Shoot Out at the Free Trade Corral


What a photo – yet another instance of Bali working its magic. Chinese President Xi Jinping leads a “Happy Birthday” for Russian President Vladimir Putin, with Indonesian President Susilo Yudhoyono on acoustic guitar. You know who is not in the picture – he’s in shutdown containment mode. US Think Tankland protestations notwithstanding, there could not be a more graphic reminder of the emerging multipolar order.

And right on cue, the Creditor, somewhat alarmed, pointedly reminded the massive Debtor, via Chinese vice-finance minister  Zhu Guangyao: “As the world’s largest economy and the issuer of the major reserve currency in the world, it is important for the US to maintain the creditworthiness of its Treasury bonds.” [1]

Translation; just as Asia-Pacific gathered to discuss the messier points of economic cooperation at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Bali, what everybody was worried about is the scary possibility of the US government defaulting on its colossal debts next week. All this interfered with by a sideshow – the Return of the Extraordinary Rendition in Libya and Navy SEALS getting their butts kicked by a bunch of al-Shabaab jihadis in Somalia, more than enough to bury any coverage of the APEC summit by US corporate media.

As predicted, China was the star of the APEC show. It’s never enough to remember that the 21-member APEC accounts for no less than half of the globe’s economic output and trade. Xi insisted APEC should lead and coordinate the maze of free trade negotiations in Asia-Pacific.

He also insisted that any trade agreement should be “inclusive” – as in including China. Only then would it bear the requisite “win-win” trademark; as if Xi needed to emphasize once more – as he did – that China is the biggest trading partner and export market for virtually every Asia-Pacific nation.

Behold the “Diamond Decade”

The ongoing blockbuster in Asia-Pacific is the clash of the FTAs; there are a dizzying, over 100 competing free-trade agreements currently in play. Negotiations at the World Trade Organization are, to put it mildly, a mess. So a lot of players resort to bilateral and somewhat multilateral FTAs. Overall, the top contenders are the 16-nation, ASEAN-led Comprehensive Economic Partnership (which includes China) and the 12-nation, US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which excludes China..

Xi stressed over and over again that China favors one FTA to cover all of the Asia-Pacific. And as far as Beijing is concerned, that won’t be TPP – which is essentially a major US corporate racket that will lower tariffs across the spectrum to the sole benefit of US multinationals and not small and medium-sized firms in developing countries, all this under the cover of a dodgy “highest free trade standard”.

China essentially wants APEC to put order in the court. Obama has been too busy pivoting to himself instead of pivoting to Asia, more specifically Bali, to offer his spin – but the fact is Washington wants to ram up a TPP over its “partners” under a tight deadline, the end of 2013, glossing over key “devil in the details” discussions over market access (sweet if you’re a corporate behemoth) and intellectual property (corporate behemoths marketizing everything).

It gets curioser and curioser when one is reminded that APEC at the beginning was very much a US Asia policy stalwart. I vividly remember covering the APEC summit in Bogor, Indonesia in 1994 – when an undisputed Bill Clinton seemed to be dictating the future of Asia-Pacific. That was a sort of “pivoting to Asia” before the fact – and totally under American terms. Then, after the pivoting was first announced by then US secretary of state Hillary Clinton in 2011, she spun it as the dawn of “America’s Pacific century”.

This “Pacific century” seems to boil down, so far, to enforcing an already embattled TPP. Bantarto Bandoro, from the Indonesian Defense University, seemed to get closer to the real picture when he told the Jakarta Globe, “this could be the beginning of the end of American global dominance.”

While the verdict in this Shootout at the Free Trade Corral remains open, workaholic China proceeds. After its spectacular New Silk Road successes in Central Asia, Beijing has just proposed a – what else is new – Maritime Silk Road (MSR) in Southeast Asia, boosting trade between China and ASEAN.

Once again, Xi was the messenger, in his current tour of Indonesia and Malaysia; he beamed that the MSR would turn the “Golden Decade” between China and ASEAN into a “Diamond Decade”. China is the 10-member ASEAN’s largest trading partner (over US$400 billion in 2012), with mutual investment at over $100 billion and growing. Beijing sees this coming “Diamond Decade” as the bulk of the political/economic solution for the so far intractable territorial problems in the South China Sea, which pit China against four ASEAN members; Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei.

Xi already embarked on a charm offensive in Malaysia, and it’s unclear what Vietnam and the Philippines will make of this “Diamond Decade” when there’s so much unexplored, unassigned oil and gas to be found in the South China Sea. Yet once again, Beijing is playing the long game. The 2014 APEC summit will be held – of all places – in Beijing. By then Obama may have found time to do some actual pivoting. And by then that may be too little, too late.

Pepe Escobar is the author of Globalistan: How the Globalized World is Dissolving into Liquid War (Nimble Books, 2007) and Red Zone Blues: a snapshot of Baghdad during the surge. His new book, just out, is Obama does Globalistan (Nimble Books, 2009). He may be reached at pepeasia@yahoo.com

This column originally appeared on Asia Times.


1. China urges US to prevent debt default, Xinhuanet, October 7, 2013.

Pepe Escobar is the author of Globalistan: How the Globalized World is Dissolving into Liquid War (Nimble Books, 2007), Red Zone Blues: a snapshot of Baghdad during the surge and Obama does Globalistan (Nimble Books, 2009).  His latest book is Empire of ChaosHe may be reached at pepeasia@yahoo.com.

Weekend Edition
November 28-30, 2015
Majd Isreb
America’s Spirit, Syrian Connection
Weekend Edition
November 27-29, 2015
Andrew Levine
The Real Trouble With Bernie
Gary Leupp
Ben Carson, Joseph in Egypt, and the Attack on Rational Thought
John Whitbeck
Who’s Afraid of ISIS?
Michael Brenner
Europe’s Crisis: Terror, Refugees and Impotence
Pepe Escobar
Will Chess, Not Battleship, Be the Game of the Future in Eurasia?
Vijay Prashad
Showdown on the Syrian Border
Colin Todhunter
Class, War and David Cameron
Jean Bricmont
The Ideology of Humanitarian Imperialism
Dan Glazebrook
Deadliest Terror in the World: the West’s Latest Gift to Africa
Mats Svensson
Madness in Hebron: Hashem Had No Enemies, Yet Hashem Was Hated
Walter Brasch
Terrorism on American Soil
Louisa Willcox
Grizzly Bears, Dreaming and the Frontier of Wonder
Dave Lindorff
Gen. John Campbell, Commander in Afghanistan and Serial Liar
Michael Welton
Yahweh is Not Exactly Politically Correct
Joseph Natoli
A Politics of Stupid and How to Leave It Behind
Karl Grossman
Our Solar Bonanza!
John Cox
You Should Fear Racism and Xenophobia, Not Syrian Refugees or Muslims
Barrie Gilbert
Sacrificing the Grizzlies of Katmai: the Plan to Turn Brooks Camp Into a Theme
Rev. William Alberts
The Church of “Something Else” in “an Ecclesiastical Desert”
Mark Hand
Escape From New York: the Emancipation of Activist Cecily McMillan
Ramzy Baroud
Forget ISIS: Humanity is at Stake
Andrew Gavin Marshall
Bank Crimes Pay
Elliot Murphy
Cameron’s Syrian Strategy
Thomas S. Harrington
Jeff Jacoby of the Boston Globe and the Death of Ezra Schwartz
Gareth Porter
How Terror in Paris Calls for Revising US Syria Policy
Michael Perino
The Arc of Instability
Yves Engler
Justin Trudeau and Canada’s Mining Industry
Tom H. Hastings
ISIS and Changing the Game
Lars Jørgensen
Vive la Résistance
John Halle
A Yale Education as a Tool of Power and Privilege
Norman Pollack
Syrian “Civil War”?: No, A Proxy War of Global Confrontation
Sheldon Richman
Let the Refugees In
James Anderson
Reframing Black Friday: an Imperative for Déclassé Intellectuals
Simon Bowring
UN Climate Talks 2009: a Merger of Interest and Indifference
Ron Jacobs
Rosa Luxembourg–From Street Organizer to Street Name
Aidan O'Brien
Same-Sex Sellout in Ireland
David Stocker
Report from the Frontline of Resistance in America
Patrick Bond
China Sucked Deeper Into World Financial Vortex and Vice Versa, as BRICS Sink Fast
James A Haught
The Values of Jesus
Binoy Kampmark
British Austerity: Cutting One’s Own Backyard
Ed Rampell
45 Years: A Rumination on Aging
Charles R. Larson
Chronicle of Sex Reassignment Surgery: Juliet Jacques’s “Trans: a Memoir”
Jeffrey St. Clair - Alexander Cockburn
CounterPunch’s Favorite Films
November 26, 2015
Ashley Nicole McCray – Lawrence Ware
Decolonizing the History of Thanksgiving