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.