Chinese Free Trade Is No Threat to American Free Trade

I’m seeing a lot of support for the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) on the basis of reasoning along the lines of “we must stop China from dominating Asia.”  Here are two recent examples.

First, an analyst with the Third Way think tank says:

The Chinese economy is built on low labor standards, and they want to export these standards to the world.

This analysis of Chinese and U.S. trade deals demonstrates that, in the area of worker rights, there is an immense cost to ceding trade and commerce rules to China. And with China trying to impose those standards on the rest of the world, policymakers need to be extremely concerned with the effect on American workers.

Second, the Washington Post editorial board says:

the TPP would ensure that the Pacific Rim plays by U.S.-style rules and regulations, rather than by China’s neo-mercantilist ones

There are two arguments here: (1) China is imposing low labor standards on the rest of the world; and (2) China is spreading mercantilism through its trade agreements. Neither is true.  As I explain in this Free Trade Bulletin, China does not care what labor standards its trading partners use, and it is not trying to impose its standards on anyone through trade agreements.  In addition, Chinese trade agreements liberalize trade in goods and services, just as other countries’ trade agreements do; China is not using trade agreements to push for its trading partners to have more interventionist economic policy.

I conclude:

Chinese free-trade initiatives in Asia and the Pacific region should give the United States an incentive to get its own free-trade act together, but not for the reasons suggested by some. Chinese free trade is not a threat to American free trade. The justification for U.S. trade agreements is that free trade is good, not that China is somehow bad. Thus, the TPP should succeed or fail on its economic merits. The concerns about letting China write the rules are misguided. China’s trade rules are not a version of state-led capitalism. They are the removal of protectionist trade barriers, just as our trade rules are.