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If you (like me) haven’t been happy with America’s China trade policy for the last few decades, here’s the sunniest spin you can put on President Trump’s new trade deal with the People’s Republic: Most of the 100 days set by Washington and Beijing for reaching an agreement to resolve major bilateral issues still haven’t passed. So the two governments – and especially the American demandeur – still have ample time in theory to meet their own proclaimed standard for success.

At the same time, there’s evidence that, despite having won the White House in part on promises to stop China’s “rape” of the U.S. economy and its workers, Mr. Trump is ready to give the Chinese a lot more time to produce genuinely boast-worthy results. Principally, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, the American point man for implementing the 100-day plan, told Fox Business News yesterday:

The strategy here was to get a few quick kills; a few tangible, deliverable items that could be done quickly—make sure that there was actual performance on them … assuming that those are delivered, then we’ll go into a one-year program of negotiations. If that produces more deliverables, we’ll go into a longer-term period of negotiations.”

More indications from Ross that the agreement dealt with only the tip of the iceberg of U.S.-China trade issues: “[T]his addresses 10 items. There are probably 500 items that you could potentially discuss; maybe more than 500.”

And don’t forget the quid pro quo created by President Trump with China between trade and North Korea-related issues. As I’ve written, his decision to promise China a “far better” trade deal with the United States “if they solve the North Korean problem” could let Beijing string the United States along on trade for months with fake promises of imminent progress with Pyongyang.

The specifics of the new agreement have been analyzed in detail, so there’s no point duplicating these exercises. Ditto for the lack of penalties for non-compliance, or even enforcement mechanisms. But it is worth noting how many of the provisions are “soft” – i.e., leaving China literally square miles of wiggle room to keep blocking American exports with no reason to fear any consequences.

For instance, in biotechnology (including genetically modified grains and other crops), Beijing is merely obliged to conduct “science-based evaluations” of U.S. products seeking entry into the Chinese market, and from now on operate its safety certification system more expeditiously and more.

China has agreed to “allow wholly foreign-owned financial services firms” provide credit-rating services in the People’s Republic by July 16, but they will still need to satisfy a “licensing process for credit investigation” whose standards apparently need to meet no specific criteria whatever.

All that was won by electronic payment services was a Chinese commitment to “issue any necessary further guidelines” – again, unspecified – by July 16 and to permit U.S. firms to “begin the licensing process.” The stated aim is to provide these finance companies with “full and prompt” market access, but the agreement contains no means of judging how success will be judged.

More fundamentally, however, the Trump administration’s China agreement suffers exactly the same fatal flaw as those reached by its predecessors: It rests on the assumption that the markets of determinedly mercantile countries can be genuinely opened with skillfully enough worded documents. Sadly, nothing in the history of American trade diplomacy can justify such optimism about conventional trade diplomacy.

After all, these economies understandably view their protectionist approaches as successes and see no need for significant change. The most important trade barriers they maintain are non-tariff barriers that are developed and put into effect by powerful, highly secretive bureaucracies that make identifying these practices – much less litigating against them – excruciatingly difficult. Largely as a result, protectionist systems have grown quite adept at agreeing to dismantle various barriers while generating the same results with new mercantile practices.

Think of it this way: Any economy that, as Ross indicated, could still be presenting more than 500 market access problems to foreign competitors after decades of market-opening promises is clearly an economy that’s been thoroughly exposed to the case for much freer trade – and that has emphatically rejected it.

As Adam Smith recognized, a country can hope to penetrate such rivals by threatening to impose its own barriers to the protectionist country’s exports or actually erecting them. And Mr. Trump has repeatedly expressed his willingness to head down this road both as candidate and as president. Perhaps he believes that the Chinese have taken these statements to heart, and that the 100-day exercise – and whatever other talks might be necessary – will simply iron out the details.

But if so, genuine negotiations – in the sense of give and take – shouldn’t even be necessary to begin with. China should have been informed that it’s time to explain how it’s going to import more American goods and services, how many more it will buy, and by when. Team Trump should have also let the Chinese know that it will be judge, jury, and court of appeals in terms of disputes and verification, and that stiff, escalating tariffs on Chinese products will be applied until deadlines are met and targets are reached – for an extended period of time. The same approach should be used for other predatory Chinese practices that disadvantage U.S.-based producers.

For assuming Mr. Trump wants to keep control of Congress, and avoid lame-duck status, he faces some China and trade-related deadlines of his own that are approaching faster than he may realize. They’re called the 2018 and 2020 elections.

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