Normally, it’s bad news for anyone seeking a realistic, sustainable U.S.-China trade policy when a group like private “The U.S.-China Trade Policy Working Group” issues a statement outlining “a new framework for trade negotiations” out of concern that bilateral economic relations “have taken a very concerning turn.”
Such phrases usually signal that the group of supposed experts in question is going to “Blame America First” for the current trade war (albeit with token acknowledgments of problematic Chinese policies) and urge a return to a cosmetically altered pre-Trump status quo. A quintessential example is this July letter to the President and Members of Congress from “members of the scholarly, foreign policy, military and business communities, overwhelmingly from the United States, including many who have focused on Asia throughout our professional careers.” Pessimism seemed especially appropriate given that this latest Working Group is comprised of “economists and legal scholars from China and the United States,” since members from the PRC can be accurately seen only as mouthpieces for the dictators in Beijing.
So I’m as pleased as I am surprised to report that the Group’s October 18 statement reinforces the case for a Trump-ian turn in China policies in two important ways. First, it made clear that, contrary to the economic conventional wisdom, lopsided U.S.-China trade flows (i.e., U.S. trade deficits) are an important, legitimate concern for Americans and their leaders. Second, it echoed increasingly common criticisms that the World Trade Organization (WTO) is a sorely inadequate forum for dealing adequately with these as well as the grave threats to U.S. security created by China’s rapid progress toward superpower status.
Not that the Working Group’s endorsement of a concentration on economic imbalances was emphatic, or even explicit. In fact, it was disappointingly implicit, and justified partly for political, not economic reasons. But nonetheless, endorsement it was, and it came twice, in the following passages:
>”In today’s interdependent global economy, a broad assortment of divergent domestic policies (including policies that have not historically been regulated through WTO rules) can trigger calls to ‘rebalance’ the structure of cross-border market access and trade barriers between countries.”
>”One advantage of [the Group’s proposed new framework for world trade] is that it offers a structure whereby the US and China can, together, make choices about how to rebalance their trading relationship in the future.”
At the same time, some individual Group members have accorded considerably more importance to the bilateral imbalances, both in economic and political terms. For example, University of Cambridge (United Kingdom) economist Meredith A. Crowley wrote in a concurring statement:
“Economic research has documented that the US’s trade policy commitments at the WTO have resulted in a higher level of penetration of the US market by producers based in China than China’s trade policy commitments have generated for producers based in the US. This asymmetry in border policy commitments, in conjunction with changes in technology, domestic and regulatory policies, and the wider economy have resulted in an asymmetry in the real and perceived benefits of the US-China economic relationship between these countries and across groups within the United States.”
And according to Dartmouth College economist Robert W. Staiger:
“US expectations of reciprocal market access expansion into the Chinese market arising from China’s 2001 entry into the WTO have not been met. This requires a rebalancing of the existing WTO market access commitments between the US and China to achieve the degree of reciprocity in these commitments that was intended to arise from their 2001 negotiations.”
Indeed, Staiger both went on to note that the same criticism could be made of the 1994 Uruguay Round global trade agreement that produced some trade barrier cuts along with creating the WTO:
“US expectations of the balance between the internal benefits and costs of its own tariff commitments agreed to at the…Uruguay Round have not materialized. This may require a rethinking and possible renegotiation of some of the Uruguay Round tariff commitments made by the US, subject to the preservation of reciprocity (once achieved) with China and with other US trading partners who would be impacted by this renegotiation.”
His mention of reciprocity as a trade diplomacy goal is noteworthy as well, for although this objective has been sought by the Trump administration and long supported by trade policy critics, it was never a goal enshrined by the WTO (or its predecessor, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade) and is roundly rejected by most economists. (See, e.g., here.)
As for the WTO itself, the Group as a whole made two key observations:
“It has been almost 18 years since China joined the WTO, the system of trade rules and dispute resolution mechanisms that, at that time, defined the state of the art. During the intervening years, the global economy and the technologies that sustain it have changed dramatically, in ways that very few people anticipated at the time”; and
“[T]hese changes have had significant impacts on the international trade ecosystem, and the political leaders of many WTO members have voiced concerns that globalization pursuant to the WTO system is no longer attuned to their countries’ needs.”
As a result, the Group declared its intent to offer an “intellectual framework” that would represent an “alternative” to that which “undergirded the global economy at the time of China’s 2001 Protocol of Accession to the WTO.” (In fairness, the Group has also described its recommendations as an alternative to more recent ideas, emphasizing geopolitical competition, that underlie more recent calls for U.S.-China economic decoupling.)
Most strikingly of all, although Group members clearly would like to preserve as much of the WTO’s multilateral dispute-resolution system as possible (in order to preserve to the great possible extent what they remain confident are the mutual gains resulting from maximum free trade), all are now on record as backing both the United States and China dealing with certain high priority issues “bilaterally outside the WTO framework initially, with subsequent WTO-compliance then achieved through the application of various WTO ‘flexibilities,’ or, in the case of new areas such as digital trade, through the development of new WTO norms.”
And despite the above qualifications to outside-the-WTO bilateralism, the references to “WTO ‘flexibilities’” and to “developing new WTO norms,” can only shrink the trade body’s role and legally accepted authority over the trade policies of both countries.
Unfortunately, the new Working Group report isn’t entirely a good news story for critics of pre-Trump China trade policies – mainly because it says so little about operational details, and what little is said is so unconvincing. For example, it uses a “buckets of policies” methodology to identify practices that the two countries (and the world trade system as a whole) should agree to prohibit or forswear, and practices that all parties concerned should be permitted in the name of sovereignty in general and economic development objectives more specifically.
But even keeping in mind the Group’s recognition that it work is only a start down this road, the suggested standards they propose for classifying practices as permissable and not seem hopelessly subjective. Even regarding rules they consider relatively uncontroversial, what will be the real world difference between “policies [that] cause harm to [another] country…without necessarily taking on a beggar-thy-neighbor character or entailing global economic losses” on the one hand, and on the other, policies that cause harm to another country that do take on a beggar-thy-neighbor character?
Similarly, in terms of the more controversial situations they explore, what’s the real world difference between “cases where Country A’s policies have adverse implications for Country B, but the harm is the incidental consequence of, and not the primary motivation for, those policies” and cases where the harm isn’t incidental and/or the primary motive?
And within these areas, huge definitional questions loom just as large. Like what kinds of compensation for various trade-related offenses will be deemed “adequate” and what kinds of responses considered “well-calibrated”?
The calibration point also brings up another problem never squarely faced by the Group to begin with: What’s the verification mechanism? That’s an especially important omission given China’s long record of violating official commitments. To date, if anyone’s thought of an answer that can adequately safeguard legitimate American interests other than reserving that authority unilaterally to Washington, they’ve very effectively kept it secret.
Moreover, the Group’s approach can be faulted for failing to recognize the systemic nature of China’s assault both on even minimally free market-oriented norms. “Well-calibrated domestic policy adjustments” and “proportionate and well-targeted” remedies sound great until the ease with which China’s vast and secretive bureaucracy can reorganize and rename offending entities is considered.
In fact, the Group seems to try to define the systemic nature of the China threat out of existence, touting the “advantage” created by its framework of “encouraging each country to refrain from aggregating the other’s extraterritorially injurious policies into a single grievance and to refrain from amalgamating extraterritorially injurious policies with other, non-economic concerns.”
Such aggregation is precisely what’s needed to deal with the China challenge satisfactorily from a U.S. standpoint, and avoid being drawn into the mug’s game of responding to offending Chinese behavior episodically.
Moreover, for all the potential benefits of delinking lower from higher hanging fruit, delinking economic concerns and strategic concerns created by Chinese transgressions clashes with the Group’s own recognition of the emergence and multiplication of “dual use” technologies with civilian and crucial military applications.
This U.S.-China Trade Policy Working Group deserves credit for breaking out of some dangerously outdated academic and policy molds. But compared with the growth of the Chinese threat, and the extent to which the economic decoupling it seeks in part to avoid is already proceeding, its work is way behind the times.