Comments made by Vice President Pence on his Asia trip concerning America’s trade relations with Japan and South Korea show both the promise and peril of the Trump administration’s approach to international commerce and globalization. Major gains for the economy are possible from negotiating a bilateral trade agreement with Japan and revamping what Mr. Pence described as a failed deal with South Korea. But first, the president and his aides must show more awareness than to date of why accords with countries like these keep failing.
According to candidate Trump, and President Trump, the main problems with such measures have been, variously, incompetent U.S. negotiators, dominance of the policy process by offshoring and similar interests, and a mistaken preference for multilateral arrangements over bilateral deals where America’s leverage is less likely to be watered down.
The second reason for failure cited above has certainly shaped U.S. trade agreements with super low-cost countries that have been tempting locations for production and job offshoring, and that have revealingly comprised the vast majority of trade deals initiated and signed by Washington since the early 1990s. But footloose multinationals have played a much smaller role when it comes to higher income countries like Japan and South Korea. There, achieving better results for the American domestic economy has faced two leading obstacles.
The first has been widely noted: the longstanding tendency of the U.S. leaders to elevate geopolitical aims like strengthening security alliances over economic aims like removing distortions to trade flows. Here, strangely, the administration has been giving off mixed signals lately. The president is now clearly treating the security-related objective of gaining more Chinese cooperation in resolving the North Korea nuclear weapons crisis as a higher priority than combating the numerous predatory Chinese trade policies that have hurt domestic employers and their workers. But he blasted such priorities as recently as last month. And the Pence statements indicate that trade and security issues will be handled on separate tracks for Japan and South Korea.
The second obstacle has been less widely noted – although it’s been a major theme of mine: Opening markets in highly protectionist countries like those Asian powers is fiendishly difficult, at best. As I’ve written, these economies are most accurately seen as nation-wide systems of protection and mercantilism. The particular form taken by any of their trade barriers or subsidies at any given moment matters much less than the underlying intent to manage trade flows to their advantage. In addition, these protectionist systems are run by powerful bureaucracies whose secretiveness and agility makes even identifying problematic practices – much less combating them – excruciatingly difficult.
The bottom line is that trade agreements with such countries are virtually impossible to monitor and enforce effectively, and because their governments know this, the provisions are violated routinely.
By contrast, because the U.S. government is so transparent, almost of America’s trade barriers and subsidies are easy to identify and attack, and American compliance with trade agreements is easy to measure. So it’s easy to see how these agreements strongly tend to create more (and more strongly guaranteed) access to the U.S. market than vice versa. This new report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office shows how these damaging results can stem from multilateral agreements, but the Korea deal spotlighted by Spence and a long string of agreements with Japan show the similarly dismal record of bilateral arrangements.
That’s not to say that worthwhile trade deals with Japan and South Korea are impossible. But they’ll require thinking that’s much further outside the box than the administration seems to be engaged in. The best possibility would be going the managed trade route. That is, rather than accept unverifiable promises to dismantle trade barriers or end subsidies, America’s interlocutors would commit to allot specific shares of their domestic markets to specific U.S.-origin goods and services. There’s even a precedent for this practice – the 1986 semiconductor trade agreement reached between Washington and Tokyo.
Managed trade of course isn’t free trade. But little about Japanese and South Korean policies fits the definition, either. And the history of the semiconductor deal is well known by President Trump’s choice to head the U.S. Trade Representative’s office, Robert Lighthizer, because he was personally and deeply involved.
Another possibility would be to expand one of the few modestly worthwhile leafs from former President Obama’s 2012 trade agreement with South Korea. Precisely because Seoul’s predatory practices in the automobile sector specifically were so difficult to combat via the standard, legalistic procedures used in the dispute-resolution systems in most American free trade agreements (and the international counterpart run by the World Trade Organization), Mr. Obama secured South Korean acceptance of provisions that are especially appropriate in dealings with opaque bureaucracies that prevent significant evidence gathering.
Specifically, if a dispute-resolution panel convened under the agreement decides that Seoul is violating the auto provisions, and the United States restores pre-agreement tariffs on Korean products, it’s up to the Koreans to prove that they’re back in compliance with the treaty before the new tariffs are removed. Even better, however, would be to impose the burden of proof on South Korea, Japan, and similar countries as soon as a complaint is filed.
Yet there’s a strong argument that the very structure of dispute-resolution mechanisms is fatally flawed. Whether the trade agreement in question is bilateral or multilateral, these arrangements treat the United States as an equal party. But given the huge size of the U.S. economy relative to any other trade agreement signatories, and therefore given its status as the paramount prize in any such agreement, this “one country-one vote” set-up is as absurd as it is detrimental to American interests.
Rather than agree to such standard dispute-resolution systems – which invariably result in deadlocks that penalize open economies like America’s – Washington should insist that dispute-resolution votes be allotted more realistically. Basing them on the sizes of the various signatory economies is one obvious formula.
And don’t forget the ultimate America-First trade policy: Dispense with negotiations altogether, or for the most part, and start imposing tariffs on the imports of predatory trading powers, or on all imports (in order to prevent offshore exporters from switching production sites). Of course, that universalism is a big virtue of the border adjustment tax proposed by the House’s Republican leaders. In return, Mr. Trump could offer greater U.S. market access to those countries that prove (after years of good behavior according to exclusively American judgments) that they’re giving American exports a fair shake. This form of unilateralism should have special political appeal for an administration that’s increasingly in need of some big early economic wins.
President Trump (at least the pre-China currency version) has been termed a trade policy disrupter. If he wants to re-earn that label, getting the nation’s Japan and South Korea trade right after decades of frightful losses would be a great place to start.