November 3, 2017
With scandal and noise swirling at home U.S. President Donald Trump sets out on a 10 day trip to Asia today . You should not feel good about that.
Trump will visit Japan, China, South Korea, Vietnam and the Philippines (the latter run by a maniac named Rodrigo Duterte), and the trip comes at a time of significant changes in Asia that will affect the whole world. North Korea is racing ahead with its nuclear weapons program, Japan looks set to remilitarize (risking a regional arms race) and the Chinese communists just held a party congress that cemented Xi Jinping as the unquestioned leader for years to come (a recent cover of The Economist magazine called him “The world’s most powerful man”).
This is not an ideal environment for a dangerous, incompetent buffoon like Trump. Perhaps American diplomats have temporarily kept orderly relations since Trump became president in January, but this has come despite him. Even amid the extreme crisis in North Korea, the Trump administration has still failed to appoint an ambassador to South Korea during its first 10 months in office.
At the same time, one of Trump’s first acts as president earlier this year was to withdraw the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal, which would have boosted trade between countries as diverse as Japan, Vietnam, Australia, Chile, Mexico, Canada and Singapore, among others, as well as served as an economic alternative to total Chinese hegemony in East Asia. In yet another sign of the total insanity of Trump policies, withdrawal likely means not only will more regional trade go via China instead of his own country, but it also almost certainly directly damages the economic prospects of Trump’s own voters.
For example: Today, in Vietnam, importing car engines made in Michigan — my home state, a traditional manufacturing center and a state that Trump won in the election because of supposed working class support — comes with a 55 percent tariff. This makes American-made automobiles uncompetitive in the world’s second fastest growing car market (up 27 percent last year, second only to Singapore, which is also a TPP country). Meanwhile, a leading competitor — Chinese-made car parts — have zero tariff in Vietnam.
Furthermore, about 40 percent of Vietnamese goods imported to the United States also have zero tariff. This means Trump’s tough guy policy of withdrawal from TPP voluntarily maintains an environment where American goods are uncompetitive abroad, while still giving many Vietnamese goods barrier-free access to the U.S. market. That is to say: the exact opposite of helping American manufacturing. As Trump goes to Asia this week, the best we can hope is that the American diplomatic corps can prevent him from creating new problems in the region most essential to peace and stability on the planet for years to come.
Put another way, hold your breath this week, because this man has no idea what he is doing.