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.
- 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.
- 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.Nor are the ideological choices as clear cut. China isn’t waging an ideological struggle against the West as the Soviet Union did, and Mr. Trump, while enacting policies reminiscent of President Reagan, lacks Mr. Reagan’s commitment to alliances and free trade. Defense Secretary James Mattis’s decision to resign after Mr. Trump’s decision to withdraw troops from Syria underscores the president’s ambivalence toward international engagement.
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Today, Korus and Nafta have been replaced by updated agreements(one not yet ratified) that look much like the originals.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.
The Real Reason for Trump’s Steel and Aluminum Tariffs
The Trump administration’s proposed tariffs on steel and aluminum imports will target China, but not the way most observers believe. For the US, the most important bilateral trade issue has nothing to do with the Chinese authorities’ failure to reduce excess steel capacity, as promised, and stop subsidizing exports.
.. Trump no doubt sees potential political gains in steel- and aluminum-producing districts and in increasing the pressure on Canada and Mexico as his administration renegotiates the North American Free Trade Agreement. The European Union has announced plans to retaliate against US exports, but in the end the EU may negotiate – and agree to reduce current tariffs on US products that exceed US tariffs on European products.
.. But the real target of the steel and aluminum tariffs is China. The Chinese government has promised for years to reduce excess steel capacity, thereby cutting the surplus output that is sold to the United States at subsidized prices. Chinese policymakers have postponed doing so as a result of domestic pressure to protect China’s own steel and aluminum jobs.
.. Because the tariffs are being levied under a provision of US trade law that applies to national security, rather than dumping or import surges, it will be possible to exempt imports from military allies in NATO, as well as Japan and South Korea, focusing the tariffs on China and avoiding the risk of a broader trade war.
.. For the US, the most important trade issue with China concerns technology transfers, not Chinese exports of subsidized steel and aluminum.
.. Until a few years ago, the Chinese government was using the Peoples Liberation Army’s (PLA) sophisticated cyber skills to infiltrate American companies and steal technology.
.. Xi then agreed that the Chinese government would no longer use the PLA or other government agencies to steal US technology.
.. The current technology theft takes a different form. American firms that want to do business in China are often required to transfer their technology to Chinese firms as a condition of market entry.
These firms “voluntarily” transfer production knowhow because they want access to a market of 1.3 billion people and an economy as large as that of the US.
These firms complain that the requirement of technology transfer is a form of extortion. Moreover, they worry that the Chinese government often delays their market access long enough for domestic firms to use their newly acquired technology to gain market share.
.. The US cannot use traditional remedies for trade disputes or World Trade Organization procedures to stop China’s behavior. Nor can the US threaten to take Chinese technology or require Chinese firms to transfer it to American firms, because the Chinese do not have the kind of leading-edge technology that US firms have.
.. US negotiators will use the threat of imposing the tariffs on Chinese producers as a way to persuade China’s government to abandon the policy of “voluntary” technology transfers.
Trump Alienates Allies Needed for a Trade Fight With China
China’s predatory trade behavior is threatening sectors much more vital than steel and aluminum
“Beijing has doubled down on its state capitalist model even as it has gotten richer,” Kurt Campbell and Ely Ratner, who both served in foreign-policy roles under former President Barack Obama, write in the current issue of Foreign Affairs. “Cooperative and voluntary mechanisms to pry open China’s economy have by and large failed.”
.. But Mr. Trump has consistently rejected collective action in favor of going it alone. His officials downgraded multilateral efforts to reduce steel overcapacity. In January 2017, Mr. Obama’s administration launched a case at the WTO against China for subsidizing aluminum, but Mr. Trump has failed to follow up.
.. since 2003 China has four times promised to address overcapacity in steel production, as its actual capacity quadrupled to roughly half the world total.
.. Yet China exports little steel to the U.S. because of existing duties and accounts for just 11% of its aluminum imports, far behind Canada. The Commerce Department argued for a global remedy because Chinese production depresses global prices and drives foreign producers out of third markets, and they then ship to the U.S.
This means the pain of Mr. Trump’s tariffs will fall not on China but on actors that play by the rules, including Canada, Japan and the European Union. When the EU threatened to retaliate, Mr. Trump said he would escalate by raising duties on European cars.
Chinese misbehavior has thus brought the U.S. to the brink of trade war with its own economic and strategic allies, echoing how Russian meddling has served to fuel internal strife in Europe and the U.S.
.. Chinese forced technology transfer, commercial espionage and intellectual-property theft, all aimed at creating Chinese champions in key industries by 2025.
These pose a far greater threat to U.S. technological leadership and the enormous value it adds to U.S. exports than do growing imports of steel and aluminum which, while vital to some communities, are commodities.
.. The U.S. is preparing a sweeping penalty against China, but it would be more effective if done jointly; otherwise, Beijing may simply persuade others to hand over their technology in exchange for Chinese sales or capital.
.. Most of all, though, it requires Mr. Trump to understand where leverage comes from.
“Chinese misbehavior with respect to intellectual property and economic espionage is a real problem that requires a response,” Patrick Toomey, a Republican senator from Pennsylvania, said in an interview. “We are much more likely to get our allies to work with us if we aren’t punishing them for selling us steel that our consumers want to buy.”