The APEC summit in Hawaii (photo courtesy of UPI.com)

In uncharacteristically blunt language, US President Obama as host of the APEC summit in Hawaii called on China to act like a “grown up” saying “enough is enough” and that it was time for the People’s Republic to “operate by the same rules that everybody operates” threatening dire consequences unless the yuan appreciates by 20-25%.

The US has been pressing China to allow its currency the yuan to appreciate more quickly to make American products more affordable to Chinese residents and similarly make Chinese exports less attractive to US based consumers. President Hu’s pragmatic response–allow imports to rise without necessarily liberalizing the currency exchange regime–is typical of the Middle Kingdom.

Unlike America’s faith in free markets, China would rather deliberately get prices wrong if it would allow it to maintain a healthy trade surplus with the US. This after all was the same path to development that the US took when it was still in its “catch-up” phase with Western Europe.

Yet America, with its penchant for universal principles (“we hold these truths to be self-evident”) is now in the game of preaching free trade, open markets and property rights in the Far East just as it preached democracy in the Middle East. China is instinctually groping for a particularistic response. Although sounding undiplomatic, I like Pres Obama’s rhetoric because it gave away an important concession in the development debate.

“Gaming the system” or the notion of applying the tools of industrial policy to generate a competitive advantage for nascent industries in global trade as a legitimate means to catch-up with more advanced economies while a country is still relatively underdeveloped has been acknowledged. In the local vernacular, “saling pusa” which refers to little children allowed to participate in a game without having the same rules applied to them would be the way America views the Chinese.

For those who believe that lowering trade barriers helps promote growth, the following graph taken from Dani Rodrik’s paper to the UN should help dispel that notion. It shows a positive albeit insignificant correlation between tariff levels and economic growth. At best, no correlation can be inferred between lowering barriers to trade and growth, which is why the Philippines despite having very low tariffs relative to its ASEAN neighbors, has not been growing strongly. As I mentioned in my last piece, higher barriers to entry actually have been found to induce domestic innovation that in turn leads to new exports.

Source: Dani Rodrik (2001), The Global Governance of Trade--As If Development Really Mattered: A UNDP Background Paper

This should help comfort those distressed by that CNBC press release that the Philippines is the worst place for doing business in Asia. It should also be noted that in their top ten worst places, India and Indonesia were included. If these are the sorts of countries that we are in league with, then we really should not be too bothered.

Despite that dubious title, one should actually pay attention to the fact that the CNBC pronouncement was based on the World Bank’s Doing Business Report. Many of the measures in this report simply do not apply to businesses within the special economic zones which is more relevant to foreign investors. Furthermore, petty corruption actually allows many of the so-called barriers for entry to be removed.

The main roadblock to foreign direct investments is actually the desire of business to operate with the same protection of contracts and property rights wherever they are along with low costs to entry without the necessary tax burden and industrial labor costs that are needed to foster this. On the other hand, ordinary citizens that politicians seeking re-election (as in the case of Obama) try to please don’t want unfair competition for their labor from less developed countries which try to create a system of arbitrage to attract foreign investors.

It isn’t that investors want a level playing field. Consumers by and large don’t really mind whether a producer competes fairly for a slice of their hip pocket. That means for a country seeking to attract foreign investors increasingly ceding a lot of its national policy-making abilities to Western bodies and institutions to gain access to its markets. Hence the rhetoric of Obama who is trying to create a narrative that would pit the economies in the region against China.

Having ceded the scene for the better part of a decade to Beijing which has forged a free trade deal with ASEAN (CAFTA, the China-ASEAN Free Trade Area), Washington is trying to regain the initiative with its Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement that boasts the commitment of nine APEC countries and counting. China has objected to not being invited to join the agreement. This is clearly a bid by the US to isolate it and strengthen its economic clout in the region.

This week, as he travels en route to the East Asia summit in Bali, Indonesia, the US president is scheduled to make a stopover in Canberra to address the Australian parliament and sign a deal that would increase US troop presence in a base located near Darwin. The two nations have already beefed up the ANZUS mutual defense treaty by allowing allies to invoke it in the case of cyber attacks just as it was used in justifying Australian participation in the US war against terror.

This posturing is clearly aimed at containing Chinese ambitions in the region. America is trying to prevent Australia and its other allies (Japan, Korea, Thailand, and the Philippines) from following in the footsteps of Germany which has been compromised as a NATO ally due to its economy’s dependence on exports to China. Australia sees the need to boost its military capability to help counter the military build-up of China while relying on iron ore exports to China for sustaining health in its economy. Other countries in the region notably Vietnam and the Philippines will seek protection under the US security umbrella given tensions with China over the Spratlys.

PM Julia Gillard earlier this year commissioned her own white paper that would create a strategic road map for Australia in the “Asian century.” Upon her return to Australia, she announced a new position on uranium exports to India, the other emerging power in the region. This back-flip on her party’s existing position to maintain a ban until India signs the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty occurred after a meeting with President Obama .

Meanwhile State secretary Hilary Clinton is set to travel through Bangkok and Manila en route to Bali. She will no doubt seek to emphasize the theme that America is back in business in the region. P-Noy has been keen to float his own ideas about a solution to the Spratlys among allies, but membership in the TPP is very much in doubt as certain hurdles including constitutional restrictions on foreign ownership and weak protection of intellectual property rights prevent the Philippines from being admitted.

This means that the Philippines will engage in free trade with China via CAFTA, while having a military alliance with the US. This is probably the best possible outcome–a good way to counter-balance each competing force on either side of the Pacific. Australian PM Julia Gillard put it best when she said this week,

It is well and truly possible for us in this growing region of the world to have an ally in the US and to have deep friendships in our region including with China.

But for how long this formula will work only time will tell.

Doy Santos aka The Cusp (245 Posts)

Doy Santos is an economic policy analyst based in Adelaide, South Australia. He maintains a blog called The Cusp: A discussion of new thinking, new schools of thought and fresh ideas on public policy (www.thecusponline.org) and tweets as @thecusponline. He holds a Master in Development Economics from the University of the Philippines and an MS in Public Policy from Carnegie Mellon University.


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