Trump & China: The Monkey King

By Tom Parker

Donald Trump’s unexpected win now completes the ‘Year of the Underdog’. However, in Chinese zodiac terms this is the Year of the Monkey.

Monkeys are playful, creative and cheeky but also egotistical, arrogant, restless and impatient. As a self-absorbed creature, they lack empathy and don’t know when to stop joking around – sound familiar?

In Chinese culture, the Monkey King is the central character in the classic Buddhist road trip fable Journey to the West. Part Jedi knight, part Friar Tuck, the Monkey King collects a motley crew as he protects a monk carrying the Buddhist scrolls from India across China.

Those old enough to enjoy weekday afternoon ABC TV in the early 1980s will remember the overdubbed Japanese version appropriately called Monkey Magic. The kitsch title sequence started with prosaic words that “in the worlds before Monkey, primal chaos reigned. Heaven sought order”.

Regardless of your views, or which echo chamber you listened to in the lead up to the election, many business commentators, including 20 Nobel prize winning economists expect the arrival of the Monkey King to deliver primal chaos with the global economy unlikely to find order.

Like many things, a Trump victory is bad for US-Sino relations with aggressive pre-election commitments to penalise China for manipulating currency and creating climate change as a hoax. But how will this impact our relationship with Australia’s largest trading partner?

The common view is that an unstable America locked into a trade war with China will, by default, also hurt Australia’s economic interests in China. However, the potential instability provides an opportunity to strengthen bi-lateral business ties with the Middle Kingdom.

How can Australia navigate this predicted economic Armageddon?

Just as the political pundits failed to foresee a Trump in the Whitehouse, most forget our competitive advantage with China.

In a world where Trump promises to tear apart existing economic agreements, the China Australia Free Trade Agreement (ChAFTA) becomes a golden ticket for Australian industry to leap frog American competitors, who will be handicapped by Trump pandering to US protectionists.

China’s ageing population and onslaught of diabetes means that health is a key concern for Beijing with many foreign health providers already opening private hospitals, and selling medical equipment and expertise. ChAFTA relaxes restrictions on Australia’s investment into China’s healthcare industry and our hard fought Most Favoured Nation status will ensure Australia continues to get parity from any other trade of economic agreements that China signs other nations.

Australia has also been seen by international markets as a base and bridge into Asia. Canadian dairy giant Saputo made it clear when acquiring Warrnambool Cheese and Butter that this investment was a strategic springboard to capitalize on China’s growing middle class where dairy consumption has increased by 7.5%.

If Trump creates an economic Cold War with China, Australia will benefit through becoming a Checkpoint Charlie for parallel exports and covert channels for investment. Australia’s establishment as unofficial broker also plays well into Chinese cultural ideas of financial counter insurgency. The strategist Sun Tzu observed, the wisest general is the one who overcomes the armies of his enemies without having to fight them himself. And one way to do that is to get someone else to do your fighting for you.

Perhaps 2016 is best understood through the idiom of Hou Nian Ma Yue literally year of the monkey and month of the horse, an impossible zodiac combination that is used to convey an event that will never eventuate.

That time has come and in the words of the Japanese TV show, “the nature of Monkey is irrepressible”. 

 

 

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