Trump’s isolationism is pushing countries into China’s arms

What happened last week at a meeting of Latin American nations with China and other Asian countries in the Chilean city of Vina del Mar is a prime example of how President Donald Trump’s isolationism will diminish US influence in world affairs.

The meeting was convened following Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement that had been signed in 2016 — after seven years of negotiations — between the United States and 11 Asian and Latin American countries, including Japan, Singapore, Australia, Canada, Mexico, Peru and Chile.

Trump had claimed that the TPP was a “potential disaster for our country,” and signed an executive decree shortly after taking office ordering the US pullout. He had earlier vowed that “Americanism, not globalism, will be our credo.”

But the US withdrawal from the trans-Pacific treaty did not stop the other TPP member countries from seeking to go ahead on their own, without the United States.

They met March 14 and 15 in Vina del Mar, with an important addition: China, which was part of the original TPP. While the Trump administration was invited but decided not to send a high-level representative from Washington, China sent its presidential envoy for Latin American affairs, Yin Hengmin.

Chilean foreign minister Heraldo Munoz suggested to me a few weeks ago, when he announced the meeting, that — while Latin America will continue to seek improved trade ties with the United States — China may take advantage of the US withdrawal from the TPP. In politics, when a country leaves open spaces, others occupy them, he said.

When I talked to him again after last week’s meeting in Vina del Mar, he was careful not to overplay the China card, but said that the meeting concluded with a “very clear commitment in support of free trade, and Asia-Pacific integration.”

At the meeting, Latin America’s Pacific Alliance — made up of Mexico, Colombia, Peru and Chile — agreed to start negotiating extra-regional free trade treaties. According to other officials, they will start trade talks with Australia, New Zealand and other Asian nations.

“It’s not a question of choosing between one side or the other,” Muñoz said, talking about China and the United States. “We need to have good trade and economic relations with both. If one of them has a greater presence than the other, good for them.”

But Trump’s pull-out from TPP is only one of several steps by his administration that amount to a US retrenchment from the global arena. Among others:

—Trump is seeking to re-negotiate the largely successful North American Free Trade Agreement with Mexico and Canada. According to a Wilson Center study, US trade with Mexico supports nearly five million US jobs.

—Trump is continuing with his plans to build a wall on the border with Mexico, despite a new report stating that 66 per cent of undocumented immigrants don’t cross the border illegally, but arrive by air as tourists and overstay their visas.

—Last week, Trump sent a 2018 budget proposal to Congress that would drastically cut US funding for the State Department and foreign aid by 29 per cent, to $5.7 billion, while increasing the military budget by 10 per cent, to $574 billion.

All of this comes despite a recent warning by more than 120 retired US generals and admirals that diplomacy is cheaper and more effective than military spending. The United States already is one of the stingiest foreign aid donors among wealthy countries: foreign aid accounts for 0.17 per cent of America’s GDP, compared with 0.52 per cent in Germany and 1.40 per cent in Sweden.

My opinion: The Vina del Mar meeting was an example of how even traditionally pro-American countries like Chile, Peru, Colombia and Mexico are making contingency plans to build new alliances in light of Trump’s withdrawal from key world agreements.

Other countries will find new partners, weakening US influence and hurting US exports. Worse, Trump’s xenophobic rhetoric may breed a new wave of leftist-populist demagogues in Latin America — it could happen as soon as in Mexico’s 2018 elections — and may later push the region further into China’s arms. It’s a short-sighted US policy that will cost the country a lot in the future.

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