Of China and unipolar values

is my Trade Tripper column in the last weekend's issue of BusinessWorld:

My column “Flip flopping Asian pivot” (Oct. 11) seems to have struck a chord. Although analysis on President Obama’s no-show at the APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation) summit is not lacking, nevertheless, despite the contrasting views on the possible effects of his no-show, what can’t be denied really is the uncertainty his absence evoked.

China isn’t exactly shy to exploit the situation. As Tyler Roney reports (“With Obama MIA, China Touts Multipolar World,” The Diplomat, Oct. 8), “Xi Jingping has been the star of the recent talks in Asia, giving the planet a taste of a new ‘multi-polar’ world” and “China’s state media is heralding this switch in attention to a new world order.” Still, Roney was cautious: “This doesn’t exactly stop the pivot to Asia, but it’s an odd signal for Asian nations looking for stability.”

So, the inevitable question: what’s wrong with a “multipolar world?” But, the issue I believe, however, is not whether such is a good idea but rather the values espoused by the possible “multi” parts. Pluralism has been touted as something desirable but that fundamentally presupposes a pluralism based on reason. If, however, the contending countries’ conflicting worldviews are inherently opposed to each other, then the wisdom of encouraging a weakened US in favor of a multipolar world becomes questionable.

The point is better illustrated by Aleteia’s John Burger report on a Chinese activist’s recent remarks (“Forced Abortion Dilutes Sacredness of Human Life, Says Chen Guangcheng,” Oct. 17): “Totalitarian regimes pose the greatest threat to human civilization, and the free world’s number-one priority should be their demise, said Chinese human rights lawyer Chen Guangcheng in a public address at Princeton University on Oct. 16.”

What is important to note here is that Chen’s position is almost exactly aligned with Philippine values on the sanctity of life: innately opposed to coerced “one-child-per-family policy and the forced abortions and sterilizations that have occurred in its enforcement,” as well as the Chinese government’s systematic repression of religious freedom.

And as if to drive the point home: “In an interview afterwards, Chen said the issue of abortion in China is different from the question over its legality in the United States. ‘I want to emphasize the issue of forced abortion. In Chinese society, the negative impact of forced abortion is very clear. Besides causing a problem with an aging population and an imbalanced gender ratio, it’s also an issue of undervaluing life. It is done so frequently that the concept of the importance or sacredness of human life is diluted.’”

The foregoing must be taken alongside the context of our territorial dispute with China. Emphatically, the Philippines stands for the principle of an international rule of law rather than ruthless power politics: “Philippines Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario, referencing his country’s ongoing territorial dispute with China, reiterated that ‘recourse to judicial settlement of legal disputes should not be considered an unfriendly act between States.’ As with Vietnam, he said that such action ‘is anchored in international law.’” (“Improving Democratic Governance in Asia,” Andrew Billo, The Diplomat, Oct. 13)

On the other hand, to believe the Chinese government would acquiesce to a law oriented dispute settlement is irresponsible. When “Hillary Clinton took the side of Vietnam in mildly pushing back against China’s claims to the South China Sea, Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi could barely contain his anger. Calling the Secretary of State’s remarks ‘an attack on China,’ he lectured that ‘China is a big country and other countries are small countries, and that’s just a fact.’” (“China’s aggressive new diplomacy,” Wall Street Journal, Oct. 1, 2010)

In human rights, China’s duplicity is well recorded (human rights activist Wei Jingsheng’s New York Times article “Don’t Believe China’s Promises,” May 4, 2012, is an example). And China has no qualms backstabbing even religious freedoms: see George Weigel of the Ethics and Public Policy Center declaring: “For some time, a modus vivendi was in place between the Vatican and Beijing on the appointment of bishops. It was never codified, but everyone knew the basic rules of the road: No bishops are to be ordained without the tacit approval of the Holy See. The regime brazenly broke that working agreement late last year, going so far as to drag one elderly Chinese bishop by his hair to an illicit episcopal ordination.”

In questioning the idea of a multipolar world led by China as it presently is, the words of Chen Guangcheng are well worth noting: “When dealing with a government practicing violence and deception, if you don’t try to influence it with your universal values, such as freedom, equality, democracy, and constitutionalism, you are very likely to be affected by the wickedness of this government.

“In an age of information explosion, it is impossible for you, me, or anyone else to stay away from the world. If someone is convicted for defending human dignity and universal values, every one of us has inescapable responsibilities.”


The return of safeguards

is the subject of my Trade Tripper column in this weekend issue of BusinessWorld:

One significant sign that business indeed may be picking up is the presence of trade disputes. Rather than a negative, such disputes actually indicate a healthy trading system, demonstrating the increase of activity as well as trust on the settlement of conflicting trade interests.

On Oct. 9 the Philippine government notified the World Trade Organization (WTO) that it initiated safeguard investigations on imported “galvanized iron and pre-painted sheets and coils.” A safeguard measure forms part of the triumvirate of trade remedies, usually in the form of increased tariffs, which a WTO member is allowed to take against imports allegedly damaging its local industry.

According to the Philippine notification, “Pursuant to Article 12.1 (a) of the WTO Agreement on Safeguards, the Permanent Mission of the Philippines to the WTO hereby notifies the Committee on Safeguards of the initiation of a safeguards investigation on the imports of galvanized iron (GI) and pre-painted galvanized iron (PPGI) sheets and coils from various countries."

"Galvanized Iron (GI) sheets and coils classified under AHTN Codes 7210.4110, 7210.4190, 7210.4990, 7210.6910, 7210.6990, 7212.3019, 7212.3093 and 7212.3099 and Pre-painted Galvanized Iron (PPGI) sheets and coils classified under 7210.7011, 7210.7012, 7210.7030, 7210.7060, 7210.7090, 7210.9840, 7210.9050, 7210.9060, 7210.9090, 7212.4011, 7212.4019, 7212.5012, 7212.5013, 7212.5019 and 7212.5029."

“(i) The investigation was initiated following an evaluation of the petition filed by the domestic industry, represented by Puyat Steel Corporation.
“(ii) (ii) The documents submitted by the petitioner showed that increased imports have caused serious injury to the domestic industry as indicated in their declining market share, production, sales, capacity utilization, productivity, profitability, price suppression and undercutting.”

To get the safeguard measure, a petitioner must be able to establish (quantifiably) the presence of five elements: the fact that the imports are due to WTO commitments, that the imports’ effects were unforeseeable, that the imports’ increase take the form of a “surge” (either in “absolute” or “relative” terms), that the local industry is suffering from “serious injury,” and that the serious injury is due to the increase of imports (the “causality” requirement). The last requirement is oft overlooked but is actually the most crucial: it demands tight economic arguments involving quite particular correlation.

Safeguard measures are different from “anti-dumping measures.” The essence of the differences can be seen in the last three elements. An anti-dumping measure is directed at what’s called an “unfair trade practice.” The measure is directed at “dumped” products: whereby the imported price of the product is lower than the price of the like product in the exporting country. There is therefore considered an element of “cheating” in the act of dumping.

On the other hand, with regard to a safeguard case, there is no cheating by the importer. It essentially means that the foreign exporting companies (from which the importer is sourcing its products) are more efficient than the complaining local industry. Hence, the increased quantities of imports and (perhaps) lower prices compared to that of domestic products.

That the WTO rules allow members’ governments to assist their hurting local industries is really for mostly political reasons (hence the “public interest” clause in RA 8800). This is why the standard for safeguard measures is higher (“serious injury”) than for anti-dumping measures (“material injury”).

Another reason for the greater burden on the part of a safeguards petitioner is that, while anti-dumping measurers are only directed against specific countries engaged in dumping, safeguard measures are directed at all countries from which imports are coming.

As can be seen, safeguard cases are highly complex affairs combining law, politics, and economics all in one sweep. In order to fully understand the intricacies of safeguards cases, one must read Article XIX of GATT 1994 (which is actually GATT 1947 -- don’t ask) and the Agreement on Safeguards, as well as the corpus of rulings made by the WTO Appellate Body. The present case being initiated in the Philippines, it is necessary also that one reads Republic Act No. 8800 (along with the implementing rules and regulations). If the country to be hit by a safeguard measure is part of a free trade agreement, then the safeguards provisions of the pertinent agreement or agreements must be read as well. All in all, we’re talking here easily of at least five or six separate legal instruments, not including the so-called “WTO jurisprudence.”

It is in this very complexity where the dangers lie for both petitioners and respondents of a safeguard case. One of the bigger tragedies played out in the domestic scene relating to international trade was when a local industry got the idea of filing a safeguard measure petition. The problem was that, due to erroneous “expert” advice, the local industry wound up needlessly paying millions in consultancy fees for a safeguards case that wasn’t even necessary to begin with as the product in question wasn’t subject to a “bound” tariff rate. A simple Section 401/402 case would have been sufficient.

Safeguard measures are definitely not your usual legal case.


Flip flopping Asian pivot

is the subject of my Trade Tripper column in the recent weekend issue of BusinessWorld:

Time was when the US was actually faulted for being too certain in its place in the world. Those days are gone. From being the world’s take-charge guy, the US transformed itself to this apologetic and clingy entity, until morphing to its present incarnation of earnest student council “intellectual” preferring to debate rather than act (hell freezing be damned).

Things have certainly changed. Today’s top area of discussion is US President Barack Obama’s cancellation of his Asian tour (which included a four-nation swing, among them the Philippines) and, ultimately, his decision to skip the APEC summit, the East Asia summit, and the first US-ASEAN meet. Admittedly, he had a pretty good excuse in the government shutdown. On the other hand, it does render evidence of his claimed “Asian pivot” rather slim.

The cancellation comes on the heels of what appears to be a reduction of military presence in Asia. Bruce Klingner, writing for Newscom (“Give the Marines a Kabar, Not a FUBAR”; 26 September 2013), states that: “Claims that U.S. forces in the Pacific will be immune from duties elsewhere or budget cuts simply don’t hold water. Despite an increase of 100,000 ground troops during the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, U.S. soldiers and Marines were removed from Asia to serve in those wars. Pacific Command forces are already being impacted by funding shortfalls. One in three U.S. Air Force combat aircraft worldwide are already grounded, and two Navy ships in the Pacific-a submarine and a guided missile destroyer-can’t leave port because of a lack of funding.”

The lessening of military strength in Asia should be contrasted with Mr. Obama’s interest in Africa, thus raising suspicions of an “African shift” rather than an “Asian pivot” (see The Atlantic, “Are We Pivoting to Africa Rather Than Asia?”, 6 October 2013). This summer alone, Mr. Obama made trips to Senegal, South Africa, and Tanzania, aside from increasing overall troop presence in the area.

And even the fact of a government shutdown could also be taken as evidence of American vacillation that may have Asian repercussions. As Peter Drysdale (“Asia gets on with it while America’s out of play”, East Asia Forum, 7 October 2013) correctly points out: “If the foundations of a functioning government are compromised at home, as they are so obviously now, America’s allies, friends and opponents alike must naturally question the credibility of its commitments around the world.”

So observers, particularly in Asia, could be forgiven for wondering why Mr. Obama seems to be content in letting go of US dominant status in the Asian region, allowing a China or a North Korea have their unimpeded way.

Although that may not necessarily happen. According to Zachary Keck (“The International Causes of America’s Political Dysfunction”), the US’ seeming absence of direction could be attributed to precisely that lack of competition. As he puts it: “Basically, in the post-Cold War era, America has lacked an international peer competitor to unify around.Social psychologists have long discussed the importance of out-groups in the formation and maintenance of in-group cohesion. We define who we are in no small part by who we are not. All things being equal, the greater the perceived threat from the out-group, the more unified the in-group will be. For a country as large and diverse as the United States, an out-group can be especially important for unity.”

Thus, the possibility that China’s insistence in being the neighborhood bully might be the perfect antidote to US’ lackadaisical Asian stance. Ironically, it is Mr. Obama’s seeming indecisiveness that could actually propel a revival (unfortunately only at the long term) of American attention to the Pacific.That, coupled with Japan’s resurgence.

Which is a distant silver lining of sorts for the Philippines. It really needs US support now, particularly in its territorial problems with an incorrigible China. The Philippines is attempting a brave face, declaring its recent interest in moving forward with a Philippine-European Free Trade Association trade agreement. Even as consolation, however, for our inability to progress with our stated desire to be part of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (which includes the US, not China), the same should also be coupled with the news (reported by this column) of the US allowing Philippine GSP privileges to expire.

Mr. Obama’s no-show thus not only complicates negotiations for the TPP but also pushes the Philippines towards the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (which includes China, but not the US). This leaves the Philippines in the bizarre position of having no deals with a supposed ally (the US) but doing so with a country (China) that seeks to take territory away from us (aside from executing Filipinos on a now regular basis).

So, unless Mr. Obama truly accepts and pushes the idea of American exceptionalism or China suddenly comes to its senses (both highly unlikely), the Philippines needs to brace itself with being alone in foreign policy for the next three years.


Goodbye television

is the subject of my Trade Tripper column in last weekend's issue of BusinessWorld: 

Breaking Bad’s finale this week lived up to the hype, blazing out on an extended 75 minutes of violence, betrayals, one-upmanship. And class. The show may come down as one of the greatest drama series ever shown on television, rivaling (the sadly not shown in the Philippines) The Wire.

There’s something special about final episodes. In a way, it captures what great shows are all about. Unlike lesser shows, they don’t need to feel weepy and self-congratulatory, trying to sweep away past disappointments and mistakes. Rather, great finales tend to do what great shows have always done: give more of the same consistently.

My all-time favorite finale was of Frasier, probably the greatest sitcom ever in the history of television. Well, next to the Simpsons (because it is) and Arrested Development (because the show proclaims itself to be so). Despite the absence of Bulldog, Frasier ended on an incredible high. Anyone moved by Judy Dench’s rendering of Tennyson’s “Ulysses” in Skyfall cannot help choking to Kelsey Grammer saying, with 11 seasons behind him: “that which we are, we are; one equal temper of heroic hearts, made weak by time and fate, but strong in will; to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”

Speaking of Frasier, the Cheers closer was also memorable. The 90+ minute episode felt like it should: one last round of drinks. Always welcome but you know it’s time to go. One could only wish that Semisonic’s “Closing Time” played in the background, all the more as its brilliant line “every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end” would’ve been the perfect set-up for perhaps TV’s most successful spin-off: the abovementioned Frasier.

Compared to that, the final episode of Friends was bit of a letdown. Attempting closure through too many touch feely moments robbed it of what should have been the shows signature: its unmatched ability to mix warmth with sarcasm. The high point was when the friends decided to have coffee one last time together. As they walked away from the apartment (going, as all fans know, to Central Perk), Matthew Perry, with marvelous timing, asked: “uh, where?”

Speaking of letdowns, I’d say the same goes for St. Elsewhere and Newhart. Both giving the viewers the idea that their entire seasons were merely mental constructs: of Dr. Westphall’s autistic child for St. Elsewhere and Bob Newhart’s psychiatrist character in The Bob Newhart Show for Newhart.

On the other hand, The Cosby Show’s finale was sublime. After so many seasons with kids running around the house, Bill Cosby and his wife now have the house to themselves, their adult children off somewhere. Cosby takes his wife’s hand and they dance, dancing all the way up to the set’s edge. And beyond. Eventually walking off behind the studio, past cameramen, producers, and the audience.

I have to include my favorite homicidal place in the world: Midsomer. As I wrote in 2009, I’ve always been amazed that this English county “apparently has around 20 murders a year, with the past decade seeing a total of more than 200 murders, all premeditated. This does not include the assortment of accidental deaths and suicides. This is amazing when you consider that New York averages eight murders a year for every 100,000 individuals. To give an even better idea of the murder rate of Midsomer county, one published account noted that the likelihood of being murdered in London is .007% (per 100,000 people) whereas Midsomer is a shocking 27.4%. To paraphrase a line from Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, it’s like Bosnia on a bad day. The body count is simply staggering -- for a place that is not a war zone, it racked up three kills a week for the past 12 years.”

For a moment, there were concerns that DCI Barnaby would be the 250+ victim of Midsomer. However, true to its theme of being a “celebration of the ordinary” (despite the incredibly high body count), it all came to a close after dinner with family and friends. Barnaby announced his cousin to be Midsomer’s next Detective Chief Inspector. Who then promptly gets a call of a murder somewhere (naturally), and he and DI Jones goes out, leaving a somewhat wistful John Nettles (and a relieved Jane Wymark) behind.

It’s oft been discussed that television (and the movies) reflect the world’s zeitgeist. Hence, the disaster movies of the 1970s. Or ’80’s Wall Street. It could explain the endings for St. Elsewhere and Newhart, both happening within two years of each other (1988 and 1990, respectively), plausibly an echoing of the prevailing nihilism of the time. The same could be said of The Sopranos finale, what with its ambiguity, an ending simply cutting to black. Uncertainty in outcome and purpose? And even uncertainty perhaps in the meaning of everything.

In any event, there’s one thing I am certain of: I do not want the Simpsons to say goodbye.