Jack Ma, CEO of Alibaba and the second-richest man in China, visited Australia on Saturday. He had a dire warning for Trump and his hardline, anti-globalisation ideas about trade: This could be war.
Ma was in Melbourne to celebrate the opening of the Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba's Australia/New Zealand headquarters. Speaking to attendees at the event, Ma said: "Everybody is concerned about trade wars. If trade stops, war starts."
Trump has been vocal about dismantling the United States trade policies and focusing on "America first" nationalism. One of his first actions as US president was to withdraw the US from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal that Obama had spent years negotiating.
Ma's remarks weren't simply a warning about potential trade wars. He also waxed philosophical about the value of trade. According to Business Insider Australia, the CEO insisted, "Trade is about trade of values. Trade of culture." He added, "We have to actively prove that trade helps people to communicate."
The TPP was criticised by both Democrats and Republicans during the US campaign season. With proper planning and coalition building, the Trump administration could feasibly work out an alternative that works for both sides of the aisle. But that would require diplomacy, concessions and thoughtful strategy, qualities that the Trump team has treated with disdain.
The United States and 10 governments from around the Pacific, including Australia and New Zealand, are meeting yet again to hash out the secret Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement (TPP) on May 15-24 in Lima, Peru. The TPP is one of the worst global threats to the internet since ACTA.
Alibaba's CEO spoke with Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull on Friday and he says they had "a wonderful discussion" about what Business Insider characterises as "a regional 'e-hub' — a trade zone that would allow for freer online commerce with less border bureaucracy to deal with". Contrast that with Trump's phone call with Turnbull this week, which he characterised as the "worst call by far", and ended by hanging up on the Australian prime minister. The ignorance on the part of the administration was hammered home when the White House press secretary, Sean Spicer, repeatedly mispronounced Turnbull's name as "Trumbull".
When Trump met with the Alibaba CEO back in January, Trump was happy to crow that Ma had promised to bring a million jobs to the United States. Critics predict that Ma won't follow through on the pledge and that, like Trump, he knows a good PR opportunity when he sees it.
If the new US president doesn't want a nightmare situation in which consumer electronics and other imported goods sky rocket in price, he's going to have to move beyond sound bites and photo ops to dig into the endlessly complicated world of policy. Trade wars also have a way of turning into shooting wars and so far Trump seems fine with that.