Hitting China on trade would be easier with a few more allies

Vice President Mike Pence and Chinese strongman Xi Jinping had an icy encounter over the weekend at a summit of 21 Pacific nations known as Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, or APEC. The gathered leaders couldn’t even agree on the usual meaningless verbiage of a joint statement, mainly owing to US-Chinese tensions.

Maybe things will warm up when President Trump and Xi meet in Argentina for a Group of 20 gabfest later this month. But don’t bet on it: Confronting Beijing’s bullying is one of the president’s top foreign-policy goals. Only, it’s too bad Trump doesn’t have the benefit of a united Asian trading alliance like the Trans Pacific Partnership to back us up as the cold war with the Chinese escalates.

How did we get here?

Driven by fear, successive US administrations over many years took a lax approach to China that left America vulnerable. Chinese chicanery — intellectual-property theft, protectionism in their own markets and territorial aggression against neighbors — went unaddressed. Xi, the most ambitious Chinese leader since Mao Zedong, wants Beijing to displace America as global leader.

Trump has pushed back — hard. He has imposed onerous tariffs on Chinese goods and enhanced America’s naval presence in the neighborhood.

The president’s timing is right: China’s economic growth slowed to 6.5 percent in the third quarter, the worst year-on-year rate since the financial crisis and a sign that its roaring expansion days are behind.

And remember, even these growth numbers are suspect. In China’s shady accounting, local party chiefs answer to their superiors, who in turn file to their higher-ups, and on and on all the way up to party central. At each step, Communist bosses pad their data to make their fiefdoms look better than they are.

China is still an economic power to reckon with, to be sure, so it’s hard to blame investors who fret about the effects of a US-Chinese trade war on the global economy. After all, China is deeply involved in the economies of its neighborhood and in faraway places such as Africa and Latin America.

But as Pence warned at the APEC summit, the nature of that Chinese involvement is increasingly predatory and even colonial. Beijing’s road-and-belt initiative, for example, helps countries across Asia, Africa and Europe improve national infrastructure. But when loans go unpaid, the road could become a noose, choking debt-ridden clients.

China’s new colonialism may scare some, but many states are forced to submit — because, hey, who could forgo foreign investment that looks like a gift?

China’s immediate neighbors are the least amused. In Asian foreign ministries and intelligence agencies today, the China desk is typically the largest and best-financed. China is the main priority and the deepest source of worries.

Which is where the TPP, the Obama-era multinational trade pact, comes into play.

TPP was too complex for the Washington lawmakers tasked with ratifying it. Yet its merits and drawbacks as a trade deal aside, TPP had one huge advantage: It would have created a formidable bloc of 12 strong economies, a counterweight to China.

Yet Trump, in one of his first White House acts, withdrew America from the TPP. Since then, several of its signatories, including strong US allies like Australia and Japan, have tried to recreate the bloc without the US. Perhaps now it’s time to join them.

True, it would be tough for Trump to save face and return to the TPP’s fold, especially as it was such a hot issue in the 2016 campaign. Yet as the NAFTA saga showed, the president is perfectly capable of presenting small tweaks to his predecessors’ deals as major changes. He’s good at renaming past agreements and presenting them as his own “Art of the Deal”-style victories.

And although Trump would rather deal separately with each trading partner than make mega multinational deals, he could always sign on to a TPP-like agreement and present it as a set of bilateral deals.

The point is this: Pacific partners still look for America to lead as they face off against China and try to slow its global expansion. If Trump fails to unite them, they may well conclude they can’t fight Beijing, so they might as well join it.

Why Florida’s influence on US elections will only get stronger

People here in Florida love a good election. Not only will we stand in line to vote longer than we’ll stand in line for Space Mountain, we’ll also drag out counting the ballots afterward. Perhaps that’s because following the ups and downs of our recounts can remind you of riding Space Mountain.

Remember 2000, when the wrangling over the ballots in the presidential race went on for three weeks, guaranteeing no one in Florida would ever again name a child Chad? Now it’s happening again with not one, not two, but three statewide races undergoing a recount amid a blizzard of lawsuits:

1. The governor, health-care billionaire and Trump admirer Rick Scott, is battling incumbent Sen. Bill Nelson, an aging moderate Democrat who flew on the space shuttle and once hunted Everglades pythons with a machete.

2. Trump-endorsed Fox News regular Ron DeSantis is up against Bernie-backed progressive Andrew Gillum.

3. A pro-NRA, Big Sugar-supported candidate named Matt Caldwell is vying for the job of agriculture commissioner (who’s in charge of issuing concealed-weapons permits, because . . . Florida) against a pro-gun control marijuana lobbyist named Nikki Fried.

In each case, the margin separating the candidates is razor-thin. In that last race, the lead has even changed from Caldwell to Fried. This is, of course, all going on amid the usual Florida weirdness: the naked burglar who broke into a restaurant to eat ramen and play bongos; the man who dressed as a woman to buy a $4,000 puppy with a stolen credit card; and the guy who was released from jail and tried to steal a car from the parking lot, only to discover it had a cop inside.

Yet the recount mess is the reason a federal judge declared Florida to be “the laughingstock of the world.” Go figure.

Usually what happens in Florida is regarded by the rest of the country as amusing (woman caught shoplifting while dressed as a turkey) or horrifying (the Parkland shooting). But when it comes to elections, what happens in Florida has an impact on the nation as a whole.

Since 1964 Florida has gone for the winning presidential candidate every time but one (1992, Clinton vs. Bush). Since 1924 not one Republican candidate has won the presidency while losing Florida.

If Nelson hangs onto his seat, the Senate will maintain the same balance between Republicans and Democrats that it’s had for the past two years. If Scott wins, Trump gets more leeway from the upper chamber of Congress. Meanwhile, whoever wins the DeSantis-Gillum challenge gets to appoint three Florida Supreme Court justices, which is likely to become important to the outcome of the 2020 presidential race.

So, once again, the nation turns its lonely eyes to the phallic-shaped playground state, amazed at our electoral antics.

“Dear America,” Orlando Sentinel columnist Scott Maxwell wrote. “We’re sorry we keep screwing up Democracy. Love, Florida.”

Actually, though, we’re not screwing up Democracy. We’re putting it to the test.

Florida is far from the only state with cranky voting machines, badly designed ballots and politicians ready to cry “fraud!” at the drop of a MAGA hat. But you don’t hear about them as much because the vote margins there tend to be wide enough that no recount is required.

In Florida, though, the population is split just like America is. Our 21 million residents (third-most in the nation, ahead of New York) include every demographic stratum. We’ve got Medicare fraudsters, professional mermaids, uniformed Scientologists, spam kings, strip-club moguls, retired CIA agents, hurricane refugees and monkey breeders, all crammed together in a 30-mile strip along the coast or along the highway connecting the theme parks.

The Vatican’s grievous blow to Americans’ faith

We pray the Vatican didn’t realize what a blow it struck to the faith of American Catholics last week. Its curt and abrupt order to the US bishops — a directive to put off for months any vote on their planned new anti-abuse protocols — threatens to deepen divisions within the church.]

As Sohrab Ahmari ably summarized for The Post, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops was set to vote on measures to close key loopholes in the anti-abuse reforms passed in 2002: Specifically, the bishops meant to ensure that they themselves could be held accountable.
This was a bold and vital step in the wake of recent revelations, from the Pennsylvania report to the scandals surrounding now-ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. Catholics who’d weathered more than a decade of appalling news of abuse had begun to wonder if the US church (at least) was even capable of cleaning its own house.

Atop that came the charges of Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, the former Vatican envoy to America — the most extreme of which is a claim that a high cabal within the Vatican opposes all efforts to get to the bottom of the abuse scandals.

The Vatican’s sudden move to stop a major anti-abuse step seems to confirm that charge. Especially when it came under a pope who has emphasized “synodality,” or giving various bishops more say in church governance.

The Curia’s order officially had two rationales: 1) the US proposals don’t conform with canon law, and 2) Pope Francis has called a global conclave in February to address the worldwide abuse scandals, and the Vatican doesn’t want national hierarchies taking big steps in advance of that gathering.

This may be completely true, yet it doesn’t remotely justify dropping the demand on the American bishops at the last minute, with no notice or diplomacy.

Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, the president of the US conference, was visibly shaken when he shared the news with his brethren, making it plain that failure to vote was “at the insistence of the Holy See.”

Pope Francis has reason to be suspicious of the Americans: Some of the most poisonous resistance to his efforts to change the church’s tone has come from US traditionalists. But it’s also true that he has regularly gotten his feet wrong in responding to abuse crises in multiple, very different nations.

Then, too, the American bishops must deal with flocks who live in a 24/7 news cycle, a tempo still foreign to Vatican City. Plus, they’re far more likely than the pontiff to see that the pews are emptying out, and the lines for the sacraments getting shorter.

The belief that the church was being run for the venal benefit of the hierarchy, and not for the sake of the faith, was central to Martin Luther’s great rebellion. It’s almost inconceivable that the church could see a split to rival the Protestant Reformation, but it’s more conceivable than it was a week ago.