“Somebody had to take China on… This is something that had to be done. The only difference is I am doing it.”
That was President Donald Trump talking to reporters during a visit by Romanian President Klaus Iohannis to the White House on Aug. 20, making the case for his trade negotiations with China.
“China has been ripping this country off for 25 years, for longer than that and it’s about time whether it’s good for our country or bad for our country short term. Long term it’s imperative that somebody does this,” Trump explained.
In response, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang promoted the dialogue, saying, “That the two sides have differences in issues of trade and the economy is not something to be scared of. The key is to resolve the issues through dialogue.”
That sounds about right. And if it weren’t for the 25 percent tariffs on $250 billion of Chinese goods coming to the U.S., and another 10 percent on the remaining $300 billion of goods coming in December, the negotiations might not be happening at all.
And if you’re a Republican or a Democrat or an independent, whether you like free trade or think it has hurt the U.S. economy the past three decades, if you’re in business with China or from China yourself, even Chinese President Xi Jinping, you should be rooting for President Donald Trump to succeed in his trade negotiations with Beijing.
Ultimately, a deal with China will set the stage for the rest of the century and determine whether we can find a way to resolve our very real differences on competitive currency devaluations that Beijing uses to boost exports, intellectual property theft and forced technology transfer, and sanctions against U.S. exporters, or if we are on a collision course for conflict.
One need look no further than to the threat the 7.3 million people of Hong Kong — where 1.7 million protesters just marched on Aug. 18 for their freedom — or the threat that 23.6 million people of Taiwan both constantly live under, or the continued nuclear threat from North Korea, to comprehend the danger that running a $380 billion trade deficit poses — more than twice China’s annual $152 billion defense budget.
On the merits, a trade deal should satisfy free trade proponents. The fact is, tariff and non-tariff barriers have only been sustainably reduced worldwide since the end of World War II for the most part with reciprocal trade agreements, something we currently lack with China. Free trade proliferates when both sides strive to reduce those barriers, and it suffers when barriers are erected.
A deal with China would give both sides a reason to ratchet down trade pressure and to have an accountable system in place for resolving trade disputes.
On the other hand, a failure to get a deal or if China runs over Hong Kong boosts the likelihood that the current tariffs in place remain or increase over time.
As for those who think past trade agreements have not put America first, there’s something there, too. Prior to President Trump, U.S. leaders have given China a pass on its trade barriers, whereas the agreement that was in negotiations as recently as May addressed them directly.
The fact that any deal would include concessions from China would give it needed longevity as it will be more likely to garner political support.
From a political perspective, it is unseemly to watch politicians and pundits cheer on negative economic news — such as recent speculation of a recession on the horizon or breakdowns in the trade negotiations — because they think it will politically hurt the President.
The fact is, an economic downturn or the failure to reach a deal now could negatively impact future presidents’ ability to deal with China from a position of strength. Worse, it could make conflict more likely in the future, and that’s in nobody’s interests.
Why are politicians rooting against America?
A notable exception has been Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), who to his credit urged President Trump and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin’s designation of China as currency manipulator. Although, on the other hand, one struggles find a statement from Schumer praising the move since then. What’s it going to take? Oh well.
Setting aside partisan and ideological differences, the biggest reason to support the President’s success in negotiating with China, whether it is Trump or a future president, is because it puts America first, and the President is at his strongest in foreign relations and diplomacy when there is a bipartisan consensus to proceed.
We should all be hoping Trump succeeds.
As for U.S. companies doing business with or in China, or if you are from China yourself, even President Xi, you should be rooting for a trade deal because it will keep current global supply lines intact and create a basis for growing and improving the current relationship.
No deal means that companies will seek to build their factories elsewhere.
The point of a trade deal is not to dominate world trade but is to achieve a sustainable equilibrium that mutually benefits both sides. That will require concessions in both directions. And we should be mindful that we may not get a better deal later. This could be it.
What we were doing since China was granted permanent normal trade relations in 2000 and entered the World Trade Organization in 2001 was neither politically nor economically sustainable, and overall, the likelihood is that Trump has already changed America’s posture towards Beijing for the long term, especially given developments in Hong Kong the past weeks.
Continued support for appeasement with China will only wane. You can’t wait out Trump. Any future president that acquiesces to China will not have strong backing domestically. Nobody wants to go back to the “good ol’ days.”
For all our sakes, it is up to policymakers in both Washington, D.C. and Beijing to adjust to that political reality and make a deal while there’s still time, before events make one politically impossible.
Robert Romano is the Vice President of Public Policy at Americans for Limited Government.