How the U.S. Still Loses with a China Trade Deal

This op-ed originally appeared in the SCMP as “What the US will lose in a trade agreement with China,” SCMP 4/10/19

As the US and China get closer to a possible trade deal, the World Trade Organisation is set to lose its principal role as an arbiter of disputes. That has significant consequences for global trade, and underlined the re-emergence of bilateral agreements that once hindered global trade and development for decades. 

Illustration: Craig Stephens via SCMP

It’s no surprise that US President Donald Trump’s go-it-alone strategy to upend the status quo runs straight through Geneva. As a presidential candidate, he ran on rebellion. Once in office, he wasted no time reversing US participation in a variety of multilateral agreements.

He withdrew from the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), which the US had taken a leadership role in negotiating, and offered nothing to replace it. He imposed tariffs on much of the industrialised world, including allies Japan and the European Union, rather than bringing these disputes to the WTO. He also refused to nominate judges to the vitally important WTO Appellate Body, which inhibits the organisation from adjudicating cases.

His base probably didn’t care about these intricacies of international trade. Their economic anxieties could be assuaged, at least temporarily, by blaming foreigners in faraway places for taking their jobs.

This vision of world trade, fought as a zero-sum competition, is both troubling and naive.

In ordinary times, a dispute over market access or unfair trading practices would work its way through the international legal system. As litigants know, this can be a lengthy process. Even if the claims against a country turn out to be true, the appeals process can drag on while companies remain disadvantaged. Eventual penalties or other remedies may never fully compensate them for losses while other barriers to trade crop up in the meantime.

Instead, Trump unilaterally raised tariffs until China was compelled to negotiate directly with the US. If talks succeed, they will have made much swifter progress than a WTO case. The agreement is even reported to have an enforcement mechanism, whereby China’s adherence to its commitments will be judged under threat of reimposing tariffs. This way, the US retains direct leverage whenever the administration believes there’s been a breach of the agreement.

This all sounds perfectly reasonable – leverage the massive size of the US economy with its main trading partners to secure the best possible deal, all within a relatively short time frame. The world, it turns out, isn’t so simplistic.

A major point of contention for US negotiators is the trade deficit with China. Their solution reportedly includes Chinese government purchases of more US goods, a decidedly non-free-market solution. This fix can be easily reversed by the Chinese government in the future or delayed for any number of reasons – the domestic market may not be able to absorb those purchases, US suppliers may not be able to keep up with the demand, there may disputes over the prices set and the market distorting effects of “forced” purchasing.

Beijing is also no stranger to restricting purchases of imports for political purposes. Norwegian salmon imports were effectively barred from China for several years because Beijing disagreed with the Nobel Peace Prize award for jailed political dissident Liu Xiaobo. Restrictions and other non-tariff barriers to trade were also imposed on the Philippines for its territorial claims in the South China Sea.

Whatever the Trump administration negotiates with China will not be a durable solution, but rather a short-term political fix aimed at shoring up votes for the 2020 presidential election. Joining with similarly aggrieved WTO members to confront China could have created stronger, more lasting institutional-level change.

The negative impacts of this unilateralism are already being felt both domestically and abroad. US companies are losing out to their Canadian and Australian competitors in the lucrative Japanese market after the US withdrew from the TPP. Other countries such as Italy are turning to China’s “Belt and Road Initiative” instead of more traditional development lending institutions like the World Bank, with its extensive oversight mechanisms. That puts further strain on the legitimacy of the international system.

And that’s the point of Trump administration policies that promote a world where economic might makes right.

A fundamental principle of creating global rules of the road since 1947 was to make trade a win-win endeavour. Countries grew together as the overall size of their economies increased, in part due to the benefits of exports, which created new jobs. A rise in imports also increased competition and brought down prices. The current US administration downplays all of these advantages and instead focuses on the negatives of trade, purveying often false and misleading anecdotes of the damage open economies have on US workers.

Without doubt, China has been gaming the system for decades, alternately declaring itself a developing country that needs protection and a global economic powerhouse that deserves the respect of the world. It can’t be both. Entrance into the WTO gave China privileges as well as responsibilities.

As long as China’s market continued to grow, many advanced economies chose to ignore the heavily-tilted playing field. Only now when growth is slowing, the political environment is hardening and the government is actively supporting domestic companies, have the US, Europe and others decided to take action.

Trump’s tariffs have certainly been effective at getting China to the table. They have also been the wrong tool for the right problem. In the end, they will lead to short-term, ill-conceived solutions for temporary gains. Other countries will have to resort to similar bilateral negotiations as the WTO becomes weaker. That’s a terrible precedent to set. The world’s problems are becoming increasingly complex, requiring more cooperation, not less.

If this trend isn’t reversed and soon, there may be far more at stake than just the sale of soybeans and steel. US businesses, workers and consumers will have to live with the consequences long after Trump leaves the White House.