The “Phase One” min-deal reached by the United States and China tamping down bilateral trade tensions for the moment, speaks volumes about the three major forces that are now driving President Trump’s China policy, and that will keep shaping it through the next U.S. election – though not always in consistent ways. They are:
>the President’s evident belief that his reelection hopes are being threatened mainly by revived impeachment threats but also by an economic slowdown that has unmistakably been influenced by the so-called trade war with China;
>his consequently increased need for political support from the establishment Republicans so numerous in Congress who have never boarded the Trump Tariff Train and who are worried about their own reelection chances next year; and
>Mr. Trump’s consistent (though generally unstated) belief that no matter how the formal trade talks proceed, America’s national security as well as economic interests require the U.S. economy to continue steadily decoupling from China’s.
The strength of the impeachment drive faced by the president is now indisputable. Some polls are even showing growing Republican support for not only impeachment by the House but removal by the Senate. Moreover, this political challenge comes at a time when the President’s strongest suit by far (at least according to polls) – his economic policy record – is looking somewhat weaker.
Few signs point to a recession breaking out by Election Day, much less during the preceding weeks or months. But growth has been slowing to levels that Mr. Trump himself has deemed unacceptable – in no small measure because they were the rates that prevailed for most of the Obama administration.
The tariff-heavy Trump trade policies hardly deserve all the blame. (See, e.g., this recent post.) But the failure of business investment to stay elevated following passage of major tax cuts for business is especially telling. It buttresses claims that both the President’s various sets of tariffs and the inconsistency with which they’ve been both threatened and applied have inhibited companies from approving big new expenditures on new factories and other facilities.
As a result, nothing that can reasonably be expected from Washington (in other words, ruling out a big infrastructure spending bill) is likelier to boost the economy more than a nerve-calming trade truce with China mainly featuring some Chinese market opening or re-opening (especially for agricultural products) in return for some U.S. tariff cuts, promises to refrain from new levies, or some some combination of such moves. At the least, such an agreement would in theory help growth maintain the momentum it has remaining.
A mini-deal along these lines would also please the Senate Republicans who might ultimately judge the President’s fate, and who generally have lagged far behind the GOP base in turning against pre-Trump China and broader trade policies. Moreover, as I’ve written, impeachment politics have greatly magnified their sway over Mr. Trump before. Despite his sky-high popularity with Republican voters, the President was heavily dependent on their political backing until this spring in order to neutralize any impeachment chances while his Russia ties were being investigated. That’s surely why his early policy initiatives were dominated by traditional Republican priorities, like tax cuts and repeal of former President Barack Obama’s healthcare overhaul, rather than by populist priorities like an infrastructure bill and the prompt imposition to tariffs.
Once the Special Counsel and other investigations flopped for various reasons, Mr. Trump had a much freer hand. But because of the emergence of “UkraineGate,” for now, those days are over. Probes growing out of those events are certain to last for months. Therefore, continued, much less higher, tariffs on China that could further drag on the economy and further frustrate the rural constituencies so crucial to the President and many other Republicans seem out of the question.
The President is so hamstrung that he’s been unable to marshal greater public support for staying the tariff course even though China is antagonizing American public opinion with its harsh suppression of the Hong Kong protests and the Muslim Uighur minority, and with its heavy handed efforts to extend its censorship practices to the National Basketball Association and other U.S. businesses. And don’t forget: These developments have placed China in a much weaker position, too.
One reason that the President hasn’t been able to capitalize could well be his reluctance to declare publicly the functional equivalent of economic war, or his intent to decouple – presumably because any such statements would prompt the Chinese to crack down even further on American companies even doing business in the PRC that have nothing to do with job and production offshoring aimed at serving the U.S. market from super-cheap and highly subsidized Chinese facilities, as opposed to serving Chinese customers. And that reasoning has been entirely understandable.
Much less understandable – the President’s insistence that a trade war with China would be easy to win and inflict no economic harm on Americans, rather than choosing to challenge his compatriots to endure some sacrifices in order to beat back a mortal threat to their national security as well as prosperity. No wonder public support for so-called hard-line policies remotely strong enough to offset the opposition and reservations of the Congressional Republicans and most Democratic politicians is nowhere to be seen.
And don’t doubt that the Chinese fully understand. Whatever problems they initially experienced in figuring Mr. Trump out, they surely have concluded that they’re best advised to play the waiting game on the broader and deeper so-called structural issues dividing the two countries (e.g., intellectual property theft, technology extortion, massive subsidies) until the President is replaced by a Democrat who’s much easier to deal with.
Indeed, the evidence for this conclusion is abundant. China issues have played a small role in the Democratic primary campaign so far – even when it comes to long-time critics of pre-Trump trade policies like Democratic Socialist Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren. One likely explanation: In recent years, Democratic voters and leaners have markedly flipped on those pre-Trump approaches, from deep dislike to general approval. This shift in public opinion (matched in part by a trade flip in the other direction among Republicans and leaners) may also warrant some Chinese confidence that even a President Warren might prove a more acceptable interlocutor than Mr. Trump.
Nonetheless, the formal talks are not the only track on which the Trump administration’s China trade policies are running. And the other track – featuring unilateral U.S. moves to restrict Chinese involvement in the American economy, and thereby foster decoupling – is much less controversial than the trade talks and especially the tariffs and tariff threats clearly required to spur any meaningful progress.
Highly revealing on this score (in terms of the importance attached in Washington to decoupling): Even as a high level Chinese delegation was jetting to Washington, the President approved actions against Chinese tech companies and Chinese officials that were justified by human rights concerns, but that in the first case clearly advanced decoupling. Just as revealing (in terms of possible Chinese acceptance of a more skeptical new bipartisan U.S. consensus on China policy): Despite the provocative timing, the Chinese didn’t turn around and head back home once they heard the announcement.
Reinforcing the new American consensus on decoupling has unmistakably been the growing realization by the U.S. corporate sector that its heavy bets on China have dangerously increased its vulnerability not only to the whims of American politics, but to a Chinese regime that’s turned out to be much less hospitable than expected. As a result, “Phase One” is not only a suspiciously convenient-looking term being used by the President to describe his new deal. It also looks suitable for describing where his administration’s overall China policy stands right now.