This Is How Trump Can Successfully Navigate the China Trade Trap
Foreign-policy experts and America’s allies have roundly criticized President Trump’s new tariffs and investment restrictions as a potential opening salvo in a global trade war. But at least rhetorically, the Trump administration argues that its goal is not simply to protect American industries from foreign competition. Rather, the Trump administration argues that it wants to use the tariffs and investment restrictions as part of a strategy to finally pry open China to U.S. business.
The Trump administration is correct about the need for a tougher approach to China’s unfair trade practices. Despite a handful of positive macroeconomic reforms, under President Xi Jinping the general trend has been to increase the Chinese state’s role business. For example, over the past year China has pressed U.S. and European businesses operating joint ventures in China to give the Chinese Communist Party cells a formal role in corporate decisionmaking, which could turn companies into agents of Chinese policy. China’s “Made in China 2025” national development strategy, meanwhile, is combining billions of dollars in subsidies, favorable regulations, restrictions on foreign access to the Chinese market, and other policies to promote the explicit goal of Chinese companies dominating ten global industries, including information technology, energy-efficient vehicles, and aviation, by 2025. U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer last week issued a report finding that Chinese requirements forcing U.S. firms to transfer technology to China and outright theft cost the United States billions of dollars a year.
The initial signs surrounding Trump’s announcements are that the new tariffs and investment restrictions may indeed spur China to negotiate over its trade practices: Beijing recently sent its top economic official, Liu He, to Washington in a bid to head off a broader trade war, and Washington and Beijing appear to have begun preliminary discussions on potential ways to reduce the bilateral U.S.-China trade deficit.
Trump cannot let his administration be bought off by China’s initial concessions if he wants to reverse years of American failure in pressing Beijing to change its economic practices. Instead, Trump needs to press the initiative by issuing a clear set of U.S. demands and building a multinational coalition to join the United States in the fight.
In developing specific U.S. demands, Trump should focus on opening the Chinese market in ways that support long-term U.S. economic interests, and not simply near-term U.S. corporate profits. For example, press reports suggest that China may offer to open its financial services market to U.S. firms. China has already begun a slow process of liberalizing its financial services market, and a more rapid opening would undoubtedly benefit the bottom lines of America’s banks. But opening China’s financial services market is less likely to have an impact on U.S. workers or on the broader economy here in the United States, given that U.S. banks entering China would predominantly hire Chinese nationals to serve clients inside China, and, for at least the first several years, profits would be recycled into the Chinese market.
Trump also needs to resist the temptation to reduce the U.S.-China trade deficit by letting China engage in beggar-thy-neighbor policies that harm U.S. allies while letting China shirk more fundamental reforms. China is reportedly considering shifting semiconductor purchases from South Korean and Taiwanese firms to U.S. companies as a way of closing the trade deficit. While this could provide a short-term boost to U.S. exports, it would also drive a wedge between the United States and two important Asian allies while requiring nothing in terms of long-term structural reforms from China: China could simply return to purchasing foreign semiconductors as soon as U.S. political pressure abates.
Instead, Trump should focus his market-opening negotiations on two principal areas.
First, Trump should press China to reduce barriers on U.S. trade and investment in the areas prioritized by “Made in China 2025,” China’s signature economic development initiative. This initiative poses the biggest long-term economic challenge to the United States. Trump should insist that that if China wants to be able to attract U.S. expertise to support the Made in China 2025 initiative and ultimately sell Made in China 2025 initiative products to the United States, then China will need to let U.S. companies compete in the Made in China 2025 priority sectors on terms comparable to those that the United States offers Chinese companies in the same sectors.
Second, Trump should press China to open its market to U.S. goods and services that support labor and employment in the United States, such as automobile manufacturing and services that tend to rely on U.S.-based employees. While global trade has generally benefited the U.S. economy as a while, the last decade has made clear that trade creates losers as well as winners. Prioritizing trade terms that benefit some of the groups that have historically lost under trade deals would not only be fair, it may have the potential to rebuild popular American support for trade over time.
To maximize U.S. leverage in the current dispute with China, Trump needs to sign up allies to bring pressure against Beijing. China has long been more responsive to multilateral pressure than to bilateral diplomacy. Moving quickly to sign up allies will also deny Beijing the opportunity to frame the tariffs and investment restrictions as an example of the United States departing from longstanding global trade rules.