October 3, 2017 9:20AM

Signs of Shifting Directions by the U.S. and China on Trade Policy

As the rankings in the recently-released Economic Freedom of the World: 2017 Annual Report make clear, the United States and China find themselves in very different places on the matter of trade policy. Occupying the somewhat middling overall position of number 63 (of the 159 jurisdictions ranked) in the "Freedom to Trade Internationally" category, the U.S. is nonetheless significantly ahead of China at number 108. 

Worth noting, however, are incipient signs that the two countries may be trending in different directions. Traditionally a relatively closed and protectionist economy, China through its words and even some of its actions has shown encouraging signs of moving towards greater openness (a topic I explore in a new policy analysis). In depressing contrast, trade policy under the Trump administration may be headed for a different track. A number of developments this year serve to illustrate this nascent divergence:

Rhetoric: Chinese President Xi Jinping offered a surprising but sorely-needed defense of free trade at the World Economic Forum in January. Likening the pursuit of protectionism to "locking oneself in a dark room" in his keynote address, Xi added that "While wind and rain may be kept outside, that dark room will also block light and air." Similar sentiment has also been voiced in subsequent speeches by other senior leaders including Premier Li Keqiang and Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli.

President Donald Trump, meanwhile, said in his February speech to Congress that "I believe strongly in free trade but it also has to be fair trade"—language suggesting a less than full-throated embrace of the concept (Notably, in Premier's Li's own speech he reversed this formulation, stating that "In fact, free trade...is the prerequisite for fair trade."). Privately, the President is reported to have told his chief of staff, "I want tariffs...bring me some tariffs." 

New trade agreements: China continues to play a leading role in efforts to conclude the 16-member Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, a trade deal with a potential payoff estimated to be at least $260 billion over ten years. The country also has several other free trade agreements (FTAs) under negotiation, including a trilateral agreement with Japan and South Korea, and this year began exploring the possibility of a bilateral deal with Canada.

President Trump, in contrast, used his first week in office to withdraw from the 12-member Trans-Pacific Partnership, an agreement whose income gains were calculated at $131 billion through 2030 for the U.S. alone. While talk has been floated of a free trade agreement (FTA) with the United Kingdom, no formal efforts to begin negotiations have been undertaken with the U.K. or any other country.

Existing trade agreementsPresident Trump earlier this year expressed his desire to renegotiate the bilateral FTA with South Korea and more recently has threatened to withdraw from the agreement altogether. Negotiations have also begun on revising NAFTA—the subject of similar withdrawal threats by Trump—with early indications suggesting the Trump administration's desire to take the deal in a more protectionist direction

China and New Zealand, meanwhile, announced in March their intention to further expand an existing FTA between the two countries.

The odds of China becoming a free trade paragon in the near future are admittedly remote.  Even marginal progress in that direction, however, would be most welcome, delivering benefits to China such as greater economic efficiency and access by Chinese consumers to higher-quality imports. Gains would accrue outside of China as well, with its resulting growth contributing to higher living standards among its trading partners.

On the other side of the Pacific, the Trump administration's flirtations with protectionism are an ongoing concern. Although thus far mostly constrained to rhetorical flourishes, the White House's decision to withdraw from the TPP has inflicted a real opportunity cost on the US economy, and further protectionist backsliding must be avoided. As President Trump seeks to Make America Great Again, he should remember that openness to trade has been a key ingredient in making the country the superpower it is today.