Domestic issues of big powers have global consequences: Experts

Mr Mark Weinberger, CEO of professional services firm EY. Mr Takeshi Niinami, president of Suntory Holdings. Dr Robert Kelly from South Korea's Pusan National University. Professor Niall Ferguson of Stanford and Tsinghua universities.
Dr Robert Kelly from South Korea's Pusan National University.
Mr Mark Weinberger, CEO of professional services firm EY. Mr Takeshi Niinami, president of Suntory Holdings. Dr Robert Kelly from South Korea's Pusan National University. Professor Niall Ferguson of Stanford and Tsinghua universities.
Professor Niall Ferguson of Stanford and Tsinghua universities.
Mr Mark Weinberger, CEO of professional services firm EY. Mr Takeshi Niinami, president of Suntory Holdings. Dr Robert Kelly from South Korea's Pusan National University. Professor Niall Ferguson of Stanford and Tsinghua universities.
Mr Takeshi Niinami, president of Suntory Holdings.
Mr Mark Weinberger, CEO of professional services firm EY. Mr Takeshi Niinami, president of Suntory Holdings. Dr Robert Kelly from South Korea's Pusan National University. Professor Niall Ferguson of Stanford and Tsinghua universities.
Mr Mark Weinberger, CEO of professional services firm EY.

The trans-border political whirlwinds of today, including China's militarisation of the South China Sea and its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) infrastructure push, have been driven primarily by domestic concerns, experts told the Japan Symposium organised by the Milken Institute think-tank yesterday.

China's leaders have seen how Brexit and the French "yellow vest" protests resulted from a segment of the population being alienated by capitalism, the forum heard. In this regard, China's power play in defying and rewriting global norms, panellists added, is the Chinese Communist Party's way of safeguarding its legitimacy among its people.

As such, dangers of a flashpoint in the South China Sea cannot be overstated, said Dr Robert Kelly, an international relations expert at South Korea's Pusan National University.

He cited as one risk the increasing density of traffic in the waterway, which could lead to collisions, shots being fired and "pressure on both sides to escalate".

He added: "I'm not worried about someone pushing a button. It's going to be some decision, probably on the side of the US-Japan alliance, that pushback is required because of China's creeping militarisation.

"The US might counter-militarise islands in the South China Sea from the South to North while the Chinese go from North to South, and this might split the South China Sea into spheres of influence."

Both the United States and China are mired in a trade row, with digital trade reportedly one of the key obstacles in the ongoing talks.

SUN TZU VERSUS TRUMP

The Chinese government has the greatest difficulty in understanding (US President Donald) Trump and I think they struggle to understand his modus operandi. They might have read Sun Tzu's Art Of War but not Trump's The Art Of The Deal. New York real estate is a very cut-throat business and the style of negotiation you will encounter in that world could not be more different than Chinese styles of negotiation.

STANFORD UNIVERSITY HISTORIAN NIALL FERGUSON, also a visiting professor at Beijing's Tsinghua University.

US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin are due in Beijing on Thursday, while Chinese Vice-Premier Liu He will lead a delegation to Washington next week.

Stanford University historian Niall Ferguson, also a visiting professor at Beijing's Tsinghua University, said, however, that China's wish for a win-win solution could be a hurdle.

"The Chinese government has the greatest difficulty in understanding (US President Donald) Trump and I think they struggle to understand his modus operandi. They might have read Sun Tzu's Art Of War but not Trump's The Art Of The Deal," he said. "New York real estate is a very cut-throat business and the style of negotiation you will encounter in that world could not be more different than Chinese styles of negotiation."

Still, he took solace in that China has not played up the nationalist card in the ongoing dispute when it could easily have, like it did in 2012 when the Japanese government nationalised the disputed Senkaku/ Diaoyu islets in the East China Sea.

"I think they are really really desperate to salvage the Chinese-US economic relationship," he said, noting the impact that slowing economic growth would have had on the man on the street.

Likewise, at a separate panel, Suntory Holdings president Takeshi Niinami said: "The bottom line is they want to keep the legitimacy of the Communist Party and that means they have to increase the per capita GDP (gross domestic product)."

This has been through means like unfair trade practices and the BRI, he said, adding: "It's not their intention to build a hegemony but it's really domestic and inward-looking."

Still, the impact of China's actions on the world has given rise to bipartisan alarm in the US, said Mr Mark Weinberger, chief executive officer of professional services firm EY.

"China's trade policy is driven by domestic issues, and so is the US'," he said. "Trump is not the issue - he is the result of the issue (of Americans being left behind amid global growth). Whether he wins another term or not, it is equal money that the next president will have as much, if not more, to say about China than Trump."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 26, 2019, with the headline 'Domestic issues of big powers have global consequences: Experts'. Print Edition | Subscribe