the US population.

I can offer my own jarring comparison. Using Credit Suisse’s wealth database, I found that the total wealth of the world’s three richest people exceeds that of all the people in three countries – Angola, Burkina Faso, and the Democratic Republic of Congo – which together have a population of 122 million.

To be sure, great progress on reducing extreme poverty – defined as consumption of less than $1.90 per day – has been achieved in recent decades. In 1981, 42% of the world’s population lived in extreme poverty. By 2013 – the last year for which we have comprehensive data – that share had dropped to below 11%. Piecemeal evidence suggests that extreme poverty now stands just above 9%.

That is certainly something to celebrate. But our work is far from finished. And, contrary to popular belief, that work must not be confined to the developing world.

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As Angus Deaton recently pointed out, extreme poverty remains a serious problem in rich countries, too. “Several million Americans – black, white, and Hispanic – now live in households with per capita income of less than $2 per day,” he points out. Given the much higher cost of living (including shelter), he notes, such an income can pose an even greater challenge in a country like the US than it does in, say, India.

This constraint is apparent in New York City, where the number of known homeless people has risen from 31,000 in 2002 to 63,000 today. (The true figure, including those who have never used shelters, is about 5% higher.) This trend has coincided with a steep rise in the price of housing: over the last decade, rents have been rising more than three times as fast as wages.

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There’s Poverty and  Increasing Income Inequality in America too–A Failure of Market Economics

Ironically, the wealthy pay less, per unit, for many goods and services. A stark example is flying. Thanks to frequent flier programs, wealthy travelers pay less for each mile they fly. While this makes sense for airlines, which want to foster loyalty among frequent fliers, it represents yet another way in which wealth is rewarded in the marketplace.

This phenomenon is also apparent in poor economies. A study of Indian villages showed that the poor face systematic price discrimination, exacerbating inequality. In fact, correcting for differences in prices paid by the rich and the poor improves the Gini coefficient (a common measure of inequality) by 12-23%.

The better off also get a whole host of goods for free. To name one seemingly trivial example, I can’t remember when I last bought a pen. They often simply appear on my desk, unintentionally left behind by people who stopped by my office. They vanish just as often, as people inadvertently pick them up. The late Khushwant Singh, a renowned Indian journalist, once said that he attended conferences only to stock up on pens and paper.

A non-trivial example is taxation. Rather than paying the most in taxes, the wealthiest people are often able to take advantage of loopholes and deductions that are not available to those earning less. Without having to break any rules, the wealthy receive what amount to subsidies, which would have a far larger positive impact if they were allocated to the poorest people.

Beyond these concrete inequities, there are less obvious – but equally damaging – imbalances. In any situation where, legally, one’s rights are not enforced or even specified, the outcome will probably depend on custom, which is heavily skewed in favor of the rich. Wealthy citizens can not only vote; they can influence elections through donations and other means. In this sense, excessive wealth inequality can undermine democracy.

Of course, in any well-run economy, a certain amount of inequality is inevitable and even needed, to create incentives and power the economy. But, nowadays, disparities of income and wealth have become so extreme and entrenched that they cross generations, with family wealth and inheritance having a far greater impact on one’s economic prospects than talent and hard work. And it works both ways: just as children from wealthy families are significantly more likely to be wealthy in adulthood, children of, say, former child laborers are more likely to work during their childhood.

None of this is any individual’s fault. Many wealthy citizens have contributed to society and played by the rules. The problem is that the rules are often skewed in their favor. In other words, income inequality stems from systemic flaws.

In our globalized world, inequality cannot be left to markets and local communities to solve any more than climate change can. As the consequences of rising domestic inequality feed through to geopolitics, eroding stability, the need to devise new rules, re-distribution systems, and even global agreements is no longer a matter of morals; increasingly, it is a matter of survival.

Illiberal Stagnation


April 9, 2017

Illiberal Stagnation

by Joseph E. Stiglitz

https://www.project-syndicate.org

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Today (April 2), a quarter-century after the Cold War’s end, the West and Russia are again at odds. This time, though, at least on one side, the dispute is more transparently about geopolitical power, not ideology. The West has supported in a variety of ways democratic movements in the post-Soviet region, hardly hiding its enthusiasm for the various “color” revolutions that have replaced long-standing dictators with more responsive leaders – though not all have turned out to be the committed democrats they pretended to be.

Too many countries of the former Soviet bloc remain under the control of authoritarian leaders, including some, like Russian President Vladimir Putin, who have learned how to maintain a more convincing façade of elections than their communist predecessors. They sell their system of “illiberal democracy” on the basis of pragmatism, not some universal theory of history. These leaders claim that they are simply more effective at getting things done.

Russia is now enabling the Taliban’s disingenuous diplomacy by pretending that ISIS is the more worrisome threat. It’s a game the Russians have been playing for more than a year.–Russia’s New Favorite Jihadis: The Taliban

That is certainly true when it comes to stirring nationalist sentiment and stifling dissent. They have been less effective, however, in nurturing long-term economic growth. Once one of the world’s two superpowers, Russia’s GDP is now about 40% of Germany’s and just over 50% of France’s. Life expectancy at birth ranks 153rd in the world, just behind Honduras and Kazakhstan.

In terms of per capita income, Russia now ranks 73rd (in terms of purchasing power parity) – well below the Soviet Union’s former satellites in Central and Eastern Europe. The country has deindustrialized: the vast majority of its exports now come from natural resources. It has not evolved into a “normal” market economy, but rather into a peculiar form of crony-state capitalism.

Yes, Russia still punches above its weight in some areas, like nuclear weapons. And it retains veto power at the United Nations. As the recent hacking of the Democratic Party in the United States shows, it has cyber capacities that enable it to be enormously meddlesome in Western elections.

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There is every reason to believe that such intrusions will continue. Given US President Donald Trump’s deep ties with unsavory Russian characters (themselves closely linked to Putin), Americans are deeply concerned about potential Russian influences in the US – matters that may be clarified by ongoing investigations.

Many had much higher hopes for Russia, and the former Soviet Union more broadly, when the Iron Curtain fell. After seven decades of Communism, the transition to a democratic market economy would not be easy. But, given the obvious advantages of democratic market capitalism to the system that had just fallen apart, it was assumed that the economy would flourish and citizens would demand a greater voice.

What went wrong? Who, if anyone, is to blame? Could Russia’s post-communist transition have been managed better?

We can never answer such questions definitively: history cannot be re-run. But I believe what we are confronting is partly the legacy of the flawed Washington Consensus that shaped Russia’s transition. This framework’s influences was reflected in the tremendous emphasis reformers placed on privatization, no matter how it was done, with speed taking precedence over everything else, including creating the institutional infrastructure needed to make a market economy work.

Fifteen years ago, when I wrote Globalization and its Discontents, I argued that this “shock therapy” approach to economic reform was a dismal failure. But defenders of that doctrine cautioned patience: one could make such judgments only with a longer-run perspective.

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Today, more than a quarter-century since the onset of transition, those earlier results have been confirmed, and those who argued that private property rights, once created, would give rise to broader demands for the rule of law have been proven wrong. Russia and many of the other transition countries are lagging further behind the advanced economies than ever. GDP in some transition countries is below its level at the beginning of the transition.

Many in Russia believe that the US Treasury pushed Washington Consensus policies to weaken their country. The deep corruption of the Harvard University team chosen to “help” Russia in its transition, described in a detailed account published in 2006 by Institutional Investor, reinforced these beliefs.

I believe the explanation was less sinister: flawed ideas, even with the best of intentions, can have serious consequences. And the opportunities for self-interested greed offered by Russia were simply too great for some to resist. Clearly, democratization in Russia required efforts aimed at ensuring shared prosperity, not policies that led to the creation of an oligarchy.

The West’s failures then should not undermine its resolve now to work to create democratic states respecting human rights and international law. The US is struggling to prevent the Trump administration’s extremism – whether it’s a travel ban aimed at Muslims, science-denying environmental policies, or threats to ignore international trade commitments – from being normalized. But other countries’ violations of international law, such as Russia’s actions in Ukraine, cannot be “normalized” either.

 

Trump prepares to pass the world leadership baton to China


March 19, 2017

Trump prepares to pass the world leadership baton to China

by Fareed Zakaria

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https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/trump-prepares-to-pass-the-world-leadership-baton-to-china/2017/03/16/c64ccee2-0a84-11e7-a15f-a58d4a988474_story.html?utm_term=.d4e26b95c9c6

We do not yet have the official agenda for next month’s meeting in Florida between President Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping. But after 75 years of U.S. leadership on the world stage, the Mar-a-Lago summit might mark the beginning of a handover of power from the United States to China. Trump has embraced a policy of retreat from the world, opening a space that will be eagerly filled by the Communist Party of China.

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Trump railed against China on the campaign trail, bellowing that it was “raping” the United States. He vowed to label it a currency manipulator on his first day in office. But in his first interaction with Beijing, he caved. Weeks after his election, Trump speculated that he might upgrade relations with Taiwan. In response, Xi froze all contacts between Beijing and Washington on all issues, demanding that Trump reverse himself — which is exactly what happened. (Perhaps just coincidentally, a few weeks later, the Chinese government granted the Trump Organization dozens of trademark rights in China, with a speed and on a scale that surprised many experts.)

The Trump administration’s vision for disengagement from the world is a godsend for China. Look at Trump’s proposed budget, which would cut spending on “soft power” — diplomacy, foreign aid, international organizations — by 28 percent. Beijing, by contrast, has quadrupled the budget of its foreign ministry in the past decade. And that doesn’t include its massive spending on aid and development across Asia and Africa. Just tallying some of Beijing’s key development commitments, George Washington University’s David Shambaugh estimates the total at $1.4 trillion, compared with the Marshall Plan, which in today’s dollars would cost about $100 billion.

China’s growing diplomatic strength matters. An Asian head of government recently told me that at every regional conference, “Washington sends a couple of diplomats, whereas Beijing sends dozens. The Chinese are there at every committee meeting, and you are not.” The result, he said, is that Beijing is increasingly setting the Asian agenda.

The Trump administration wants to skimp on U.S. funding for the United Nations. This is music to Chinese ears. Beijing has been trying to gain influence in the global body for years. It has increased its funding for the U.N. across the board and would likely be delighted to pick up the slack as the United States withdraws. As Foreign Policy magazine’s Colum Lynch observes, China has already become the second-largest funder of U.N. peacekeeping and has more peacekeepers than the other four permanent Security Council members combined. Of course, in return for this, China will gain increased influence, from key appointments to shifts in policy throughout the U.N. system.

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The first major act of the Trump administration was to pull the United States out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a treaty that would have opened up long-closed economies such as Japan and Vietnam, but also would have created a bloc that could stand up to China’s increasing domination of trade in Asia. The TPP was, in Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s words, “a litmus test” of U.S. credibility in Asia. With Washington’s withdrawal, even staunchly pro-American allies such as Australia are hedging their bets. Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has raised the possibility of China joining the TPP, essentially turning a group that was meant to be a deterrent against China into one more arm of Chinese influence.

The United States’ global role has always meant being at the cutting edge in science, education and culture. Here again, Washington is scaling back while Beijing is ramping up. In Trump’s proposed budget, the National Institutes of Health, NASA and the national laboratories face crippling cuts, as do many exchange programs that have brought generations of young leaders to be trained in the United States and exposed to American values. Beijing, meanwhile, has continued to expand “Confucius Institutes” around the world and now offers 20,000 scholarships for foreign students to go to China. Its funding for big science rises every year. The world’s largest telescope is in China, not the United States.

The Trump administration does want a bigger military. But that has never been how China has sought to compete with U.S. power. Chinese leaders have pointed out to me that this was the Soviet strategy during the Cold War, one that failed miserably. The implication was: Let Washington waste resources on the Pentagon, while Beijing would focus on economics, technology and soft power.

Trump’s new national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, once remarked that trying to fight the United States symmetrically — tank for tank — was “stupid.” The smart strategy would be an asymmetrical one. The Chinese seem to understand this.