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Why Trump should work with China

Why Trump should work with China

Infrastructure co-operation, AIIB membership: the wider message

by Kishore Mahbubani

Thu 17 Nov 2016

US President-elect Donald Trump should cast aside his hawkish instincts on China and seek co-operation with America's number one geopolitical competitor. Instead of looking for opportunities to ensnare and outwit the Chinese, Trump can practise great-power collaboration of the type Presidents Barack Obama and Xi Jinping demonstrated on climate change. This can be extended and expanded in a manner befitting the world’s two leading world economies.

As a way of giving give both nations a major boost, and reinvigorating flagging international growth, Trump should announce plans for a massive infrastructure partnership with China. This could lay the foundations for greater Sino-US collaboration on many global governance challenges. America's number one priority is economic growth. The only way to meet the expectations of the millions who voted for Trump is to deliver a booming economy with more jobs.

In a first sign of his practical approach towards collaboration and his genuine interest in constructing more and better roads, bridges, railways, tunnels, seaports and airports in the US and around the world, Trump should announce his intention for America to join the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.

The AIIB was set up by China together with a large number of nations from developed and emerging market economies to act as a new pole for infrastructure development. But it was unwisely spurned by the Obama administration as a result of misguided fears of Chinese power-play and a challenge to the Bretton Woods institutions of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund set up under American leadership in 1944.

America and China can show that co-operation can pay off. They will necessarily compete from time to time. Discord cannot be ruled out on matters ranging from territorial disputes in the South China Sea and foreign trade to the value of the renminbi, where the renewed slide in the Chinese currency since Trump's election win will send alarm bells ringing in Washington.

There is however a wider message that supersedes such areas of potential disagreement, difficult though they undoubtedly are. We live in a small, increasingly fragile, massively interdependent planet, fraught with complex cross-border problems such as terrorism, epidemics, refugee crises and climate change. The era of 19th century zero-sum geopolitical games is over.

In view of America’s evident fiscal challenges, Trump will need a strong economic partner to achieve his infrastructure plans – and the superpower in this field is China. In the past, Europe and Japan, as the leading American allies since the second world war, might have protested that an American 'tilt to China' did not pay sufficient regard to their own interests. Certainly Trump should not ignore such sensitivities altogether. I hope he takes a more diplomatic approach to all these questions than he has shown hitherto. But the harsh reality is that, with growth constrained in both Europe and Japan as a result of demographic difficulties, the travails of the euro and the disappointments of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s policies of 'Abenomics', Trump’s America has little choice but to look towards China for a lead in bolstering the global economic picture.

Chas Freeman, a former US diplomat, has noted that when President Dwight Eisenhower unleashed the last big wave of road-building in America in 1956, he constructed 41,000 miles of highways. China has built 76,000 miles since 1990. Freeman notes that at 12,000 miles, China has the most extensive high-speed rail lines in the world, ferrying 1.1bn passengers a year. Seven of the world's 10 largest and busiest ports are Chinese. In 2015, China laid 1.6m miles of fibre optic cable. It is also the world leader in long-distance ultra-high-voltage power transmission.

After the China-bashing of the campaign trail, Trump will have to expend significant political capital to explain why greater collaboration between America and China makes good sense. And he will have to suppress some of his geopolitical instincts. Trump needs to be convinced that co-operation with China is in America's long-term interests. As Cui Tiankai, China’s ambassador to the US, wrote in 2014, 'When China and the US find ways to work together, all nations benefit.' It will now be up to the new president to turn these words into reality.

Kishore Mahbubani is dean of the LKY School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, author of The Great Convergence and a Member of the OMFIF Advisory Board. The views expressed are his own.

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