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When I first entered the trade and manufacturing world, I worked for a fellow named Clyde V. Prestowitz, Jr., who was shaking up American attitudes on international economic policy (in a good way) with sharp critiques of the prevailing dogma and often ingenious ideas for reform and even transformation. (The most complete statement of his views – this 1988 book.

And one of his most intriguing thoughts held that died-in-the-wool protectionist Asian governments like Japan’s would much rather deal with an openly economic nationalist U.S. President than with a standard preacher of free trade. So imagine my (pleasant) surprise to see this morning that a former senior Chinese economic official who still clearly retains much influence express substantial agreement – and in the process light the way for an American approach toward China’s trade transgressions that moves from what might be called a “Trump Lite” strategy that only partly reflects the President’s sharpest instincts to a much more thoroughly America First-oriented policy.

These views can be found in an interview in Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post describing the views of Long Yongtu. This retired Vice Minister led China’s successful decade-and-a-half effort to join the World Trade Organization (WTO) – a top Beijing priority because membership provided the People’s Republic with valuable insulation from unilateral and other foreign efforts to retaliate against its wide range of predatory practices. And although he’s no longer on active duty, he would never, ever make public statements at odds with the beliefs of current Chinese leaders. In fact, folks in his position often float trial balloons for the regime and serve in other ways as unofficial spokespeople.

According to the Post, Long stated that “We want Trump to be re-elected; we would be glad to see that happen.” And why would Beijing prefer to deal with a President who’s imposed tariffs on hundreds of billions of dollars worth of exports on which China depends to achieve adequate growth rates, rather than with Democratic rivals who oppose such measures?

As Long explained, “Trump talks about material interests, not politics.” Further clarifying, he contended that “He makes the US decision-making process efficient and transparent, because he basically says what it is. The pros of [having Trump] outweigh the cons. We don’t need to spend so much time figuring out what Americans want any more, or search for each other’s real thoughts in the dark, like we used to.”

Even more specifically, according to the Post‘s paraphrase, “Despite his fickleness, Trump is a transparent and realistic negotiator who is concerned only with material interests such as forcing China to import more American products, on which Beijing is able to compromise….”

Although Long didn’t use this phrases, it’s clear that he was lauding a Trump trait denounced by the President’s globalist critics – an approach to foreign policy described as “transactional.” In other words, Mr. Trump is more interested in securing relatively immediate, tangible, specific goals when dealing both with allies and adversaries than with more ambitious objectives valued by globalists for their supposed potential to promote U.S. interests most effectively over the long term, whatever the short-term risks or costs – like preserving American alliances and international institutions, and keeping other relationships (i.e., with China) on an even keel. (See this early post-Cold War article of mine for a more complete analysis of such conceptual differences.)

In the process, it’s clear that Long was also endorsing Prestowitz’ belief (which he based on his own personal experiences as a U.S. trade negotiator during the 1980s) that Washington could not hope to succeed with fundamentally different systems like Japan’s (his interlocutor) or, by extension, China, by demanding that these governments agree to American demands for more openness to imports, or broader structural changes that would lead indirectly to better sales for U.S. products and services.

Instead, Washington was much better advised to seek less grandiose but more concrete commitments – specifically, to increase imports by specific amounts.

This shift to “managed trade” or “results-oriented trade” ostensibly horrified the U.S. policy establishment. But the Prestowitz proposal was adopted by former President Ronald Reagan in 1986 in negotiations with Japan over semiconductors, and achieved its objectives of expanding American companies’ share of Japan’s market.

Further, Prestowitz’ main rationale was also echoed in Long’s remarks. He didn’t justify managed trade mainly for the relatively easy verification challenge it presented – although he did emphasize that Washington would be much better able to monitor promises to boost buys of specific products than foreign promises to convert to free trade principles. Nor did Prestowitz stress that such sweeping U.S. demands were unrealistic, and that protectionist countries would respond by simply stonewalling.

Rather, Prestowitz contended that Asian protectionists were genuinely bewildered and frustrated by standard American positions, primarily because the ideas behind them were so alien to their experiences. Similarly, and in line with Long’s views, they didn’t comprehend how negotiations could resolve or bridge differences that ultimately are philosophical or ideological. They much more clearly understood pragmatic haggling over quantities, and Prestowitz argued quite sensibly that superior U.S. leverage could be counted on to persuade these export-dependent economies to treat American imports more generously.

As a result, the implications for Trump trade policy couldn’t be clearer. The United States should drop its demands that China change its policies fundamentally, whether on the intellectual property front or the technology extortion front or the illegal subsidy front or various other non-tariff barrier fronts. (As I’ve previously written, there’s no chance of verifying even genuine Chinese compliance satisfactorily.)

A much better response would be a combination of (1) severely punitive tariffs to make sure that Chinese products benefiting from these practices don’t enter the American market, and harm American-owned producers; and (2) other threatened or imposed tariffs aimed at obliging Beijing to purchase much greater amounts not only of agricultural products, but the full array of advanced manufactured products.  The first set of tariffs would center on those advanced manufactures, the second on more labor-intensive Chinese products – which Beijing relies on heavily to keep employment high enough to keep China’s masses content economically.  

That first set of tariffs would not only prevent U.S.-owned producers from having to deal with heavily subsidized and/or copycat Chinese competition. It would surely prompt China to send these exports elsewhere – and finally pressure the rest of the world to get its own act together in responding to China’s excess capacity building and dumping, rather than relying on the United States to soak up these surpluses.

The second set of tariffs would need to be accompanied by a resolve not to let Beijing off the hook with claims that its own economy simply can’t absorb greater supplies of American goods across the board. Rather than enable China to use free market-oriented excuses after decades of (continuing) state planning and other interventionism, Washington should tell Beijing that, for all the United States cares, it can stick these products into warehouses if genuine customers can’t be found.

This new approach shouldn’t represent the totality of a smarter new U.S.-China economic policy. In particular, the Trump administration should keep sharply restricting Chinese purchases of American hard assets, whether defense-related or not – because why should a basically free market economy welcome state-controlled and bankrolled entities that can only further distort free market forces? And controls on exports or other transfers of advanced technology to Chinese entities will need to be further tightened.

But a shift to managed trade is nothing less than essential. And assuming that Long Tongyu reflects Beijing’s thinking, with enough American consistency and resolve, China would go along before too long.