Yesterday alone produced a news item that provides important grounds for hope that America’s policy toward China might finally be getting coherent, and one that shows that Mainstream Media coverage of international trade issues remains almost determinedly brain-dead. And conveniently, both items concern developments recently reported on by RealityChek.
The first came in The Wall Street Journal, and describes some important new provisions in legislation proceeding through Congress that would update the federal government’s standards for approving or blocking prospective foreign proposals to take over U.S. businesses with defense-related implications. The current process for screening such investment enables Washington to nix (and this is just an obvious hypothetical example) a Russian or Chinese proposal to buy a company that makes jet fighter craft.
Most cases examined by the inter-agency group that makes recommendations to the President for final action (the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, or CFIUS) aren’t such easy calls, which is precisely why lawmakers seem determined to expand the grounds for blocking potentially dangerous takeovers. That’s an idea I’ve long favored.
But at least as important is a provision in the bill that addresses a problem I’ve written on, but that Washington has been slow to recognize – even under the Trump administration. That’s the growing tendency of American technology companies to share their best knowhow with partners in places like China. In some cases, the U.S. firms voluntarily hand over the keys to these kingdoms. In others, they invest capital in Chinese start-ups and other ventures.
It’s true that the United States maintains a system for controlling exports of national security-related technology to problematic countries like China. But the proliferation of these corporate transfers and investments makes clear it’s too sieve-like. And plugging holes is particularly important now because China has so aggressively challenged America’s position as the lead power in the economically vibrant East Asia-Pacific region.
I’ve long opposed the U.S. strategy of maintaining major military forces in this far-off area decades after the Cold War’s end in order to fend off the Chinese and North Koreans. But if American leaders stay determined to ignore my advice (!), it’s nonsensical to keep pushing for bigger and bigger military budgets and stronger forces (in part to buttress its East Asia strategy) while allowing American companies in effect to help China strengthen the military against which Americans may fight. So let’s hope Congress sends a CFIUS reform bill to President Trump’s desk tout de suite.
The second, more dispiriting news item came from Reuters, and dealt with those tariffs Mr. Trump last week imposed on certain imported washing machines from South Korea. As I wrote on January 24, these actions seemed to infect officials in South Carolina with a case of Trade Derangement Syndrome – the utter mindlessness produced by announcements or fears of even small-scale restrictions on trade flows. In this case, South Carolina officials were criticizing the tariff decision even though it undoubtedly led one South Korean manufacturer – Samsung – to announce that it would begin producing washing machines in the Palmetto State, thereby avoiding the tariffs and creating hundreds of jobs for South Carolinians.
Yesterday, Reuters reported similarly looney reactions on the part of the other South Korean company fingered – LG Electronics. LG, too, clearly has been convinced by the prospect of tariffs to manufacture some of its products in the United States – in this case, in Tennessee. But the company clearly is not thrilled with the prospect. It’s grousing that, because of the tariffs, it will need to raise the prices it charges American consumers.
That’s pretty par for the course – though has anyone who’s bought a major appliance lately seen many producers or retailers that are full of confidence that they can charge more? But what was completely doofy was what the company spokesperson quoted by Reuters reporter David Lawder (with a figurative straight face) said next. He fretted that the price increase could cost the company market share, therefore reducing the demand for the new Tennessee factory’s products and for local workers. And then he noted that the costs could be long-lasting: “If you lose floor space at retail, it can take years to get it back.”
I don’t blame the LG spokesperson for trying to drum up American opposition to the tariffs any way possible. But maybe Lawder could have asked him why on earth the company would take actions that it’s admitting would lose it money – for “years”? Or pointed out that these adverse consequences do a great job of explaining why LG is not remotely likely to raise prices? Instead, Lawder simply permitted the LG flack to get away with arrant nonsense – and reinforced my claim that nothing, but nothing, is as badly, and as tendentiously covered by the media as anything having to do with international trade.