August 12, 2020

Iron Fist for Pacific East

By Stephen R. Nagy.

“Americans performed three very different policies on the People’s Republic: From a total negation (and the Mao-time mutual annihilation assurances), to Nixon’s sudden cohabitation. Finally, a Copernican-turn: the US spotted no real ideological differences between them and the post-Deng China.

This signalled a ‘new opening’: West imagined China’s coastal areas as its own industrial suburbia. Soon after, both countries easily agreed on interdependence (in this marriage of convenience): Americans pleased their corporate (machine and tech) sector and unrestrained its greed, while Chinese in return offered a cheap labour, no environmental considerations and submissiveness in imitation. 

However, for both countries this was far more than economy, it was a policy – Washington read it as interdependence for transformative containment and Beijing sow it as interdependence for a (global) penetration. In the meantime, Chinese acquired more sophisticated technology, and the American Big tech sophisticated itself in digital authoritarianism – ‘technological monoculture’ met the political one. But now with a tidal wave of Covid-19, the honeymoon is over.” – recently diagnosed prof. Anis H. Bajrektarevic on these very pages. 

Following lines are a gross-detail insights into a mesmerising dynamic engulfing lately Far East and eastern Pacific.  

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Currently, China escalated its economic coercion against Australia by imposing two tariffs on the import of Australian barley. The first is a 73.6 % tariff on the agricultural product and the second, an additional 6.9 % arguing that the Australian government subsidies its farmers to grow this lucrative crop. Seen in tandem with the beef import ban on four Australian abattoirs, Beijing is pressuring Canberra hard to drop its calls for an independent COVID-19 (C-19) investigation and enforcing painful economic pain on Australia for what Beijing perceives as intolerable behaviour to a country that has “benefitted so profoundly” from trade with China.  

These actions raise serious questions for Japan and its friends. How does Japan respond to such a clear demonstration of punitive economic coercion against one of Tokyo’s closest friends in the region? What about other interested parties? Do Canadian, American, and other agricultural exporters take advantage of Australia’s thorny relationship with Beijing as Brazil did in the midst of the US-China trade war by exporting soya beans and other agricultural products?

Looking at the short term, especially in the wake economic damaged caused by the C-19 pandemic taking, the logic of expediency to quickly deliver economic goods to the struggling agricultural industry is sensible. 

In that scenario, those countries with amicable relations with China would fill the vacuum being created by economic coercion against Australia. The candidates include Brazil, Russia, amongst others. 

In the mid to long term, this sends the wrong message to states that engage in economic coercion. The message being sent here is that countries that are vulnerable to punitive economic measures have little choice to relent to Chinese or others states demands as other states will not collectively stand up to blatant economic coercion.

One by one, what can be done?

Japan and other liberal democratic states cannot make up for the sheer volume of agricultural and other exports that the Chinese market consumes. Even if they could open their markets as a temporary alternative, there would still be a huge gap. Nevertheless, an agreement to buy goods from a targeted state may relieve some of the economic pressure being applied by coercive states.   

Duanjie Chen of Canada’s MacDonald Laurier Institute correctly points out that Beijing practices economic coercion in a sophisticated and well-worn manner, by discreet to evade World Trade Organisation (WTO) disputes, precise calculation for maximum impact, and they are tailored to split western allies.

To lessen the effectiveness of these practices, Japan and other like-minded states need to mindful of these patterns and build multilateral mechanisms to create more resilience against punitive economic tactics.

In the first area, discreet to evade WTO disputes, Japan and other middle powers need to work collectively to close the WTO loop holes such that they cannot be exploit to deliver painful economic messages to states that are deemed to cross Beijing’s red lines. 

To accomplish this task, WTO reform is crucial and that means collectively lobbying the US to work with allies to reform the WTO such that it functions better and can protect member states from economic predation. 

If consensus cannot be achieved to reform the WTO, then like-minded states should consider a scrap and build approach that starts with like-minded countries but aims to achieve the same objectives.

The 2nd area Chen identified was the precise calculation for maximum impact. Japan felt this in 2010 with the rare-earth embargo, an embargo that hurt its high-tech firms and automobile industry. Australia is feeling this now with its beef and barley industries beings targeted. Canada felt similar measures against its canola, soya and pork industries in the wake of Ms Meng Wanzhou arrest. The tactics even included the hostage diplomacy of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor who are still detained to this day.

Mitigating this hard-line approach requires a multilevel approach and multilateral cooperation. At the first level, like-minded states need to brainstorm and commit to collective and equal reciprocation of the economic coercion. For instance, collective stopping the export of a key or key ingredient, components or otherwise to China until the respective coercion stops. 

Here agricultural products come to mind. The growing middle class in China also has a growing appetite for the high quality and safe agricultural from countries like Japan, Australia, Canada, the US, and the EU. These like-minded states should find ways to collectively limit their agricultural exports when one or more of its members are subject to economic coercion. China is vulnerable in other areas as well.

Reputational costs are also critical levers that should be collectively applied as well. Chen mentions withdrawing membership from the Asian Infrastructure and Investment bank (AIIB) as a possible measure. I would add MoUs signed with the BRI, and 3rd country infra-structure projects as well. These are crucial institutions that China has invested both treasure and political resources in to bolster its international credentials as a provider of global public goods. 

Of Ban and Japan

Japan would play a key role here in that Beijing has assiduously courted Japan to join the BRI and 3rdcountry infrastructure as a way to build credibility for the BRI infrastructure projects. Without partners, China’s signature initiatives cannot be internationalized, and China will not recognized as a globally admired and responsible stakeholder. 

Another key initiative to be collectively adopted by Japan and other countries in their trade negotiations with Beijing is a clause that expressly forbids economic coercion on Japan and or its allies. This kind of clause could be included in other trade agreements and negotiations that Beijing deems critical to its socio-economic development.

Thinking creatively, Japan and like-minded countries such as Canada, Australia, South Korea and others should think about ways to introduce their own “poison pill” into trade agreements. The US did this with he USMCA FTA between Canada, Mexico and the US by the inclusion of a clause in which the US had veto over Canada and Mexico’s other free trade partners, in particular if either entered a free trade deal with a with a “non-market country”, i.e. China.

In this hypothetic “poison pill” or let’s call it “Musketeer Clause”, trade agreements would include a clause that required partners to collectively respond to economic coercion of one of its members by applying diplomatic, economic and other pressure on the offending actor. This could be a collective boycott, collective lobbying in international organizations, collective reciprocal tariff increase, etc. In short, an embodiment of the The Musketeers motto of One for all, all for one

The third area that needs be addressed is the tactics deployed to tailored to split western allies. The above hypothetic clause would go far in doing that by creating as grouping of like-minded states that are interested in protecting their national and collective interests. 

This will not be enough. With China being the largest trading partner of Japan, South Korea, Australia and many ASEAN states, an economic re-balancing must take place in which states collectively socially distance themselves from China. Here, the key that they are less dependent on bilateral relations for economic prosperity and more dependent on a balanced, multilateral trade relations with a collection of like-minded, rules-based countries and China.

Complete decoupling from China is not realistic considering the level of integration of our economies. It is also not in the economic or security interests of the states in questions nor the global community. What is in the interests of Japan, Australia, South Korea, Canada and other middle powers and smaller powers is finding ways to buttress a rules-based international order and to push back against a track record of punitive economic policies.  

Resistance is not futile. Victims of economic coercion need to channel their own Winston Churchill and epitomize the his views on never giving up in the face of force. 

“This is the lesson: never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never—in nothing, great or small, large or petty—never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.”

Stephen R. Nagy (@nagystephen1) is a senior associate professor at International Christian University and a visiting fellow with the Japan Institute for International Affairs.

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