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November Asia-Pacific Summits Influenced by Global Authority Shifts

Jonathan Luckhurst
University of Guadalajara
November 6, 2017

The series of summit meetings in the Asia-Pacific during early November have gained considerable global attention. U.S. president Donald Trump's participation and regional tour have been a key focus, during another difficult period for his administration. Recent regional political developments have also increased the sense of expectation, including the "elevation" of Chinese president Xi Jinping at the 19th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, as well as Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe's significant general election victory.

Asia-Pacific cooperation is important for the world, as the region has become central to the global economy. The growing influence of Asia-Pacific states is increasingly reflected in global governance, including in the augmented role of the Group of Twenty (G20) since 2008, as a hub of multilateral economic cooperation. It is possible that 2017 will be remembered as a key moment, or critical juncture, for international relations and the Asia-Pacific. My new book, The Shifting Global Economic Architecture: Decentralizing Authority in Contemporary Global Governance, assesses the consequences of recent shifts for global economic governance. The book indicates the significance of financial crises, political-economic trends and crucial policy shifts for decentralizing international authority in the twenty-first century. The current U.S. administration has contributed to its own declining global and regional influence. More generally, and more promisingly, this decentralizing authority has increased the integration in global economic governance of leading developing states and other actors, such as civil society organizations.

The international political consequences have been significant, including for the current Asia-Pacific meetings. Trump has travelled to the region supposedly with two key priorities: trade and North Korea. However, the material, ideational and what Harvard professor Joseph Nye calls "smart" and "soft" power capacities of U.S. presidents to set the agenda, let alone persuade regional leaders to comply with their preferences, have declined this century. Trump might gain some traction with his diplomatic goals on North Korea, but the U.S. president is not setting the Asia-Pacific agenda on trade; nor will American influence be improved by the rather superficial, semantic debate over the phraseology "Indo-Pacific" versus "Asia-Pacific." The Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum's meeting, on November 8-10, could provide the opportunity for the remaining members of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the so-called TPP11, to finalize an agreement despite Trump's withdrawal from the negotiations. This would be the result of shared leadership from the Australian, Japanese and other governments. If a deal were reached this week, it would likely be the main diplomatic outcome of these regional summits, overshadowing and marginalizing Trump's bilateral trade objectives.

Far from leading the regional agenda, withdrawal from TPP has reduced U.S. influence. It is likely to decrease the Trump administration's strategic economic leverage in the Asia-Pacific, as well as its regional and global political authority, by further relinquishing American postwar leadership of multilateral cooperation. There is growing regional skepticism over whether the United States could be trusted in future trade negotiations. This and Trump's perceived protectionism are reducing the "cognitive" — implying professional, ideational and normative — authority of American trade negotiators, in addition to their government's strategic and political authority.

Trump is likely to receive support from Abe for his apparently tough stance on North Korea. Their security cooperation does not extend to core economic issues, especially Japan's bilateral trade surplus. Abe, it is believed, still hopes Trump or a future U.S. president might recommit to the TPP agreement. The Japanese prime minister is expected to maintain his diplomatic economic focus on TPP, instead of Trump's preference for a bilateral free trade deal. The Chinese and South Koreans are more concerned about Trump's bellicose rhetoric on North Korea. South Korean President Moon Jae-in has distanced himself from some of Trump's rhetoric, warning the U.S. president not to launch pre-emptive military strikes against North Korea. It has been rumoured that Trump aims to convince Xi to adopt a firmer approach to North Korea, and take steps to reduce China's bilateral trade surplus with America. A significant shift in Chinese policy on either issue appears unlikely, although Xi is expected to welcome the American president with a charm offensive intended to mute potential criticism.

This Asia-Pacific diplomatic context reaffirms the relative shift in regional and global influence, especially on economic issues. Xi's recent address to the 19th Party National Congress indicated his willingness to replace American international leadership, not through aggression, but instead as a vacuum-filling response to Trump's "America First" global retreat. Xi's political "elevation" at the Congress gives him the authority, and potentially a longer time, to achieve greater regional and worldwide influence. Abe and other Asia-Pacific leaders, such as Indian prime minister Narendra Modi, have also sought to increase their regional diplomatic role. The BRICS continues to cooperate on some important economic issues, particularly through its New Development Bank and Contingent Reserve Arrangement. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), and the "ASEAN Plus Three" (APT) states, also constitute a key focus for regional cooperation. The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, incorporating the APT plus Australia, India and New Zealand, could soon provide another boost to Asia-Pacific multilateral cooperation. This would further decrease American economic influence in the region.

The most substantial recent projects in Asia-Pacific economic cooperation have been the Chinese-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and China's Belt and Road Initiative. These multi-billion dollar schemes indicate the increasing strategic and political authority of the Chinese government and officials, plus their growing cognitive authority in multilateral development governance. International support for the AIIB, including memoranda of understanding with the Asian Development Bank and the World Bank, further underpin Chinese economic authority in the region. This might encourage future moves to establish an "Asian Monetary Fund," which, building on the 2010 Chiang Mai Initiative Multilateralization, could help to cement regional cooperation, most significantly between the Chinese and Japanese. The Russian government might also gain more authority in the Asia-Pacific, particularly if recent improvements in bilateral ties with Japan help to boost the economic development of the Russian Far East.

Trump is on the defensive, both in domestic and international politics. His rejection of the TPP and the United Nations' Paris Agreement on climate change decreased the administration's international authority; any short-term, domestic political gain from these decisions could be lost, particularly if Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation has serious political consequences. Trump's reversal of his widely criticized decision not to attend the East Asia Summit in the Philippines, on November 13-14, perhaps reflected his administration's realization that TPP withdrawal had damaged its regional influence. This diplomatic adjustment might prove too little, too late, for improving the administration's reputation and authority in the Asia-Pacific.

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Jonathan LuckhurstJonathan Luckhurst is Associate Professor of International Relations at the Center for North American Studies of the Pacific Studies Department at the University of Guadalajara in Mexico, and a member of Mexico's National System of Researchers (SNI). He is a British academic with a PhD from the University of Essex in the United Kingdom. His research focuses on aspects of international relations and global economic governance, including his recent books, G20 Since the Global Crisis (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), and The Shifting Global Economic Architecture: Decentralizing Authority in Contemporary Global Governance (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017). Follow him on Twitter @JonLuckhurst.


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