One of the biggest questions surrounding the future of the Republican Party, and in turn of American politics, is how many leading GOP politicians learn the main lessons of the Trump victory in 2016. In my view, these include the political appeal and real-world imperative of a nationalist approach to American economic policy, especially in the realms of international trade and immigration.
President Trump’s capture of even most of his party’s establishment on the latter could not be clearer. But signs of populism’s growing appeal are also emerging in the former, and one of the biggest has just come courtesy of Marco Rubio. In fact, legislation recently introduced by the Florida Republican and Trump rival for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination strongly indicates that, when it comes to the crucial issue of China, Rubio is out-Trumping Mr. Trump.
Rubio’s journey has been a far as it has been high-speed. His voting record on trade policy overall has been awful – at least from an economic nationalist/populist standpoint. In fact, according to the libertarian Cato Institute, the only blemishes on his record so far have come from his support for federal subsidies for sugar – a crop grown in his home state. As a result, in the fall of 2015, I dismissed him as a typical Republican pseudo-hawk on China.
That is, he talked tough about the need to confront China’s expansionism in the East Asia/Pacific region. But he seemed oblivious to how decades of American trade policy had showered the People’s Republic with literally trillions of dollars worth of hard currency, along with cutting-edge technology voluntarily transferred by, and extorted with impunity from, American companies. In other words, he did and said nothing about U.S. decisions that unmistakably had helped China become a formidable military as well as economic power.
Fast forward to this year, and what a change – at least on China. In addition to criticizing President Trump for backing away from his own Commerce Department’s initial decision to all-but shut down the Chinese telecoms firm ZTE for (repeat) sanctions busting, he’s just introduced legislation that represents the most comprehensive effort I’ve yet seen to deal holistically with the intertwined Chinese threats to America’s economy and national security.
Rubio’s “Fair Trade with China Enforcement Act” contains numerous important measures to staunch the flow of money and defense-related tech to China. (Here’s a summary from his office.) Provisions that represent major and needed advancements in America’s strategy are:
> a prohibition on the the voluntary corporate transfer of technology to a wide range of explicitly named technologies subsidized by the Chinese government, including in the Made in China 2025 program aiming to achieve Chinese predominance in numerous economically and militarily critical technologies. That is, Rubio recognizes that tech extortion (conditioning access to the Chinese market on a company’s willingness to share knowhow with Chinese partners) isn’t the only way that Beijing has been closing the tech gap with the United States. American companies seeking to curry favor with China on their own, or simply recognizing the importance of locating R&D and related activities in close proximity to their manufacturing, have also fueled China’s power.
> a requirement that U.S. trade law recognize that any Chinese product headed for the American market that’s from an industry mentioned in any Chinese document even related to the Made in China 2025 plan is ipso facto receiving subsidies the kinds of subsidies that these statutes consider illegal; and that this same body of trade law just as automatically assume that such goods are actually injuring or threatening to injure U.S.-based competitors when they enter the American market. Translation into plain English: Rubio’s bill would dramatically lower the bar for imposing tariffs on imports from China deemed to be unfairly traded. Which would be one heckuva lot of imports from China.
> a ban on investors from China owning more than fifty percent of any American company producing goods targeted by Made in China 2025 – which would restrict another major channel of tech transfer to China;
> and a new tax on Chinese investments in the United States – including levies on Chinese purchases of American Treasury debt. The latter measure, in particular, would discourage China from buying excessive levels of U.S. government debt, which keeps China’s yuan weak versus the American dollar and therefore helps to put U.S.-made goods at price disadvantages versus their Chinese made counterparts wherever they compete.
Incidentally, a proposal along these lines was first made, to my knowledge, by Raymond, Howard, and Jesse Richman in their 2008 book Trading Away our Future. So they deserve a big shout-out.
Rubio’s bill isn’t perfect. For example, it should be clear by now that any Chinese entity permitted to bid for American assets is tightly controlled by the Chinese government. Therefore, I would favor banning all such takeovers. Even if existing acquisitions were permitted, Washington would at least be freezing the Chinese state’s economic footprint in the United States, and thereby preventing ever more American businesses from having to compete with rivals whose operations have nothing to do with the free market values the nation rightly values.
In addition, Rubio’s bill says nothing about American tech companies’ growing predilection for investing in Chinese tech “start-ups” and similar entities. Some of these investments are surely extorted, but others seem to be voluntary. But since all of them can help strengthen China’s tech capabilities, they should be banned as well if the recipients have any connection with Made in China 2025.
Finally, Rubio still seems pretty comfortable with the rest of America’s longstanding trade liberalization policies except for the impact of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) on Florida produce growers.
At the same time, China policy inevitably shapes so much of trade policy that Rubio’s single-minded focus to date can’t reasonably be criticized. Further, he seems to understand that it’s not enough simply to introduce a bill. Rubio’s been taking it the next step by lobbying for it, and for related China policy changes, actively in the media – both broadcast and print. He still needs to show a willingness to buttonhole his colleagues actively – the most important form of Capitol Hill lobbying. But (paradoxically) his leadership on 2013’s decidedly non-nationalist or populist Gang of Eight immigration bill at least indicates he recognizes the importance of this test.
I’ve often wondered whether American politics can produce a leader with both the populist leanings of an outsider and the insider-type institutional expertise and contacts needed to turn these impulses into actual change. Rubio’s China bill and the policy migration it represents looks like major grounds for optimism.