Despite my strong interest in U.S.-China trade issues, I’d originally decided not to post on chief U.S. trade official Katherine Tai’s Monday speech on the Biden administration’s strategy for these challenges for two main reasons. One, her remarks were widely (and reasonably well) covered by major news organizations; and two, the big news they revealed was, as expected (including by me), making clear that the Trump administration’s sweeping and often steep tariffs on Chinese goods would remain in place for the foreseeable future.
Since then, however, the think tank that hosted the event (the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Strategic and International Studies) has posted not only her presentation as delivered, but the transcript of a lengthy Q&A session that followed. And those exchanges, along with passages from her speech that have received little attention, shed lots of new light on a great many other significantly promising points about the Biden China trade approach that Tai only touched on in her speech, and one-and-a-half points that are still worrisome.
The grounds for encouragement?
First, Tai made an especially forceful and pointed argument that the pre-Trump China trade and broader economic policies (which Biden strongly supported as a Senator and as Barack Obama’s Vice President) had been a major failure. In her prepared text’s words, “For too long, China’s lack of adherence to global trading norms has undercut the prosperity of Americans and others around the world.”
In addition, China’s predatory policies (my term, not hers)
“have reinforced a zero-sum dynamic in the world economy where China’s growth and prosperity come at the expense of workers and economic opportunity here in the U.S. and other market-based democratic economies. And that is why we need to take a new, holistic, and pragmatic approach in our relationship with China that can actually further our strategic and economic objectives for the near term and the long term.”
In other words, after decades of promises and hopes that commerce between the two countries would become a winning proposition for both (as mainstream economists also insisted), the Biden administration has officially declared such interactions to have been win-lose – with the United States and especially its workers the losers.
Indeed, Tai wasn’t even close to being finished horrifying the economic mainstream or the corporate China Lobby. She pointedly refused to call Trump’s January, 2020 Phase One trade deal a “failure,” and declared that even though it “did not meaningfully address the fundamental concerns that we have with China’s trade practices and their harmful impacts on the U.S. economy,” it ”is useful and has had value in stabilizing the relationship.”
In addition, going forward, Tai told her audience that more trade Trump-ism was likely. She indicated that the administration might approve a new Trump-like initiative to impose new tariffs to enforce Phase One more effectively. She also poured decidedly cool water on the idea that the President would move to join a Pacific Basin trade deal (now called the “Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership” or CPTPP) touted as a means of containing China, but nixed by Trump partly because its rules created wide open backdoors for goods with lots of China content.
More broadly, Tai signalled that the United States was now perfectly fine with dispensing with free trade orthodoxy in practice much of the time in favor of “managed trade” – which a questioner defined correctly as “governments setting targets [for exports and imports] and trying to achieve them” and which was embodied in China’s Phase One commitments (not yet satisfied) to boost buys of U.S. imports. ‘
Tai depicted such arrangements as having “evolved out of a frustration with the previous model. [which she described as “let’s seek market access and then, you know, let the chips fall where they may.”] And so the question that I bring to this issue that you’ve presented is not ideologically how do I feel about it, but what is actually going to present results and what is actually going to be effective.”
And she plainly portrayed them in a much more favorable light than the notion of relying on the World Trade Organization (WTO), which trade policy traditionalists have fetishized as the globe’s best hope for creating an international trade system that promoted free and fair competition through a set of detailed rules and regulations, along with a supposedly impartial legal system for resolving disputes.
In Tai’s words, however, “We brought 27 cases against China, including some I litigated myself, and through collaboration with our allies. We secured victories in every case that was decided. Still, even when China changed the specific practices we challenged, it did not change the underlying policies, and meaningful reforms by China remained elusive.”
As a result, Tai said, “as much as we will continue to invest and commit and try to innovate in terms of being a member at the WTO and seeking to bring reform to the WTO…we also need to be agile and to be open-minded and to think outside of the box with respect to how we can be more effective in addressing the concerns that we really have been struggling to address with China on trade.”
In addition,Tai also surely shocked her audience (and yours truly – pleasantly) by openly questioning the decades-long bipartisan push to increase U.S. exports to China:
“I think that part of the story of the U.S.-China trade relationship over these recent few decades has been about this thirst on the part of our business sector in particular for increased market access to China. In business sector I include our agriculture sector, obviously. You know, I think along the traditional lines of the way we’ve thought about trade and how benefits come from trade, it has been very focused on securing market access. I think that what we’ve seen is our traditional approach to trade has run into a lot of realities that are today causing us to open our eyes and think about, is what we’re looking for more liberalized trade and just more trade or are we looking for smarter and more resilient trade?”
With China facing mounting economic troubles due largely to its Ponzi-like real estate housing system and a stagnating population, that’s a valuable warning for American producers who still expect China to keep growing spectacularly and to offer gigantic, ever-expanding new markets for their goods and services.
Nonetheless, Tai specified that the Biden administration isn’t on board with widespread calls to decouple America’s economy from China’s:
“I think that the concern, maybe the question is whether or not the United States and China need to stop trading with each other. I don’t think that’s a realistic outcome in terms of our global economy. I think that the issue perhaps is, what are the goals we’re looking for in a kind of re-coupling? How can we have a trade relationship with China where we are occupying strong and robust positions within the supply chain and that there is a trade that’s happening as opposed to a dependency?”
I understand Tai’s reluctance to embrace decoupling openly. It runs too great a risk of making life in China for U.S. companies doing entirely ordinary, unobjectionable business there even harder than it’s already become, especially lately. But the reference to “re-coupling” struck me as totally unnecessary – and as unrealistic as the notion that Washington is skilled enough to preserve just as many connections to make sure that bilateral commerce does serve mutual legitimate interests, but not so many as to maintain or worsen dangerous dependencies on China, or increase its economic and technological power.
And Tai’s speech lauded the Biden aim of dealing with the China economic and technology challenges in concert with U.S. allies way too enthusiastically. As I’ve written, my prime worry has always been that priotizing this kind of multilateral approach will force the US to accept lowest-common-denominator measures that will always be sorely inadequate because so many of these allies depend so heavily on trading with and investing in China.
Nevertheless, Tai declared that “vitally, we will work closely with our allies and likeminded partners towards building truly fair international trade that enables healthy competition,” and even called this approach “the core of our strategy” on China and trade generally.
As I’ve written, U.S. Trade Representatives are rarely the last word on trade policy. So whatever Tai’s just said, I’m still not ruling out the possibility that the President will use some pretext (promises of climate change progress?) to bring back the bad old days. Certainly, that’s what Wall Street and multinational businesses want. But these Tai observations have made such a U-turn much more difficult politically. And if you agree with my cynical view that politics (mainly due to growing American public hostility toward China) and not principle is what’s produced Mr. Biden’s unexpectedly Trumpy positions toward the People’s Republic, that ain’t bean bag.