China is allegedly building structures on artificial islands in the South China Sea that could potentially hold long-range surface-to-air missiles.  If this turns out to be true, this move is another step forward by China to lay claim to the South China Sea while simultaneously serving as another poke at the U.S. to see what they’re really committed to doing to ensure the South China Sea remains open and free.  However, China’s most recent alleged provocation is symptomatic of a bigger problem when it comes to the U.S.’ engagement with Asia.  During the Obama years, while he and others in his administration made much about a “pivot” to Asia or a re-balancing toward the region, the words were often much more substantive than the actions undertaken by his government.  Now we have a president who can barely articulate a single policy, let alone an entire grand strategy.

Trump’s idea of policies are not-so-pithy one-liners like branding China a currency manipulator or claiming that Japan does not pay enough for U.S. security.  His actions are meant more to rile up other parties and hew much more closely to the reality show theatrics with which he’s more comfortable , whether it was fielding a call from Taiwan’s president in the aftermath of the election and holding out as long as possible before re-affirming the “One China” policy that undergirded U.S.-China relations since early 1970s. North Korea tests a long-range missile and Trump decides that during dinner at his private club is the best time and place to plot the U.S.’ reaction to such a provocation.  Even the theatrics are of a low-budget variety.

The only action Trump seems to have followed through on was his executive order pulling the U.S. out of the TPP and effectively ceding to China the power to write the rules of commerce for Asia and most likely the rest of the world.  Abdicating a voice in such a crucial policy sphere that is vital to continued American prosperity is going to have the opposite effect of making America great.  Rather than keeping its seat at the head of the table and crafting the evolving rules of global trade, America is going to have to play by the rules set by others that may not be as advantageous to our long-term prosperity as those rules we were able to lay out in the TPP.  Putting aside the merits of the TPP for a second, what was most important about that agreement was continued American leadership in coming up with Version 2.0 of the rules and frameworks that have taken the world to this point from the aftermath of WWII.  If Trump has his way, it won’t only be the TPP, but NATO, our vital alliances with Japan, South Korea, and Australia, and even the EU which has more often than not been a trusted and intellectually equal partner spurring us to do better on many matters of global importance.

We are at an inflection point in Asia and the rest of the world where a grand strategies with  far-reaching and enlightened thinking is needed.  Unfortunately, very little coming out of Washington these days seems all that grand except perhaps that atrium in Trump’s DC hotel.

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This past week, I miraculously became a mini-expert in both anti-monopoly law and Jewish culture in America.

One of my graduate students, Maggie, asked two weeks ago if I would speak at the university’s business English salon  this past Thursday evening about a topic of my choosing.  The salon is open to the public and a lot of the attendees actually live and work in GZ.  

I figured that I would use my legal background and interest in antitrust law to give a talk about the recent attempted acquisition by Coca-Cola of Huiyuan (汇源), a successful Chinese juice company.  The government rejected Coke’s bid under the country’s new anti-monopoly law and it was the first cross-border merger to be rejected under this law, which has only been in effect since August 2008.  Since the Chinese government only provided a vague explanation for the rejection, many are speculating that the decision was politically motivated because Huiyuan is a profitable private company and the government did not want it to fall into foreign hands.  Since that decision last month, Australia has made taken some negative actions against Chinese companies looking to acquire Australian companies.  The first point of my speech was the importance of implementing laws in a fair and transparent manner, whether it’s in China, the US, EU, or any other country.   The second point was that the world should be working to fight the impulse to let political or nationalistic concerns rule over sound economic policies.  I was careful not to blame any one country because most of the world is to blame in this era of rising protectionism.  

The speech was well attended with at least 50 or so people in the audience, even though my Powerpoint presentation did not work.   Initially the questions were relevant to my topic.  However, as soon as someone asked me my opinion about the Chinese currency and how China is buying all of the US government’s debt, the Q&A session turned into one of “ask Peter his opinion about anything and everything pertaining to America”.  Thus, I began fielding questions about whether it was a good time to buy stocks, the NBA, why only rich people could go to Ivy League schools, what city one guy should live in when he moves his family t to America, real estate prices, troop withdrawals from Iraq, whether Obama was printing too much money, and whether I was scared about China’s rise.  All of the questions were prefaced with, “In your opinion . . . ” and then the topic of their choosing.  I was done speaking and answering formal questions around 9pm, but ended up staying until nearly 10:30pm answering all of these random questions and becoming the mouthpiece of America.  By the end I was so tired and the questions so far removed from what I came to talk about that I just did not have an opinion about whether there was anything wrong with partially lifting the embargo on Cuba. 

However, I could not turn the tables and ask in their opinion how they felt about Tibet, Taiwan, Mao, the Cultural Revolution, Tiananmen or any other number of topics off limits when talking informally with most Chinese people.  Even if I did ask about these things, I would receive some received wisdom echoing the party line and it would be almost impossible to find any difference in opinion.  Whereas when I answered these questions, I made sure to make it clear that these were my opinions and did not represent those of all Americans.

Then Friday morning my friend Michael invited me into his culture class that he is taking as part of his master’s program to talk about Jewish culture, which was interesting because I am not at all religious, but consider myself very culturally Jewish.  So I was brought into the class to debunk some myths about Jews in America including the ones that they are all rich and all clever.  It was another interesting talk, but ended more quickly than the other one because it was limited to a class period.  Of course I gave the students the requisite lesson on grammar.  You cannot say he is a “Jewish”, but rather that he is a “Jewish person”.

I am still recovering from the week of mini-lectures and think I may need a Golden Girls mini-marathon to regain my composure.