Global Trends

Monday, 22 May 2017

Trump trouble in US and China trumpets

It was a week of contrasts. While Trump faced serious political setbacks in Washington last week, Xi launched his major Belt  and Road initiative in Beijing.

LAST week had both dramatic and significant events that will mark the setting of “global trends” for a long time.

Most dramatic are the fast moving developments in the United States, where momentum is building to investigate President Donald Trump amidst speculation that he may not last his full term.

On the other side of the globe was the significant event, a summit in Beijing of the Belt and Road initia­tive, that boosted China’s credentials as an emerging world power.

The events in Washington are a prelude to a long and painful process by which the political establishment tames or disposes of the president, or else Trump rides through the storm, emerging stronger to impose his will on Washington.

As the US gets embroiled in its domestic crisis, it is an opportunity for China to strengthen its international status.

The Washington events took place at a bewildering pace. A US senate committee chairman has asked the FBI to hand over documents reporting on meetings between Trump and the agency, while its former chief James Comey will probably be asked to testify in Congress whether he was pressured by Trump, which could build an obstruction of justice case against the president.

Through his actions, statements and tweets, Trump has offended his critics, the media and even his allies. But he still enjoys the “presumption of regularity”, the idea that government officials are presumed to be acting lawfully and properly.

“Every elected official enjoys this presumption,” says Lawrence Doug­las, law professor at Amherst College. “It is meant to withstand errors in judgment and lapses in leadership. What it does not indulge is a clear pattern of abuse. Once the presumption collapses, the official is no longer fit for office.”

Writing in The Guardian, Douglas commented: “This is the position that Donald Trump now finds himself in. What took Richard Nixon more than five years, Trump has managed to accomplish in the narrow compass of four months. He has confirmed the worst fears of those who questioned his fitness for office.

“All the same, 10 days ago, his staunchest critics might have called Trump a national disaster but essentially unimpeachable. Now it seems like just a matter of time before he is removed from office.”

But these are early days yet and Trump should not be under-estima­ted. He is confident the probe will show no Russian link, and he portrayed himself the victim of the greatest witch-hunt of a politician in history. He also retains considerable support among his voters.

In any case, it will be a long, heated summer in Washington. The drama will reduce the president’s international stature, for instance when he visits Europe and the Middle East this week.

In contrast, the atmosphere was upbeat last weekend in Beijing when China’s President Xi Jinping hosted the Belt and Road Forum. Partici­pating were 29 heads of state or government and ministers of many more countries.

Since 2013, China has been highlighting the initiative, but its details have been vague. The Forum threw more light on what China has in mind. The Belt and Road is mainly thought of as a collection of infrastructure projects in many countries that lie across the old Silk Road on land and at sea centuries ago.

China has been increasingly involved in large infrastructure projects in Asia, Eurasia and Africa as well as South America, with Chinese companies constructing railways, roads and bridges, and Chinese banks providing the financing.

In his opening speech, President Xi painted a more comprehensive picture of the Belt and Road. Just like the ancient Silk Road, the new initiative will bring about peace, prospe­rity and a new type of international relations based on cooperation.

On infrastructure, it will promote land, maritime, air and cyberspace connectivity, focus on key passageways, cities and projects and connect networks of highways, railways and sea ports.

There should be a revolution in energy technologies to develop glo­bal energy interconnection and achieve green and low-carbon deve­lopment. The initiative will uphold an open world economy, with a fair, equitable and transparent system of international trade and investment rules.

Xi also pledged that China has no intention to impose its will on others and will not resort to outdated geopolitical manoeuvring.

He announced allocations totalling hundreds of billions of dollars for the initiative, including through various Chinese funds and banks.

The plans announced are big and bold, but there are also challenges ahead. Firstly, can China and its companies and banks sustain the momentum and capability to make the initiative a going concern?

Secondly, not all countries are favourably inclined to the initiative. It is to be expected that some proposed projects that are considered beneficial to one country may be perceived to have adverse effects by another country.

Thirdly, since many of the projects will be financed through loans, the borrowing countries have to ensure that these are financially viable so as to enable sustainable debt servicing, especially if the projects and the loans are large.

There will be teething and operational problems when a scheme as big as Belt and Road is implemented. This does not detract from the boldness and imagination of the initiative.

If it does succeed overall, it has the potential to change the prospect of development and nature of international relations for many countries.

So, we have the contrast of the gloomy developments in Washing­ton and the official launching of a giant initiative in Beijing, in the same week. Whether that week will be judged as game-changing by history remains to be seen.

Martin Khor ( is executive director of the South Centre. The views expressed here are entirely his own.

Tags / Keywords: Martin Khor , columnist

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