Time to scotch two myths that have come up recently about U.S.-China relations that are close to a class in themselves in terms of weirdness.
Myth Number One: President Trump is clinging to the “Phase One” trade deal he signed in January because he thinks its continuation is crucial to his reelection.
No less than every single reason cited is wrong. First is the suggestion that it’s a lousy deal but that Trump needs it because it’s one of the only results of his China or overall trade record that can be called an “accomplishment” to any extent.
Actually, even leaving aside Mr. Trump’s record of significant success in disentangling the U.S. economy from China’s (which admittedly isn’t universally viewed as a plus), the trade deal is undoubtedly a major success on terms every American except agents of the multinational Offshoring Lobby should cheer. As I’ve explained, it not only committed China to buying an enormous amount of U.S. goods way above and beyond what its import patterns suggested. It also contained an ingenious enforcement system likely to hold China’s feet to the fire by leaving Beijing only the option of pulling out of the entire deal if it’s dissatisfied with any U.S.actions – including new American tariffs to punish China for treaty violations.
In sharp contrast to their predecessors under pre-Trump administrations, the President’s negotiators acted like they understood that China’s heavy dependence on exporting to the U.S. market would prevent Beijing from walking away – for fear of losing any remaining access. But because the United States needs China’s market much less, a U.S. withdrawal would be a supremely credible threat.
It’s true, as so many critics have charged, that China’s promises in the Phase One deal to cease or cut back on its wide-ranging predatory trade and related practices are pretty general. But the lopsided nature of the enforcement mechanism provides a great way to solve this problem. If Washington decides that Beijing isn’t living up to even vague promises, it can retaliate however harshly it wishes. The only legal option open to China is ending the entire agreement. None of the kinds of tit-for-tat retaliations that Beijing used so skillfully to spark domestic U.S. complaints about the President’s earlier tariffs are authorized. If China tries going down this road, it would likely face even stiffer U.S. tariffs.
Slightly more reasonable – but only slightly – have been observations that Mr. Trump urgently needs the extra Chinese purchases to sustain his claim of guiding the American economy to impressive levels of prosperity. Make no mistake: The export promises specified in Phase One represent valuable, production-based growth opportunities – the more so since 40 percent of those exports were specified to be manufactures, which add so much value to the American economy, as well as create so many family wage jobs.
But the economy – including the trade-sensitive manufacturing sector – was climbing out of a soft patch by the end of last year. Now that the CCP Virus has induced a prolonged national economic shutdown, any growth boost would of course be welcome, including from exports to China. But the downturn has been so gargantuan, and so heavily concentrated in the personal services sectors, that China trade has receded far into the background for the time being. Nor will it matter much to any substantial recovery – which will mainly require a rebound in those same personal services.
But couldn’t a collapse of the Phase One deal – for whatever reason – still threaten the President’s cherished goal of a strongly rising stock market? No, and because investors also appear aware of the trade deal’s marginality to the real economy for time being – and, it seems, especially keenly. In fact, their behavior as Sino-American tensions have risen recently for all sorts of reasons (the virus, China’s apparently impending further crackdown on Hong Kong) contrasts strikingly with their reactions to the trade war’s previous ups and downs. Then, they traded – often frantically – on the resulting headlines. Since the March bottom, though, it’s been a decidedly seller’s market.
Which leads to the second myth that should be headed for the circular file – that the Chinese know they have the upper hand on the President at least during this election year, and that they’re about to use an obscure clause in the deal to get them off the import hook. I’ve always doubted that anyone outside top Chinese leadership circles has any handle on what’s going on and being thought in Chinese leadership circles.
Luckily, howeve, there’s no need for entrails-reading. What matters most of all are Chinese actions. And the record shows that Beijing has never brought up the so-called force majeure clause (see Article 7.6 at the very end of the treaty text), which could enable China to suspend promised increases of imports due to extraordinary circumstances like the virus – which continues to take a heavy toll on its own economy. Indeed, at the recent meeting of China’s rubberstamp legislature, Premier Li Keqiang, second in command to China’s supremo Xi Jinping, explicitly affirmed China’s commitment to meet its Phase One obligations.
Because that legislature has now passed the newly proposed Hong Kong crackdown law, Mr. Trump will face the challenge of developing a response. His options are wide-ranging, and predicting them seems a thankless task. What does seem certain is that his choices will be accompanied by a new round of bizarre China policy myths.