Trump’s Trade Policy Is a Disaster, But Postponing the China Trade War Was Smart

Reactions in the United States to the Trump administration’s announcement on Saturday that it would refrain from imposing new tariffs on imports from China for the time being have been decidedly negative. One would expect criticism from the unions, the steel producers, and old economy manufacturing trade associations. After all, many seemed not the least bit concerned about burdening the economy with 25 percent duties on $50-$150 billion of Chinese imports and retaliation of similar scale against U.S. exports, as long as they secured for themselves a small bag of booty in the process. Trump’s “America-First” brand of economic nationalism was everything they had ever hoped for—and now it may be in retreat.

Likewise, one can understand why the administration’s decision to reconsider its approach to Chinese technology companies and Chinese technology transgressions makes the security hawks unhappy. Many of them have been peddling a self-perpetuating narrative that is one part fact to three parts innuendo, hearsay, and speculation that war (and not just the trade kind) between the United States and China is inevitable, and that there is very little scope for further cooperation. Why, they wonder, would Trump squander the leverage to compel real Chinese reform that was afforded by the results of the Section 301 investigation and ZTE’s existential predicament?

But I am most disappointed by those who present themselves as pro-trade, internationalist, cosmopolitan, and informed, but who seem strangely disappointed that the administration stepped back from the abyss. There was a point when these folks warned about the perils of Trump’s protectionist path, and screamed from the hilltops about how Trump’s unilateralism would kill the World Trade Organization. On Twitter, they goad Trump: “Trump blinked.” “Xi schooled Trump.” “U.S. credibility has been squandered” (as if it was somehow squandered THAT moment). For some of these people, disdain for Trump or the desire to be perceived as the most offended by his behavior is more important than supporting one of his rare decisions to do the right thing.

This weekend’s announcement, arguably, was the first piece of good trade policy news the Trump administration has delivered during its tumultuous 16-month reign. Yes, the administration’s trade policy has been a comedy of errors from the outset. Trump’s America First policies have betrayed his administration’s utter ignorance of the interdependence of the global economy, divided the country, and strained long-standing relationships with governments, businesses, and people on every continent. Had the president been remotely informed about international trade before taking office—instead of taking his primer courses on our time and on our dime—we might have been spared 16 months of wrenching policy mistakes.

The big takeaway from this weekend’s stand down is that the United States got taken by the Chinese, who’ve offered mere promises to purchase all sorts of U.S. exports and that the Trump administration has made fools of themselves in this process. Well, the Trump administration was always going to look foolish in this process. After all, who doesn’t look foolish pursuing nonsensical objectives, such as achieving bilateral trade balance, while breaking rules and strong-arming trade partners to get there? All Americans should be embarrassed by U.S. trade policy nowadays, but with respect to developments with China there is a better headline. Lost in an environment that is heavy on snark and light on measured analysis is that the worst of all outcomes—a deleterious trade war—has been avoided for now. Postponing a trade war is far superior to waging one, so as we spend the present lamenting the precarious near future, let’s also consider how we might make enduring trade peace more likely.

There is plenty of blame to go around for the deteriorating state of affairs, but let’s not forget that it is nearly a $750 billion relationship. It can’t be all bad. But despite that interdependence—or perhaps because of it—there are numerous sources of friction. The U.S. list of gripes famously includes subsidization of industry, the continued prominence of state-owned enterprises, currency manipulation, dumping, discrimination against U.S. companies, limited investment opportunities, closed services markets, relatively high tariffs, unfair labor practices, intellectual property theft, indigenous innovation policies, joint venture requirements, forced technology transfers, and many other allegations. These have been characterized as the vestiges of China’s incomplete transition to a market economy and there is definitely truth to it.

Chinese gripes are less familiar to Americans’ ears, but include the adverse treatment of China as a non-market economy in antidumping cases, an allegedly over-inclusive list of products subject to U.S. export controls, a crackdown on Chinese investment in the United States, U.S. blacklisting of Chinese information and communications technology firms, and other market access restrictions. 

Surely—and especially if the alternative is a ruinous trade war—many of these issues can be resolved. Washington and Beijing should go to the negotiating table, exchange wish lists, identify priorities, and put in writing an agreement that more fully opens both markets to trade in goods, services, and cross-border investment, and weeds out discriminatory innovation policies. Meanwhile, both governments should commit in that agreement to adopt less invasive, yet far more comprehensive, statistically valid approaches to screening technology products for cyber risks without compelling the sharing of source code or trade secrets (as described in this paper about cybersecurity and protectionism).