From the Banquet at Hongmen to Hong Kong

…as I was saying…regular readers of the Sunday letter will know that I have taken a break from it in recent weeks to recast the note around my forthcoming book ‘The Levelling’, and I hope that some will be happy it is back.

For those of you who are new to my list (please let me know if I should not have you on the list, or if you have colleagues or friends who would like to join it) I will send out a letter each Sunday morning (the one time people have a chance to read something) that mixes history, politics, markets, geopolitics and economics.

Given the intersection of these factors a good place to start this week is the Banquet at Hongmen, which occurred in China in 206 BC. In an age that is in Game of Thrones overdrive the story of Hongmen will appeal to many (indeed there is already a film about it called White Vengeance (2012)). In China, the tale is short-hand for duplicity and assassination and it featured in the Chinese press last week as part of the more popular response to President Trump’s tariff increase on China.

As an anchor point, ‘Hongmen’ serves a number of purposes that of course effortlessly dovetail into the themes of The Levelling. The first is that internal politics matter – Hongmen occurred at a time when the Qin and Han dynasties were contesting power. In this regard, for all that we hear today about the 2020 Presidential election campaign, we hear equally little about political debate within the Communist Party on topics like trade and relations with the USA.

Second, the cycles of the rise and fall of nations matter a lot. China has had many such cycles and America has effectively to complete a full cycle. Some may feel that this comes across in the bravoura of America’s interaction with other countries, but we should also bear in mind the context and patience that China’s history affords its leadership.

A third related point here is that China’s long history has given it a deep culture and sense of civilization. This is lost on some. Kiron Skinner a State Department official has recently tried to cast US-China relations as a ‘Clash of Civilisations’.  This is a lazy use of Samuel Huntington’s work. A better parsing of the situation is multipolarity, where the world moves away from globalization towards a system driven by three large regions (US, EU and China) who do things in distinctly different ways.

In this context, the trade dispute is a marker of China’s rise and the belated realization of America’s elite as to how it should curb this. Tariffs are not at all the apt tool. There are better avenues. For example, America is extremely powerful financially, in terms of the usage of the dollar, depth and centrality of its markets and the power of its banks. Indeed, one could argue that the US is more hegemonic in finance than it is militarily.

Another avenue is leadership in international rules and standards. Many new fields such as artificial intelligence, genetic editing and cyber war have grown so quickly that they have bypassed international laws, philosophies and norms regarding them. One challenge for the US is to take the lead in outlining new standards and laws in these areas. Unfortunately this is something it does not appear prepared to do, especially in areas like climate change. If anything the US is ceding soft power to China.

To jump to finance, the market view of the trade dispute is that some form of resolution will be forthcoming. The drop in volatility on Friday suggested that US markets are moving from being positioned for a risky outcome, to one that is more sanguine. Other Asia centric ones like the KOSPI index South Korea and the Australian dollar will need to strengthen in order to give the all clear.

If a trade deal is struck, it will mark the beginning of a formal rivalry between the US and China, the start of more ‘nation first’ patterns in consumption and corporate investment and the end of bodies like the World Trade Organisation. There may be many more flash points.

Here, many tend to focus on great naval battles of the future in the South China Sea. In my view, one looming touchpoint is Hong Kong, where there is a fierce debate ongoing around a proposal to permit the imprisonment in China of those sentenced by courts in Hong Kong. For a city-state with a very expensive housing market, dollar currency peg and large stock market, this may be one area where geopolitics again ripples through markets.  

Have a great week ahead,

Mike

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