By Benjamin Picton, Senior Macro Strategist at Rabobank
Comprehensive, But Not Strategic
Equities finished last week lower again as the ‘higher for longer’ narrative continues to be priced in by markets. This despite the Bank of Japan turning the dial a little back towards the dovish side as they left official rates unchanged and dissembled over Governor Ueda’s comments a week or two ago that there may be sufficient evidence of enduring inflation to start lifting rates before the end of the year. Nevertheless, US 10y yields closed the week 10bps higher at 4.43% after briefly touching 4.50% earlier on Friday (the highest since 2007), and crude oil was (mercifully) a little lower, but not by much.
Shifting to geopolitics, we have seen a number of announcements recently of countries entering into ‘comprehensive strategic partnership’. The United States and Vietnam elevated their relationship to a CSP in early September, as did Australia and the Philippines. Back in July, China raised alarm in the Asia-Pacific by entering into a CSP with the Solomon Islands and they have done so again by entering into a similar agreement with Timor-Leste over the weekend.
Part of the agreement with Timor-Leste involves the latter’s recognition of the One China Principle, which carries with it a declaration by Timor-Leste that Taiwan is an “inalienable part of China’s territory and [we] oppose any forms of ‘Taiwan Independence’”. The quid pro quo here is that Timor-Leste gets to participate in the largesse promised by Xi Xinping’s Belt and Road initiative, and perhaps enjoy the Schadenfreude of watching the foreign affairs and defence establishment in Canberra squirm about as China places itself firmly between US naval bases in Guam, Hawaii and the Marshall Islands and Australia’s northern approaches.
So, while the world is quite understandably fixated on the hot war raging in Eastern Europe, the Cold War in the Asia Pacific is well and truly underway, with the major belligerents jockeying for the best strategic positioning. It is in the Asia Pacific where Thucydides Trap will actually play out, or not. Taiwan is undoubtedly the hair trigger, so overt picking of sides on the Taiwan question is a very big deal in the politics of the region.
The United States has been busy trying to ensure that small countries pick their side, so the G7 belatedly stitched together the B3W initiative back in 2021 as a challenger to Belt and Road. Unfortunately, much has happened since that time and the deficit-wracked budgets of the USA and her (mostly) European allies that make up the G7 have so far not seen fit to provide the promised $600bn of funding to seed infrastructure investments in the developing world.
A further strategic initiative was announced on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly last week. The ‘Partnership for Atlantic Cooperation’ emphasizes better economic integration for countries along the Atlantic coastline, and perhaps provides a firewall of sorts to the series of coups moving through central Africa towards the Atlantic coast. Crucially, the agreement includes Brazil, a BRICS+ nation that, like India, is becoming more important in global affairs and has to-date been happy to walk on both sides of the street on the USA/China rivalry.
India itself has been a focus of diplomatic overtures from the G7, but tensions have flared after the Canadian government accused India of assassinating a Sikh separatist leader in British Columbia. This episode undoubtedly creates new headaches for US foreign policy objectives. Former US Defence Department official Michael Rubin pithily described it as “an ant picking a fight with an elephant.”
So, the overall picture is of a US strategic apparatus spread thin and playing whack-a-mole with geopolitical flare-ups that its allies are not much help in solving. While the Russia-Ukraine conflict and tensions in the Atlantic provide a distraction for policymakers, China continues to build relationships in the Asia Pacific and Middle East, where fellow BRICS+ nation Saudi Arabia is playing a similar game to Brazil. Europe’s capacity to assist is severely hamstrung by its own economic stagnation (witness the poor PMIs released last week) and modest hard power means. In such an environment, US foreign policy has by necessity become comprehensive, but not strategic.