The Obama administration filed a formal complaint with the World Trade Organization on Monday alleging that the Chinese government is bestowing various prohibited subsidies upon Chinese automobile and auto parts producers to the tune of $1 billion and that Beijing is, accordingly, in violation of its commitments under the WTO Agreement on Subsidies and Countervailing Measures.
There are reasons to shake one’s head at this move, including the apparent hypocrisy it reveals of an administration that spins the $85 billion of subsidies it heaped upon two U.S. car companies and the United Autoworkers union as its chief economic accomplishment. Of course that figure doesn’t even include the $12-$14 billion in unorthodox tax breaks granted to GM under the bankruptcy terms; $17 billion in funds committed from the TARP to GM's former financial arm GMAC (which received taxpayer support to facilitate GM auto sales); GM's portion of the $25 billion Energy Department slush fund to underwrite research and development in green auto technology; and the $7,500 tax credit granted for every new purchase of a Chevy Volt, and more. (Full story here.)
To complain about $1 billion of Chinese subsidies is – shall we say – a bit rich.
Moreover, the filing of the WTO case reveals some of the unseemly perquisites of incumbency. A large concentration of the beneficiaries of the GM bailout resides in Ohio, a state that has had the administration’s strategic attention since its reelection campaign began in November 2008. But in case that largesse wasn’t enough to secure their support in November 2012, a large concentration of the beneficiaries of a successful U.S. WTO complaint also resides in Ohio, which is where – by Jove – the president was speaking when word of the WTO complaint became public.
It is all exasperating, no doubt.
But the bigger and more disconcerting story in all of this is the apparent ascendancy of economic nationalism within the GOP. Romney’s persistence in trying to brand himself the "most protectionist" or "biggest China basher" in the presidential race sort of forced Obama to bring the WTO case -- or at least expedited the timetable. Have you seen the Romney ads? Have you read the shrill RNC taunts that cite the widely-discredited, union-funded Economic Policy Institute’s figures on job losses caused by trade with China? Strange bedfellows, indeed!
It was once the case – not too long ago – that Republican candidates argued in support of trade and the freedom of Americans to partake of the opportunities afforded by the global economy. But things, apparently, have changed. The nationalistic strains within the Republican Party have strengthened since 2009. I explained why this was happening in this 2010 Cato paper, which is excerpted below:
Frictions in the U.S.-China relationship are nothing new, but they have intensified in recent months. Tensions that were managed adeptly in the past are multiplying, and the tenor of official dialogue and public discourse has become more strident. Lately, the media have spilled lots of ink over the proposition that China has thrived at U.S. expense for too long, and that China’s growing assertiveness signals an urgent need for aggressive U.S. policy changes. Once-respected demarcations between geopolitical and economic aspects of the relationship have been blurred. In fact, economic frictions are now more likely to be cast in the context of our geopolitical differences, which often serves to overstate the challenges and obscure the solutions.
A sign of the times is a recent commentary by Washington Post columnist Robert J. Samuelson, in which he declares: "China’s worldview threatens America’s geopolitical and economic interests." That statement would seem to support a course of action very different from the course implied by the same columnist 18 months earlier, when he wrote, "Globalization means interdependence; major nations ignore that at their peril." That change of heart appears to be contagious.
Understandably, there is angst among the U.S. public, who hear frequently that China will soon surpass the United States in one economic superlative after another. Some worry that China’s rise will impair America’s capacity to fulfill or pursue its traditional geopolitical objectives. And those concerns are magnified by a media that cannot resist tempting the impulses of U.S. nationalism. Woven into stories about China’s frantic pace of development are reminders that the Chinese have not forgotten their two-century slumber—a period of humiliation and exploitation by foreign powers.
A recent National Journal cover story describing areas of bilateral policy contention—which the article laments as "frustrating" the fact that U.S. experts see "few alternatives to continued engagement" —features three menacing photographs of Chinese military formations, one picture of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il flanked by members of the Chinese military, and one photo of the Chinese foreign minister shaking hands with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Subtly, and sometimes not, the media and politicians are brandishing the image of an adversarial China. In Chinese reluctance to oblige U.S. policy wishes, we are told that China selfishly follows a "China-First" policy. In the increasing willingness of Chinese officials to criticize U.S. policies, we are told of a new "triumphalism" in China. In the reportedly shabby treatment of President Obama by his Chinese hosts on his recent trip to Beijing, we are told that the "Chinese have an innate sense of superiority." But indignation among media and politicians over China’s aversion to saying "How high?" when the U.S. government says "Jump!" is not a persuasive argument for a more provocative posture.
China is a sovereign nation. Its government, like the U.S. government, pursues policies that it believes to be in its own interests (although those policies—with respect to both governments—are not always in the best interests of their people). Realists understand that objectives of the U.S. and Chinese governments will not always be the same, thus U.S. and Chinese policies will not always be congruous. Accentuating and cultivating the areas of agreement, while resolving or minimizing the differences, is the essence of diplomacy and statecraft. These tactics must continue to underpin a U.S. policy of engagement with China.
In this campaign, the RNC seems to be fighting to position itself to the protectionist side of Obama, daring the president to take action – a dare the president has accepted, inflating his political credit in places like Ohio. In response to Governor Romney’s assertion that the president had been soft on China and that he, Romney, would label China a currency manipulator on his first day in office, Obama created the Interagency Trade Enforcement Center, which resonated politically with the target audience. While the challenger blathers about the president’s alleged fecklessness in dealing with China, the president responds by bringing new WTO cases against Beijing. The most recent complaint, relative to the strident tack Mitt Romney is advocating, is the more responsible, more pro-market course of action. If Romney is to be believed, his trade actions would have far worse consequences for the economy.
Instead of focusing on the real sources of economic stagnation in the United States – including the uncertain business climate inspired by the bailouts, the proliferation of costly and superfluous new environmental, health, and financial regulations, a tax code that is in constant flux, frivolous torts, an education monopoly that fails to produce enough talent backstopped by an immigration system that chases it away – Mitt Romney has chosen to blame America’s woes on China. THAT is the message the Republican presidential candidate, with the full backing of the RNC, brings to the voters in Ohio, whose fortunes are increasingly tied to America’s engagement in the global economy. As of July, Ohio’s unemployment rate was 7.2 percent, more than one full percentage point lower than the U.S. rate of 8.3%. Ohio’s economy is growing on account of trade – particularly with China, the state’s third largest market and destination of $2.7 billion worth of Ohio’s output in 2011. Just look at this bar chart that depicts the importance of China to Ohio, and conversely, the costs of a real bilateral trade war.
Governor Romney should ditch his trade warrior schtick pronto, and start explaining to the electorate how pro-trade policies – including the freedom of corporations to invest abroad (to offshore a la Bain Capital)– help enlarge the economic pie. Puffing out the chest to appear the biggest protectionist in the race is bad economics and bad politics.