China Hardens Trade Stance as Talks Enter New Phase

Chinese negotiators emboldened by perception U.S. was willing to compromise

The hardened battle lines were prompted by Beijing’s decision to take a more aggressive stance in negotiations, according to the people following the talks. They said Beijing was emboldened by the perception that the U.S. was ready to compromise.

  1. In particular, these people said, Mr. Trump’s hectoring of Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell to cut interest rates was seen in Beijing as evidence that the president thought the U.S. economy was more fragile than he claimed.
  2. Beijing was further encouraged by Mr. Trump’s frequent claim of friendship with Chinese President Xi Jinping and by Mr. Trump’s praise for Chinese Vice Premier Liu He for pledging to buy more U.S. soybeans.

An April 30 tweet, in which Mr. Trump coupled criticism of Mr. Powell with praise of Chinese economic policy, especially caught the eye of senior officials. “China is adding great stimulus to its economy while at the same time keeping interest rates low,” Mr. Trump tweeted. “Our Federal Reserve has incessantly lifted interest rates.”

Why would you be constantly asking the Fed to lower rates if your economy is not turning weak,” said Mei Xinyu, an analyst at a think tank affiliated with China’s Commerce Ministry. If the U.S.’s resolve was weakening, the thinking in Beijing went, the U.S. would be more willing to cut a deal, even if Beijing hardened its positions.

That assessment, however, flies in the face of a strong U.S. economy. Gross domestic product in the first quarter rebounded from the end of 2018, with growth clocking in at a seasonally adjusted annualized rate of 3.2%, up from 2.2% the prior quarter. The jobs report for April, released on Friday, showed the unemployment rate falling to 3.6%, the lowest in nearly 50 years.

But at the same time, China’s economy has stabilized this year following months of weakness. Although China’s exports dropped unexpectedly in April, its first-quarter growth came in at 6.4%, beating market expectations. The generally improving economic picture gave Beijing more confidence in trade talks, as did a recent conference on the country’s vast infrastructure-spending program, called the Belt and Road Initiative, which was attended by about 40 heads of government and state.

Chinese leaders saw the conference turnout “as China has more leverage to improve relations with other countries and with the U.S. business community,” said Brookings Institution China specialist Cheng Li. “It made them play hardball.”

If China misread the signals—and vice versa—it wouldn’t be the first time.

The history of U.S.-China trade negotiations is filled with misunderstandings, as the two nations, with very different political systems, struggle to figure out each other’s intentions.

.. In another apparent sign of mixed signals, Trump administration officials had thought they had made it clear that they were weary of negotiations and that it was time for Beijing to make specific commitments to change laws, including adding protections for intellectual property and barring the forced transfer of U.S. technology.

As talks resume Thursday, one big question mark is whether China will agree to U.S. demands for changes in Chinese law to implement the trade deal. Beijing maintains this would impinge on Chinese sovereignty and take too long to implement, but Beijing had made similar commitments in prior trade deals, including those it signed to join the WTO in 2001.

U.S. officials say Beijing has failed to make good on those commitments, while China has promised to further liberalize its economy.

“The U.S. is correct to seek a multiprong approach of not relying solely on commitments but also actually changes to the laws, so as to ensure Chinese leadership intentions are fully conveyed down to all local levels of government,” said Harvard Law Professor Mark Wu.

U.S. Can Destroy Huawei

Catch-up is how economists explain the success of China and other fast-growing developing economies. Not having to invent the wheel, the microchip or the theory of continuous improvement is a distinct advantage over having to invent them.

This is not a small part of the Huawei story. Its rise in 32 years to be the world’s largest telecom-equipment manufacturer and the second largest maker of smartphones is a story of catch-up—of learning from the West, but also stealing from the West. Or to put it more politely, Huawei has taken advantage of the fact that Beijing is not interested in enforcing the intellectual-property rights of foreigners under Chinese law.

An early Huawei router design was shown to have been filched from Cisco, right down to copying the typos in the instruction manual. This week a U.S. criminal indictment piggybacking on a successful private lawsuit by T-Mobile shows persuasively that Huawei stole the design of a robot, known as Tappy, for testing the durability of cell phones.

Nobody in his right mind thinks these episodes are exceptions. Nobody even needed these episodes to suspect that Huawei’s spectacular success has not been the product entirely of its own ingenuity and hard work (though these have been considerable). U.S. and other Western companies also vigorously “learn” from each other right up to the limit prescribed by our patent laws. In China, there is no limit. Stealing is regarded as a national development strategy and patriotic duty. The U.S. indictment alleges that Huawei even offered bonuses to employees who successfully purloined a competitor’s trade secrets.

This might seem clever, but it points to a problem for China’s own development—and not only because it antagonizes trade partners. China wants higher-order technology and investment from the West. It won’t come if trade secrets aren’t honored and enforced. China’s own firms cannot develop to their potential, at home or globally, if their own intellectual property isn’t secure even as they are distrusted abroad as agents of Chinese spying.

Which brings us to the growing tranche of U.S. legal actions directed at Huawei. We might prefer that prosecution of its chief financial officer, Meng Wanzhou, now awaiting extradition from Canada, were over something other than violating U.S. sanctions on Iran. But the U.S. is nonetheless positioning itself to destroy China’s shiniest success story, as it almost did ZTE until Donald Trump relented in a last-minute olive branch to Xi Jinping.

If Ms. Meng is extradited and convicted, she can be given a stiff prison sentence. The U.S can impose heavy fines on her company for sanctions-busting as well as for unrelated technology convictions. The long arm of U.S. law can seize Huawei assets and threaten key employees—including founder and CEO Ren Zhengfei—with arrest if they set foot outside China. Washington can turn up the pressure on other nations to exclude Huawei equipment from their networks. Perhaps most damaging, it can stanch Huawei’s access to still-vital U.S. building-block technologies.

In U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, Mr. Trump has a general who probably would be happy to command such a war. Mr. Xi’s government might respond by stirring up patriotic froth in China’s media. Beijing might start seizing U.S. businesspeople as hostages, as it already has done Canadian businesspeople in apparent response to the Meng extradition fight. If so, look out below.

The Trump administration tends to exaggerate how much U.S. prosperity and security depend on getting tough over China’s trade practices. Our national strength is overwhelmingly made at home.

On the other hand, if China wants to go down this road, it might as well unfurl a banner declaring itself North Korea writ huge—a country that intends to thumb its nose at international norms, a pirate nation living by blackmail and theft. Six years ago this column was spanked by foreign-policy types for saying a tad too bluntly that stealing was an activity that “unites the private and public selves of Chinese officials.” But it’s true. For the sake of its own development, China needs to start separating business from the state, and holding its companies to some cognizable standard of lawfulness.

So here’s a question: Do you trust both sides to manage this conflict? Washington should be able to mete out technology sanctions, arguably necessary to protect U.S. security and military advantage, without throwing the entire economic relationship out the window. It can uphold our laws and prosecute Huawei for clear violations without trying to bury China’s entire output of exported iPhones, coat hangers and flat-screen TVs in tariffs.

For its part, getting into a full-scale economic war over practices that Beijing knows are indefensible and need to change would be an exceedingly poor decision by China’s maximum leader, Mr. Xi. Unfortunately, poor decisions have been a métier, off and on, of China’s Communist Party over the past 70 years.

We should not kid ourselves about the risks. Not all risks can or should be avoided, however.

Trump Hasn’t Killed the Global Trade System. Instead, He Split it in Two.

Allies find relations modestly tweaked, despite the president’s rhetoric, while relations with China are entering a deep freeze

When Donald Trump entered the White House on a platform of defiant nationalism nearly two years ago, many feared he would dismantle the global trading system the U.S. and its allies had built over the past 70 years.

He hasn’t. Instead, he is presiding over its realignment into two distinct systems.

  1. One, between the U.S. and its traditional, democratic trading partners, looks a lot like the system that has prevailed since the 1980s: free trade with a smattering of quotas and tariffs like those Ronald Reagan once deployed.
  2. The second reflects an emerging rivalry between the U.S. and China carrying echoes of the Cold War. On trade, investment and technology, the U.S. is moving to undo some of the integration that followed China’s accession to the World Trade Organization in 2001.

There are two big questions hanging over this realignment. The first is deciding how far the U.S. is prepared to decouple from China. The U.S. has given China until March 1 to avoid higher tariffs by addressing complaints it discriminates against foreign companies and steals their technology. Mr. Trump is counting on a deal that avoids a trade war. But many in his administration and Congress don’t trust China to make the necessary concessions and would likely advocate a sharper break.

The second question is whether the U.S. can persuade allies to join a united front to contain China. Other countries don’t relish the choice. Their economic ties to China are far greater than they ever were to the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

Two years ago, it was easy to predict a grimmer fate for the global trading system. Mr. Trump campaigned as a protectionist willing to tear up trade agreements and raise tariffs to shrink the trade deficit and bring back factory jobs.

In his first week he withdrew from the unratified 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership. He prepared to pull out of the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement (Korus) and the North American Free Trade Agreement. Earlier this year he imposed steep tariffs on imports of steel and aluminum, using a little-used national security law, and threatened the same for autos.

Today, Korus and Nafta have been replaced by updated agreements(one not yet ratified) that look much like the originals. South Korea accepted quotas on steel. Mexico and Canada agreed to higher wages, North American content requirements and quotas for autos.

These represent a step back from free trade toward managed trade, but they will have little practical effect: The limits on how many cars Mexico and Canada can ship duty-free to the U.S., for example, exceed current shipments. Mr. Trump hasn’t stopped threatening auto tariffs, but for now his officials have elected instead to seek broader tariff reductions with Japan and the European Union.

.. Meanwhile, the U.S. trade deficit that incenses Mr. Trump has grown during his presidency, especially with China and Mexico, as a strong American economy sucks in imports. His exhortations to manufacturers to bring jobs back to the U.S. have largely fallen on deaf ears.

Douglas Irwin, an economist and trade historian at Dartmouth College, calls these results the “status quo with Trumpian tweaks: a little more managed trade sprinkled about for favored industries. It’s not good, but it’s not the destruction of the system.”

.. Yet the status quo with China is crumbling. Businesses have grown disillusioned with China’s restrictions on their activities, forced technology transfer and intellectual-property theft, all aimed at building up domestic competitors at foreign expense. Meanwhile, legislators in both parties are alarmed at increased military assertiveness and domestic repression under President Xi Jinping.

.. When Mr. Xi visited the U.S. in 2015, Mr. Sullivan urged his colleagues to pay more attention to China’s rise. On the senate floor, he quoted the political scientist Graham Allison: “War between the U.S. and China is more likely than recognized at the moment.”

Last spring, Mr. Sullivan went to China and met officials including Vice President Wang Qishan. They seemed to think tensions with the U.S. will fade after Mr. Trump leaves the scene, Mr. Sullivan recalled.

“I just said, ‘You are completely misreading this.’” The mistrust, he told them, is bipartisan, and will outlast Mr. Trump.

While delivering one message to China, Mr. Sullivan gave a different one to the administration and its trade negotiators: Don’t alienate allies needed to take on China.

“Modernize the agreements but stay within the agreements,” he says he counseled them. “Then we have to turn to the really big geostrategic challenge facing our country and that’s China.”

His was one voice among many urging Mr. Trump to single out China for pressure. Presidents Obama and George W. Bush sought to change China’s behavior through dialogue and engagement. Obama officials had begun to question engagement by the end of the administration. Last year, in its National Security Strategy, the Trump administration declared engagement a failure.

The Trump administration regards economic policy and national security as inseparable when it comes to Beijing, because China’s acquisition of Western technology both strengthens China militarily and weakens the U.S. economically.

The administration has yet to publicly explain its goals. In 1946, at the start of the Cold War, diplomat George Kennan made the case for containing the Soviet Union in his famous “long telegram.” The Trump administration hasn’t done anything comparable for China. One reason might be that administration officials are divided. Mr. Trump appears torn between wanting to halt China’s rise at any cost and hoping for “a big and very comprehensive deal” that lifts the cloud of a trade war.

.. U.S. and domestic concerns have prompted Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Britain and Canada to restrict or consider restricting Huawei equipment in their telecom infrastructure, in particular for the next 5G mobile phone standard.

The U.S. is also seeking to wall China off from future trade deals. It insisted the pact replacing Nafta include a clause letting the U.S. quit if either Canada or Mexico signs a free-trade agreement with a “non-market economy,” i.e., China.

.. The first goes to the heart of Mr. Trump’s goal. If his aim is to hold back China’s advance, economists predict he will fail. China’s innovative capacity has expanded dramatically. China now accounts for 18.6% of articles in international scientific journals, according to one study, and nearly a quarter of global venture-capital investment, according to another.

Indeed, some China experts fear that the U.S., by adopting a more adversarial approach, weakens China’s reformers and strengthens its nationalist factions, making conflict more likely. They predict China will intensify its pursuit of technological self-sufficiency.

.. Persuading other countries to hold China at arm’s length will be harder than containing the Soviet Union. China accounts for 11% of world exports, whereas the Soviet Union in the 1980s accounted for less than 3%,

.. China is 22% of Japanese imports and exports; the Soviet Union was less than 1%.

.. Many of China’s close neighbors depend far more, economically, on China than on the U.S.

.. U.S. officials note that China’s aid, such its Belt and Road infrastructure program, often saddles recipients with debt. Yet the U.S. offers no alternative, said Mr. Rudd.
.. Some of Mr. Trump’s trade policies undermine the united front he wants against China. He hasn’t sworn off protectionism against U.S. allies, promising to withdraw from Nafta even if its replacement isn’t ratified by Congress. His steel and aluminum tariffs, most of which remain in place, outraged such allies as Canada.

U.S. officials play down such frictions as easily worked out. Abroad, they are seen as more serious. Canadian ambassador to the U.S. David MacNaugton said he told U.S. trade negotiators that if Mr. Trump carried through on his threatened 25% tariff on Canadian autos, it would fundamentally change bilateral relations for the worse for years to come. In a letter accompanying Nafta’s replacement, the U.S. agreed not to levy the tariffs.

Don’t Believe the Hype About Trump’s Trade Deal with the European Union

maybe intending it as a compliment—craftily packaged together a number of small concessions and previously agreed upon initiatives which allowed Trump and his allies to hail the agreement as an American win. “This is a real vindication of the President’s trade policy,” Wilbur Ross, the Secretary of Commerce, told reporters as he travelled to the Midwest with Trump on Thursday.

In reality, the Europeans gave up little except their prior refusal to negotiate under threat.

.. Juncker’s pledge that the E.U. would import more U.S.-grown soybeans, for instance, formalized something that was likely to happen anyway. After Trump imposed hefty tariffs on Chinese steel and aluminum products, earlier this year, China responded by imposing equally hefty levies on U.S. agricultural exports, including soybeans. That made American soybeans prohibitively expensive for Chinese buyers

.. Brazil, traditionally the E.U.’s largest supplier, is now shipping more of its produce to China, encouraging the Europeans to shop elsewhere. “While China concentrates its purchases on Brazil, the rest of the world turns to the U.S.,

.. Looking years ahead, Norway’s reserves have plateaued, and the Europeans will eventually need alternative suppliers. U.S. producers could well be among them. But, again, such a result may well have occurred without Wednesday’s agreement.

.. hopefully nobody tells Trump that these concessions were largely illusory.

.. Both sides provide subsidies or tax breaks to politically powerful groups, such as farmers, and to industries they deem strategically important, such as commercial-aircraft manufacturers in the E.U. and military contractors in the U.S. These policies proved sticking points when the Obama Administration and the E.U. engaged in unsuccessful negotiations about a transatlantic free-trade treaty, and they will almost certainly prove to be sticking points again.

.. One way to think of the outcome of Wednesday’s meeting is that Trump is happy to declare a victory whenever he can get away with it. However, a more optimistic reading of this week’s developments is that Trump has finally realized that he needs the E.U.’s support in his campaign against China’s much more overtly mercantilist trade practices, and that, in this area at least, the United States and Europe have common interests.

.. E.U. officials wanted to persuade the Trump Administration to pursue grievances against China through the World Trade Organization (W.T.O.), the global ruling body for trade disputes, rather than by dishing out tariffs unilaterally. The article also noted that Robert Lighthizer, the U.S. Trade Representative, a key player in the Trump orbit, is not necessarily averse to this idea.

.. “Comfortingly, there is mounting evidence that Mr Lighthizer is not out to torpedo the WTO,”

.. If Lighthizer could persuade Trump to go down this route, and his negotiating team could construct a common front with the E.U., there is a possibility that, sometime in the future, China might be persuaded to make some real concessions in areas like opening its markets and respecting intellectual-property rights. If that did occur, the Trump Administration could claim a genuine victory.