How Much Candidate Trump Will President Trump Contain?

Donald Trump seen in Washington, November 2011. Photo credit: Gage Skidmore. Licenced under Creative Commons

THE U.S.PRESIDENT-ELECT, Donald Trump (above), had few kind words for China during the presidential election campaign. He accused it of stealing millions of American manufacturing jobs and threatened protectionist tariffs against Chinese exports.

Yet to China he was the preferable candidate. His Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton, was seen, on the basis of having been seen at close quarters as U.S. secretary of state, to be no bosom buddy of Beijing.

The maverick nature of Trump’s campaign and his questioning of the basis of the United States’ traditional security alliances had, however, caused some optimism in Beijing that his election would weaken America’s international standing in the region and that his reservations about free-trade agreements would kill the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the economic prop of Washington’s ‘Asian pivot’.

However, set against that the uncertainty and volatility in regional affairs that a prospective Trump presidency will bring, in particular on the Korean peninsula. Beijing does not like uncertainty, and there less than anywhere.

Worse, long-cultivated contacts with the Washington China-policy and financial elite have been rendered for nought by the imminent arrival of a US president who at 70 has never held elected office and so has no track record, no known team and no known thought-through China strategy. Beijing also has reason to fear that Trump’s victory will put at risk the forces of globalisation that have propelled China’s economic and thus global ascendency.

It is unrealistic to expect that a Trump administration can repatriate low-wage manufacturing jobs. Those that automation and technology have not rendered redundant are already going to Vietnam and elsewhere in Southeast Asia if they are going anywhere as China ‘rebalances’. Moreover, China is only one aspect of the economic trends that are transforming the US economy in a way that leaves so many Americans, especially older, white ones, feeling left behind, a sentiment Trump so expertly tapped during his election campaign.

That is not to say that Beijing will not try to score points against electoral democracy, though it will not want to examine too closely the insurgence of rank-and-file voters against a ruling political class. Beijing is also unlikely to pass the opportunity to take an early measure of the next US president, probably by being more assertive in the South China Sea.

That, though, is a double-edged sword. It risks prodding Trump in the direction of politicising the issue rather than contesting it on legalistic grounds — such as through asserting freedom of navigation rights and using the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. That approach, adopted by the Obama administration, has given Beijing scope to build its presence in the South China Sea with a lessened risk of direct US military confrontation.

Beijing’s scope for action now will also be tempered by the reactions of other regional nations to Trump’s election victory. Japan, for one, may see an opportunity to fill a potential vacuum both by building up its military capabilities and by being more active with its development aid and investment in the region. The Asian Development Bank, which falls under its sway, easily outguns the Beijing-created Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.

South Korea, too, may end up with nuclear weapons from a Trump administration, a development that would be unwelcome in Beijing, not least because it ups the nuclear stakes on the peninsula, elevating the risk of instability that Beijing so abhors.

Further south, the Philippines, Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia are all calculating where their strategic interests lie between China and the United States.

There has been a quiet (pace the Philippines new president Rodrigo Duterte) shift of emphasis towards developing stronger economic links with China while retaining Washington’s security umbrella. That shift will be being recalibrated in the light of candidate Trump’s criticism that US security partners are ‘free-loading’.

He is not the first US president to have made that complaint, but few have suggested that the US will take its umbrella away if its regional allies do not contribute their fair share to the costs.

Whether President Trump will take the same view as candidate Trump on this and all the other issues that touch on China is probably as much of a guess in Beijing as it is in the rest of the region, and even possibly, at this point, in Washington.

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China Cracks On With Its Second Carrier

China's second aircraft carrier, CV17, seen under construction in dry dock in Dalian, Liaoning province, in mid 2016

THE CONSTRUCTION OF the hull of China’s second aircraft carrier has been completed, state media reports, and the flight deck is now being installed.

Once that is done, probably by the first or second quarter of next year, the vessel will be floated, and its fitting out will start. Sea trials will likely not begin until 2018 or 2019, so the carrier will not be commissioned into active service until the 2020s.

The picture above was taken in Dalian earlier this year, so the flight deck will by now be looking more complete, though there is still work to be done below deck. Our man with the telephoto lens says the island (conning tower) was being installed by late September.

The vessel, known as 17 (US Navy convention would call it CV-17, but the PLA-N uses just a number), is similar in many respects to China’s first carrier, which carried the number 16 before being rechristened as the Liaoning. Whereas the Liaoning was a refit of the Varig, a surplus Soviet-era Admiral Kuznetsov class carrier bought from Ukraine where it was built, 17 is an indigenous version and will carry the designation of a Type 001A class carrier.

It is about the same size as the Liaoning, unsurprisingly as it is being built in the same Dalian dry dock as its predecessor used, but lighter, displacing about 50,000 tonnes. As can be seen in the photograph, it will have a ‘ski ramp’ launch system at the bow.

It also looks to have more space for aircraft than the Liaoning and less for secondary weapons. 17  will still be capable of carrying less than 50 aircraft, including helicopters, but a few more than the Liaoning. As well as the J-15 fighters and helicopters that the Liaoning has, 17 will probably carry an anti-submarine and early warning patrol aircraft.

Chinese military strategists have indicated that China plans a set of three Type 001A carriers — one to be operational, one in port and one in maintenance.

They will very much be the PLA-Navy’s training wheels. Though operational warships, as a carrier battle fleet, they are far short of the blue-water force China has aspirations for its Navy to be. Nineteen, 20 and 21 — Type 002 class carriers — will be much closer to that. This Bystander will be looking for keels to be laid in 2017, probably in Shanghai yards, but they will not be operational on the high seas for at least a decade. Until then, Beijing will have a carrier force whose primary purpose will be to project force in the South China Sea.

That force will be constrained. For one, the J-15s flying from it are a converted rather than a customised marine fighter, and one that has limited strike capacities. Battle-effective carrier fleets need a range of patrol and other aircraft capable of waging electronic warfare. That 17 will likely carry one or two of them is notable.

Furthermore, ski ramp launches restrict a carrier’s fleet to jets. Transporters needed for resupplying carriers far out at sea might be able to land on them, but cannot take off again. Nor can turbo-prop patrol aircraft operate from them.

The next set of carriers will have either the more powerful catapult launch systems standard on US and Russian carriers or may skip a generation and go to electromagnetic systems as are being developed for the US Navy’s most advanced carrier.

That might prove a step too far too fast for China’s naval architects and designers. They have climbed a steep learning curve with refitting the Liaoning (despite the Varig coming, reportedly, with eight lorry-loads of technical documents). Building its successor from scratch will be proving equally challenging, though it has been achieved in double-quick time by carrier-building standards.

In addition, the submarine force has been the navy’s development priority over the carrier fleet, and thus it got the pick of the available design and development talent — the often forgotten constraint on all navies.

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Myitsone Dam Hangs In The Balance

View of Ayeyarwady (Irrawaddy) River at Myitkyina in Kachin State. (Photo credit: Colegota. Licenced under Creative Commons.)

WITH LESS THAN a fortnight left before the commission set up to assess the trade-offs between the economic benefits and the social and environmental damage of planned hydropower dams on the Irrawaddy (seen above) is due to submit its report to Myanmar’s president, word is emerging that the commission may recommend that the controversial Myitsone dam project is scrapped. If so, that would kick a potentially politically prickly decision to President Htin Kyaw (nominally) and (in practice) de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s new NLD-led government.

The $3.6-billion-dollar dam is heavily China-backed. China Power Investment Corp. (CPI) is financing the 4,600MW project and Sinohydro doing the construction — such as it is to date; then Myanmar President Thein Sein suspended work on the dam in 2011 in the face of local protests over village displacement, traditional livelihoods being at risk and dissatisfaction that China will get 90% of the electricity generated.

Beijing has since been pushing hard for a resumption of work, and at times it has seemed set to restart. In March, Vice foreign minister Liu Zhenmin called the project crucial for China.

While China has six other hydroelectric projects in Myanmar, not to go ahead now with Myitsone would rupture relations between Beijing and the new democratically elected government in Naypyidaw. Aung San Suu Kyi has been carefully rebuilding the relationship with Beijing, coloured by its support for the former military dictatorship and her desire to open Myanmar to a broader range of foreign investors.

However, when she visited Beijing in August, the Myitsone dam was conspicuously absent from a range of projects on which she and her hosts agreed to enhance their cooperation. The two sides agreed to no more than “to work together find a solution to the issue of the stalled Myitsone Dam project”. Termination of Myitsone would set precedents for other unbuilt or in-construction Chinese-backed infrastructure projects in the region that would be unwelcome to China’s ‘One Belt One Road’ aspirations.

However, cancellation of Myitsone would be popular within Myanmar. Myitsone is in Kachin state. Many ethnic Kachin reportedly said they voted for the NLD in the recent historic elections because they saw the party as their best hope of getting Myitsone stopped.

Alienating those voters risks making the NLD government’s hoped-for settlement with Myanmar’s ethnic armed groups more complicated. The armed wing of the Kachin Independence Organisation, the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), is one of those still fighting the government.

Beijing will not want an even more unstable border than it has now. Since the breakdown of a ceasefire between the KIA and the Myanmar military in 2011, It has already had to take thousands of Kachin refugees fleeing the conflict into camps on the Yunnan side of the border. It has brokered talks between the KIA and Naypyidaw in the hope of bringing some stability to the area.

There is a thriving but illicit trade in gems, timber, drugs and increasingly people across the border. China is also the biggest (legitimate) purchaser of Myanmar’s jade, has two oil and gas pipelines that pass through Kachin state and six other dam projects apart from Myitsone, the most notable of which is the Dapein Dam 1, which started generating power in 2011.

There is more than a single dam project in play. Myitsone will be being weighed in the balance of that greater calculation in both capitals while frantic efforts are made to see whether there is any face-saving deal that can be struck. Stakes are high on both sides. As a result, we may well not see the details of the commission’s report when it is handed over on November 11.

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The Core Of The Matter

CPC General Secretary Xi Jinping (centre) and other Politburo Standing Committee members seen at the Sixth Plenum held in Beijing, October 24 to 27.THE SIXTH PARTY plenum just concluded puts General Secretary Xi Jinping (above, centre) at the core of the leadership.

All party members should ‘closely unite around the Central Committee with Comrade Xi Jinping as the core’, said the the communique issued after the four-day behind-closed-doors meeting of the Party’s 400 top officials. Thereby, Xi enters a leadership pantheon comprising Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin and the benchmark for all such Party leaders, Mao Zedong — though it was Deng who first articulated the term when designating Jiang as his successor in 1989.

Thus elevated, Xi has reinforced his authority over the party, potentially allowing him to extend his dominance for years to come. Another five years as General Secretary, along with his other two jobs as President and head of the People’s Liberation, now seems a given.

The Sixth Plenum decided that a Party Congress  — the quinquennial meeting of the Party’s top 2,000 members — would be held in the second half of next year. That is the forum for appointing the new top leadership for the next five years. Under current Party rules, all but Xi and Prime Minister Li Keqiang among the seven-strong Politburo Standing Committee, the apex of power, will have to retire on the grounds of age, opening the way for Xi to pack it with his proteges.

From the new appointees will come the leadership through which Xi will exert his power after his retirement, assuming he does not flout the convention of stepping aside after two five-year terms to stay in office as well as power.

Xi’s authority is far from absolute, which gives the plenum’s other important decisions — the adoption of strict rules of Party discipline that apply at all levels and revised codes of intra-party political life — their significance.

Xi has been steadily consolidating his power through his anti-corruption campaign and by centring the leadership’s decision making in areas such as military reform, security and the economy on central committees that he controls. This in part is because systemic corruption at the local level has frustrated his plans for ‘rebalancing’ the economy that he sees as essential for maintaining the Party’s ability to retain its monopoly grasp on political power.

However much power at the top concentrates in the general secretary, Xi cannot avoid the fact that China’s social stability depends on maintaining a delicate balance between the top-down authority of the central leadership and the bottom-up legitimacy of local governance.

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Stabilised Growth Lets China’s Focus Switch To Deleveraging

GOVERNMENT STIMULUS KEPT GDP expanding at 6.7% for the first three quarters, as close to bang in the middle of the official target range of 6.5%-7% as makes no difference. The economy has stabilised and looks to be back on its glide path of steady but slowing growth. However, the cost has been a deceleration of the ‘rebalancing’ of the economy towards consumption-driven growth and an acceleration in the accumulation of debt, particularly corporate debt, and particularly the debt of state-owned enterprises with excess capacity and real estate.

It was state government infrastructure spending, not private investment that kept growth going in the third quarter. An uptick in the property market helped, too, though caution is advised here given there was a 34% surge in sales but a 19.4% fall in new construction starts in September year-on-year as central and provincial governments introduced measures to cool off the property market).

Overall, state fixed-asset investment grew 21.1% in the first nine months whereas private investment was up 2.5%. However, the slowing growth in private investment seems to have bottomed out in the middle of the year while state investment growth similarly appears to have topped out in the first half.

That state investment spending has been on tick. The IMF’s Financial Stability Report released earlier this month highlighted the rising gap between credit growth and GDP growth. Total debt is about 250% of GDP, with corporate debt equivalent to more than 100% of GDP.

It is not so much the size of the debt-to-GDP ratio that is a concern; the United States has a similar ratio, for example, and the eurozone’s is a bit higher at 270%. It is the pace at which China’s is growing that alarms. At the end of 2007, the year before the stimulus to counteract the global financial crisis was launched, the figure was only 147%.

History suggests that any economy that has experienced such a rapid pace of debt growth will be confronted by either a financial crisis (e.g., the United States) or a prolonged growth slowdown (e.g., Japan). It is just a massive challenge for an economy to deploy such volumes of capital productively over a short time. Either the projects available offer diminishing investment returns and more and more loans to fund them go bad; there are only so many bridges to nowhere that can be built. Or credit starts to dry up.

The interconnectedness between the banks and the government due to the centrality of the state-owned sector in the economy makes a crisis unlikely. The government is effectively creditor and debtor. Also, domestic savings, not flighty foreign capital funds the debt. There is plenty of liquidity in the financial system, the People’s Bank of China will readily supply more if needed, and capital controls are in place to check capital outflows should they start to happen on a significant scale.

That is not to say the risk is totally absent. The proliferation of shadow banking products, particularly those offered by the country’s small banks, remains a significant vulnerability that could test the resilience of the country’s capital buffers.

Nonetheless, Beijing’s challenge in managing down debt levels is to avoid the second consequence, prolonged slow growth, and to do it with one hand tied behind its back having set itself in 2010, the target of doubling GDP and per capita income by 2020.

Of late, supporting short-term growth has been given priority over deleveraging to ward off long-term financial risk. Now, that growth looks to have stabilised (and slowing GDP growth to below 8% has not brought the apocalypse of social unrest predicted in the double-digit growth days), the priorities are changing.

The IMF has long expressed concern at China’s debt levels and the perils that persist in the shadow banking system. It recommends corporate deleveraging and opening up of the state-dominated service sectors to private firms, along with a stronger governance regime and hard budget constraints on state-owned enterprises within the broader context of moving to a more market-based financial system.

New guidelines from the State Council allowing creditors to exchange debt for an ownership stake in a debtor company are likely only a first step in that direction.

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The Renminbi Ups Its Status

100 yuan notes

THE INTERNATIONAL MONETARY Fund added the renminbi to its basket of Special Drawing Rights (SDR) currencies at the start of this month, thus officially marking it as a member of the elite club of global reserve currencies. It is a membership of which China has long been desirous.

The IMF had decided last November that China could join at the next scheduled SDR review, and that it would constitute 11% of the basket. That gives it the third largest share, behind the dollar and the euro but ahead of the other member currencies, the yen and sterling.

Weightings are meant to reflect the use of a currency in trade and the financial system so China may have been treated generously in this regard. It share of global payments, for example, peaked at 2.8% last year and is below 2% now.

Joining the SDR basket is, at this point at least, as much symbolic as anything, an acknowledgement of the global weight of China’s economy, and encouragement to push ahead with the financial reforms that would make the renminbi the freely usable and widely adopted currency that IMF reserve currencies are meant to be.

That, in turn, would promote more foreign interest in yuan-denominated assets, particularly bonds. Central banks and sovereign wealth funds will, however, build up their renminbi-denominated holdings only gradually.

Looking back in a decades time, though, the change may look more momentous, both if China’s financial markets become deeper and more liquid or it turns out that the renminbi was just the first of several emerging market currencies (India’ rupee is another candidate) to find a place in the SDR basket.

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IMF Bangs On A Familiar But Necessary Refrain

THE INTERNATIONAL MONETARY Fund has left its growth forecasts for China this year and next unchanged at 6.6% and 6.2%. However, in the newly published edition of its World Economic Outlook, the IMF notes that “China’s growth stability owes much to macroeconomic stimulus measures that slow needed adjustments in both its real economy and financial sector”.

Policy support and opened credit taps stabilised growth in the first half of the year close to the middle of authorities’ target range of 6½% –7% for the full year.

The Fund bangs on a familiar drum when it calls for more decisive action in tackling corporate debt and governance issues in China’s state-owned enterprises (SOEs). Lack of progress on these, it says, raises the risk of a disruptive adjustment from reliance on investment, industry and exports to greater dependence on consumption and services. Rebalancing could become ‘bumpier than expected at times,” the Fund warns. The current short-term stimulus on which China is relying and a still-rising credit-to-GDP ratio exacerbate that concern.

Credit dependency is increasing “at a dangerous pace, intermediated through an increasingly opaque and complex financial sector”. A combination of factors are at work here: “the pursuit of unsustainably high growth targets, efforts to prop up unviable state-owned enterprises to preserve employment and defer loss recognition, and opportunistic lending by financial intermediaries in the belief that all debt is implicitly guaranteed by the government”.

The IMF’s policy prescriptions are similarly familiar:
• address the corporate debt problem by separating viable from unviable state-owned enterprises, harden budget constraints and improve governance in the former while shutting down the latter and absorbing the related welfare costs through targeted funds;
• apportion losses among creditors and recapitalise banks as needed;
• allow credit expansion to slow and accept the associated slower GDP growth;
• strengthen the financial system by closely monitoring credit quality and funding stability, including in the nonbank sector; continue to make progress toward an effectively floating exchange rate regime; and
• further improve data quality and transparency in communications.

The medium-term outlook for China remains clouded by the high stock of corporate debt—a large fraction of which is considered at risk. And vulnerabilities continue to accumulate with the economy’s rising dependence on credit, which complicates the difficult task of rebalancing the economy across multiple fronts:

The medium-term forecast assumes that the economy will continue to rebalance from investment to consumption and from industry to services, on the back of reforms to strengthen the social safety net and deregulation of the service sector. However, non-financial debt is expected to continue rising at an unsustainable pace, which—together with a growing misallocation of resources—casts a shadow over the outlook.

Spillovers from China’s rebalancing and gradual slowdown via global trade and increasingly financial channels continue to concern the Fund. These have been significant, and China’s growing global role, the Fund says,  makes it all the more important for it to address its internal imbalances.

However, it also notes the other side of the coin:

The outlook for emerging market and developing economies will continue to be shaped to a significant extent by market perceptions of China’s prospects for successfully restructuring and rebalancing its economy.

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