Black Swan

By Andrej Mrevlje |

When a four-star general in full uniform steps in front a renowned academic think tank and starts to document all the possible reasons why America needs to stay in the Pacific, then you know that the U.S. president — barely a week into his term — has blown it. Or is the general simply staging a resistance because the president just ripped up the TPP agreement that was in the interest of the military and the rest of the old order that Trump is trying to change?

General Robert Brown is a commander of the U.S. Army forces in the Pacific. He flew to Washington, D.C. from his command post in Hawaii, supposedly for crucial meetings — perhaps to brief the National Security Council, which will soon have to start advising the new, hyperactive president. And yet, Brown — a tall man in perfect physical shape who is in charge of 106,000 American troops in the Pacific — chose to speak first at Asia Forecast 2017, an event organized by the Council for Strategic and International Studies. More people live in the area covered by Pacific Command than in the rest of the world, he told his audience:

By 2050, the prediction is… seven out of every 10 people in the world will live inside that circle [the area where Pacific Command is located]… [There are] 36 countries, 16 time zones… some 3,000-plus languages… And it’s interesting — three of the largest economies [are] in this region. For us — what a lot of people don’t know — seven of the 10 largest armies in this world are in this region — seven of the 10 largest in the world in this region… And then, what we would call a mega-city — you look at a city that’s got 10 million people or more. This is a trend — a mega-city trend out there. And this really surprised me: of approximately, right now, 36 mega-cities in the world, 24 of them are in the Pacific… When you look, also, five of the seven mutual defense treaty partners the U.S. has are in the Pacific… All these are reasons why there’s no question the Pacific will remain a critical area…

While we can’t independently check each fact that the general brought up, by the time he laid them out, General Brown had all the attention he needed from the prevalently Asian audience.

We know about the Pacific — we are aware that trade trends have moved from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and that most of the world’s commercial traffic is now located in the area under the general’s command. The Pacific was even declared the core of American national interest in 2001.

Brown then talked about strategy and collaboration. He only mentioned China when he said that he visited the country a short while ago and had a great time with his Chinese counterparts. They only talked about what they have in common, the general said. But it became evident when he mentioned the black swan theory that China was constantly on his mind.

The military urgency underlined by the general — albeit never expressed directly — was later diluted by the experts on the various panels related to the possible trade war and frictions between the U.S. and China. As we know, the first signal of change that then President-elect Trump sent to China was the conversation he had with the Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen. The challenge to the status quo later continued with Trump questioning the U.S.’s China policy and Rex Tillerson making comments during by the Senate Commission hearing. The Chinese new year  designated secretary of state added to the fire, commenting on the expansion of China in the South China Sea: “It’s a question of if those islands are in fact in international waters and not part of China proper, then yeah, we’re going to make sure that we defend international territories from being taken over by one country.”

What Tillerson said, the general thought but could not express. This time, Beijing jumped to alert but, did not overreact, since Tillerson was not confirmed for his job yet. The Chinese respect the rules and do not care what people say in private. But when you talk as an official, it becomes a different matter. Somehow, the fact that the White House and State Department have not spoken about China since Trump took office may signify that the president’s team is aware of this Chinese custom and has become more prudent. Or perhaps the White House is not yet ready to spill what its strategy with Beijing may be. As far as we know, it will be the president’s son in law, Jared Kushner, who manages the dossier on China. Beijing — aware of the radical change in the White House — is waiting, too. This year, says the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), will be the year of assessment, since the Chinese can’t overreact because of the importance of the 19th Party Congress. They are focused on internal domestic issues, and Xi Jinping does not want to appear in front of the Party Congress without guaranteeing the country’s stability first. So unless poked in the eye and provoked further by President Trump, Beijing will go on with gradual construction of its empire, experts seem to be saying.

However, the discussion at CSIS this last Wednesday indicated that the death of the TPP would contribute to the loss of American credibility in the area — especially with partners like Japan, which depend on U.S. protection. For better or for worse, the World Trade Organization cannot replace the TPP, which was an important organizing tool for the complex global economy, experts say. They agree that China is not ready to replace the U.S. in the region — or in the world — and that sooner or later, the rules proposed by now-obliterated TPP will have to be tackled in a new form.

This view is entirely different from some political analyses, which claim that the vacuum created by the cancellation of the TPP will be filled with a more aggressive extension of Chinese interests in the Pacific.

Such was the judgment of the performance of the Chinese president in Davos, where he replaced America in defending the values of the liberal world and global economy, as Kaiser Kuo reported for SupChina:   

No surprise, then, that President Xi Jinping’s speech was highly anticipated. This was the first time that a Chinese head of state has attended Davos. The timing was perfect. Xi arrived with these bruised and demoralized globalists all aching to hear him say he’d take up that tattered banner of economic globalization — a banner that Brexit, Trump, and the unruly mob of national populists who carried them to their victories had trampled underfoot…

And yet it’s easy to see how Trump’s hostility to free trade regimes is giving China an opening — and that should Trump actually tear up NAFTA, a China-centered free trade zone might, as Nouriel Roubini noted in one session I reported, extend all the way to Mexico.

On Friday, the last day of Davos, as the writers were finishing up their last summaries in the late afternoon, across the Atlantic, the Trump inauguration was underway…

It was, as Trump adviser Steve Bannon told the Washington Post shortly after the speech, “an unvarnished declaration of the basic principles of his populist and kind of nationalist movement.” Indeed it was. “I think it’d be good if people compare Xi’s speech at Davos and President Trump’s speech in his inaugural,” said Bannon. “You’ll see two different worldviews.”

So is this the time to take sides? To participate in further polarizing the world? Are we here to choose either China’s side or America’s?

At a time when the incoming Trump administration promises a rewriting of the U.S.-backed liberal world order — one that has been in place since the end of World War II — I cannot choose sides. And while I do think that a stronger stance towards the extremely nationalist China could improve the China-U.S. dialogue in a way that would favor the rest of the world, I am also completely aware of the inherent dilemmas of the Trump regime that could sooner or later develop into political schizophrenia. But it is not the time to lay out the diagnosis yet.

Still, one thing is clear so far, at least. From what Trump said during the campaign and what he is doing now, it’s evident that the new government is torn between two options: the impulse to lead the country into isolation — “America first” —   and the opposing desire for a more aggressive outward stance. So which one will it be?

Does Trump know? Does anyone know? Aside from hearing that the new president is great at making deals, what kind of deal is possible if on the one hand, he wants to be friends with Russia, and on the other, he wants to bomb Iran?

Does anybody in the White House think that they can woo Russia to go with the U.S. against China? To try to re-dimensionalize the Asian tiger?

And what about the fact that Trump is building a wall to prevent immigrants from stealing the American jobs and calling the country’s most influential CEOs to his office, ordering them to return their plants into the arms of the motherland? Marketplace calls Trump a Marxist, since even Obama did not go as far as Mr. Trump has in trying to pull the strings of the economy.


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