Because the Trump administration has for some reason been putting out the specifics on its new “Phase One” trade deal with China in dribs and drabs, information has come out since Friday’s post panning the agreement suggesting that it might be better than first impressions indicated. At the same time, the case for continued skepticism still looks considerably stronger.
Grounds for optimism can be seen in the Fact Sheet on the deal put out late Friday afternoon by the office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR). Most promising: This administration indicates that the President has finally adopted a strategy urged by me last month, originally articulated by former U.S. trade negotiator Clyde V. Prestowitz, Jr. back in the 1980s, and oddly endorsed by a former senior Chinese official recently – in an interview he would never have given had he not been certain that Beijing would at least receptive.
The strategy has been denigrated by critics as “managed trade” – a supposedly foolhardy departure from the standard free trade approach followed by pre-Trump Presidents. Rather than trying to persuade foreign governments to open their markets to American exports and put in effect other free market practices, managed trade seeks to persuade foreign governments to reduce their surpluses with the United States by boosting their purchases by designated amounts. The big advantage: Managed trade efforts permit negotiators to avoid getting bogged down in philosophical debates about the virtues of economic liberalism, or in mudslinging matches over which economies are “fair” and “unfair.” Instead, they focus on unemotional bargaining over numbers. In addition, as Prestowitz has noted (and the senior Chinese official recently confirmed), Asian governments in particular are much more comfortable haggling over “how much” than preaching ethics and other intangibles.
The President’s interest in managed trade has been evident since he began pushing the Chinese to resume by certain amounts blocked purchases of soybeans and other agricultural commodities. But according to the Fact Sheet, China has not only consented to hit specific targets in its imports of farm products and energy goods like natural gas. (USTR Robert Lighthizer on Friday told reporters that Chinese farm products imports would rise over the next two years by a total of some $16 billion a year over the 2017 figure of $24 billion.) Beijing has also committed to “import various U.S. goods and services [including the agricultural buys] over the next two years in a total amount that exceeds China’s annual level of imports for those goods and services in 2017 by no less than $200 billion.” Even better, these purchases will include manufactures.
If these promises are kept, the massive U.S. merchandise trade deficit with China will shrink considerably, and American output and employment will grow. And the greater the share of manufactured products in this total, the higher quality the growth and the better the jobs.
But what will the manufacturing numbers be? Lighthizer has said that broad target figures will be released. But if it can already quantify China’s pledges to boost agriculture imports, why not for industry? Is it because Chinese promises in these areas haven’t been nailed down? And what’s the deal with the reference to targets? Does it mean that China is free to fall short for certain reasons? For any reasons?
Lighthizer explained the failure to divulge more detailed, product-by-product numbers even for agriculture by pointing to the need to “avoid distorting markets.” On the one hand, this worry isn’t unreasonable. On the other, the secrecy won’t make it any easier for any Americans without a vested political stake in claiming victory or success to assess progress with any precision.
More ominously, Lighthizer said that China would be free to buy things when “it’s the perfect time in the market to buy things.” That sounds suspiciously like the objection China originally raised when pressed to buy more farm products as part of the Phase One deal – i.e., purchases that ignored levels of Chinese domestic demand would make no economic sense, “might be hard for the domestic market to digest,” and would sharply depress local prices.
Of course, the response to these points needs to be that China has never let free market forces interfere with its mercantile trade policy goals before. Therefore, this is no time to start swallowing this kind of excuse. Indeed, if Beijing is so worried about supporting the prices received by local producers for any good, it can keep them off the market by stuffing the excess imports into warehouses. That’s not America’s problem.
Unfortunately, the Lighthizer statement indicates that the Trump administration has decided to accept this bogus Chinese rationale – which threatens to permit China to insist indefinitely that the time just isn’t ripe to buy all those extra American products called for in the deal. And with China’s growth likely to slow further for the foreseeable future, expect this claim to be trotted out frequently.
Also suspicious: If the United States has secured Chinese agreement to ramp up agriculture imports greatly, why did the agreement need to address “a multitude of [Chinese] non-tariff barriers to U.S. agriculture and seafood products…including for meat, poultry, seafood, rice, dairy, infant formula, horticultural products, animal feed and feed additives, pet food, and products of agriculture biotechnology.”
After all, as long as the promised results keep coming in for American agricultural producers, who cares what Chinese trade barriers remain officially in place? And if the U.S. team did bother to negotiate these provisions to ensure adequate market access for U.S.-based producers once the two years apparently covered by the agreement run out, then this is more a temporary fix than a big win for the American sectors affected.
What about the other structural issues – the intellectual property theft, the technology extortion, and other predatory Chinese practices that threaten both American national security as well as prosperity? The Fact Sheet remains distressingly vague.
For the former, we’re told only that the agreement “addresses numerous longstanding concerns.”
For the latter, the administration claims the establishment of “binding and enforceable obligations to address several of the unfair technology transfer practices of China that were identified” by its prior investigation of Chinese economic predation.” These entail Chinese agreement to end demanding cutting edge knowhow in return for access to the Chinese market and other benefits, and a Chinese commitment “to provide transparency, fairness, and due process in administrative proceedings and to have technology transfer and licensing take place on market terms.”
But how will these Chinese promises be monitored and enforced? How will “transparency, fairness, and due process” be defined?
And speaking of enforcement, it’s encouraging that the agreement “establishes strong procedures for addressing disputes related to the agreement” and in particular “allows each party to take proportionate responsive actions that it deems appropriate.”
Yet how long will it take for the procedures to reach the point at which Washington gains the right to punish Chinese violations with tariffs? One major criticism of the World Trade Organization (WTO) has been that many years often have passed between the initial filing of complaints till judgments were handed down determining that transgressions had indeed taken place, and authorizing tariffs unless the offending actions were halted. Although the Face Sheet promises resolving disputes “expeditiously,” it’s far from clear yet that the Phase One arrangements will be able to achieve this goal.
In addition, will Beijing enjoy similar authority to determine American violations of Phase One, and to levy punitive tariffs if it’s “deemed appropriate” by China? Moreover, whenever either side concludes that a violation has taken place, what in the agreement, if anything, will prevent the other side from retaliating.
And if the answer is “nothing,” then how would post-Phase One U.S.-China economic relations differ from those relations today – since each country would appear to be as free legally speaking as it is now practically speaking to deal with problems it blames on the other however it wishes, and to respond to any resulting tariffs with whatever countermeasures it chooses?
The Phase One deal is no cave-in to China, as many have claimed. The high tariffs remaining on most products imported from China belie that description. Nor does it matter whether China’s dictators believe they’ve outwitted or intimidated Mr. Trump, and therefore that they can keep resisting his demands for improved behavior – since the towering obstacles will prevent adequately verifying even the most forthcoming Chinese promises of reform.
Instead, the deal is mainly a lost opportunity; indeed a big one. Moreover, it raises the crucial question of when the President will finally start downplaying – at least – the consequently futile efforts to negotiate a better trade and broader economic relationship between the United States and China, and start emphasizing the need to keep moving down the road toward what should be the overriding goal of decoupling.