Trade policy is a contentious issue in contemporary America. A common refrain in trade discussions is “all we want is a level playing field.” President Trump portrays his tough trade sanctions, especially against China, as a confrontation aimed at remedying decades of America being ripped off in the global marketplace.
This represents a major reversal in America’s China policy. Since President Nixon’s opening to China in 1971 and across eight subsequent administrations it was generally believed that engagement would induce China to work with the West and become a peace-loving democracy with no designs on regional or global power.
As a candidate, Trump stood out for his embrace of America-first policies and his promise to “Make America Great Again” by addressing the grievances of ordinary citizens who feel dispossessed. Once in office, Trump, a self-described deal maker, has not been fond of large multilateral deals. He was quick to withdraw from the Transpacific Partnership agreement. After first threatening to void the North American Free Trade Agreement by executive order, his administration renegotiated it.
Countries often use protectionism tools such as tariffs and quotas to support domestic industries until they are able to compete internationally. Tariffs are taxes imposed by a country that make imports more expensive. Quotas amount to quantitative restrictions on imports. It helps to keep in mind who loses and who gains from a tariff or quota. Domestic producers and employees gain and consumers lose. Governments also benefit from tariffs because they generate revenue, but tariff revenues are typically not a big consideration in developed countries.
Countries can also impose stringent quality and safety standards on foreign products. A country can tailor the standards to the product descriptions at home, thereby giving domestic producers an advantage. Consider the continuing debate over stricter standards for antibiotics in the European Union versus the United States. Are these measures of safety or a way to protect a domestic industry? Then there are all kinds of red tape that delay exporters from gaining access to a country’s market.
Still, there is another insidious tool that a country can use to promote its domestic industries. China and other countries build national champions with government funding of state-owned enterprises (SOEs). China is the world’s second largest economy, accounting for about 15 percent of global economic output. It has seen extraordinary economic expansion over an extended period, with double-digit growth for close to 30 years.
Its SOEs have facilitated that growth and are the backbone of the Chinese economy. The nation’s approximately 150,000 SOEs control around $16 trillion in assets, constitute about 40 percent of China’s gross domestic product and employ 35 million people in strategic industries such as energy, technology and telecom.
China’s government helped launch new and emerging industries by channeling capital into SOEs. For example, it flooded global markets, depressed prices, and literally shut down hundreds of U.S. solar-panel startups. China’s SOEs are front and center in implementing China’s One Belt One Road initiative, the nation’s vision for massive development of trade routes between Asia, Africa, and Europe.
These government subsidies stimulate excess production, depress market prices, and enable state-owned enterprises to capture market share. Closely related is the theft of intellectual property and forced technology transfers, often by SOEs, that highlight the need to constrain these enterprises. Countries such as China hesitate to allow state-owned enterprises to fail for fear that it would unleash a tidal wave of unemployment.
While trade talks between China and the United States may be productive in dealing with tariffs, the Trump administration should also address less traditional tactics that amount to cheating. They include China’s use of subsidies to key state-run companies to undercut their American competitors. What should be clearly understood here is that dealing with the Chinese is like engaging in unprotected sex.
Originally Published: January 27, 2019