Beyond China-U.S. trade and where is its outlet?

Since China-U.S. trade war started in the Mid-2018, it has lasted for more than 14 months. From the beginning, the World Bank and the IMF have taken the position that the trade conflict America has trigged will serve no country’s economic progress and their action is patently wrong. Since then, China has at several occasions showed its good-will and sincerity including purchase of the products from the U.S. and the consensus reached between the two heads of state at the summits in Argentina and Japan, during which both parties agreed to move towards dropping all of the additional tariffs introduced during the dispute, and reach a comprehensive agreement that is fair and beneficial to the two sides. Yet, there is still no insurance of the end of trade war between the two largest economies of the world.

Now comes a new possibility that from October 10-11, a senior trade delegation from China, headed by Vice Premier Liu He, is scheduled to meet their American counterparts in Washington DC, led by U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin. Yet, the trade talks also come at a precarious time in Trump’s decision to reduce the number of U.S. forces in the Syrian border areas with Turkey and amid a spiraling impeachment inquiry into his interactions with Ukraine. More than that, the White House has repeatedly used national security as a reason to sanction Chinese companies, and this has been a talking point in U.S. presidential campaign speeches.

As a matter of fact, the Sino-American rivalry, like the German-Britain rivalry one century ago, is as much a clash of two major powers as it is of two systems: the authoritarian and state-protected development of a rising power vs. the liberal, free-market constitutionalism of a ruling power. Therefore, differences in economic system inevitably amplified the salience of the narrowing economic gap, leading the ruling power to feel cheated and the rising power to feel unsatisfied and threatened. By taking the current China-U.S. trade war into consideration, several factors are complicating the upcoming round of talks.

First, the American resentments against the Chinese economy have grown and seemed to be systematic steps to decouple the world’s two largest economies. As American scholar James Rae argued that with a series of steps, ranging from the tariff rollout to restrictions on dealings with major Chinese technology firms and “ordering” American companies to move production out of China, the U.S. has signaled that this is a trade war, indeed a confrontation over the fundamentals of two rival economic models involving at least four economic tools—standard-setting, technology acquisition, financial power, and infrastructure investment.

Second, the U.S. argues that the Chinese story historically resembles the German one in an overall sense and these parallels are not entirely coincidental. China has long admired the German export-led growth model and is skeptical of laissez faire capitalism. The founding statesman of unified Germany has been consistently seen as an icon of a modernized and powerful country since China has taken its own modernization in the later 19th century. Even it is held, though groundless, that after China emerged from the civil turbulence in 1979, it supposedly structured its development banks on the German model, though it supplemented their loans with Western capital. Under state-directed development, China eventually emerged as the world’s largest exporter with enormous market share in the United States, similarly creating economic interdependence while inadvertently laying the foundation for political competition. This is one of the sources of the Thucydides trap” occurred in the United States but rejected by China and in particular President Xi Jin-ping.

In addition, as a result of these strategies, the speed of the catchup is equally alarming to American elites now. For instance, China’s GDP was only 25% of U.S. GDP in 1990 after a decade of reforms, but has since approached American GDP in 2018. On the one hand, China, like previous Germany, is perceived to have undergone a radical and alarming economic modernization that catapulted it into the rank of first-rate power in mere decades. On the other hand, the United States, following the British mentality of the day, holds that the Chinese developmental model is a form of cheating, forced technology transfer and manipulation in finance. In light of this, China has paten reasons to be concerned that the United States has sought to halt its peaceful rise and undermine its economics by restricting trade, technology and capital flows—whether through economic means or direct subversion.

Yet, Trump’s instinct to do something is not entirely unwelcome, and some of his administration’s policies may prove promising. For example, bipartisan legislation like the Foreign Investment Risk Review Modernization Act presents an instrument to deal with China’s state-backed purchases of Western intellectual property that is somewhat more surgical than blunt U.S. tariffs. Other challenges, including China’s forced technology transfers, non-tariff barriers, and subsidies to state champions remain, and although they violate WTO rules. It seems to testify some people’s growing concerns that the economic escalation is now moving the trade dispute into the political realm, from where it had formerly been immune. First, the U.S. has already used the dubious frame of national security to make rhetorical demands as well as launch new policy initiatives to punish the Chinese firms. Second, even the issue of human rights has been inserted into the equation as the U.S. has released an export blacklist of companies with business in China’s Xinjiang Autonomous Region. Also while President Trump has been quiet enough on the riots in Hong Kong, a commentary on the topic by the Houston NBA franchise has ironically started a new row that could have major implications for the broader relationship. As Rae observed, the consequence is that debating social issues is easily a slippery slope and the intrusion of trade into China’s domestic affairs even crosses highly sensitive issues related to China’s core national interests and sovereignty. It is true that once those red lines are crossed, unraveling a pathway back will be enormously complicated.

It is understandable that China appears more optimistic or even confident in resolving the current trade war. It declared to purchase huge amount of soybeans, pork and other agricultural products from the United States, signaling that such deals will be exempt from additional tariffs imposed on U.S. goods. This is another gesture of goodwill from the Chinese side to further demonstrate its sincerity in ending the trade issues between the two sides. In the span of two days, China and the United States are supposedly to take a series of positive steps in preparation for a new round of trade talks scheduled for this talks in Washington D.C. Although China resolutely opposes any escalation in the trade war, it admits that there are no winners in a trade war, and therefore a constant escalation of tariffs is not the road to a solution. Only by adhering to the principles of equality and mutual respect, and by negotiating with a calm and rational attitude, can the dispute be defused and differences resolved. To that end, it argues for sincerity, patience and practical action needed. On the eve of the new round of talks, the two sides did have taken actions and created favorable conditions for making substantive progress, in line with the expectations of the international community.

True, as a cliché goes, where there’s a will, there’s a way. China has expected a positive result from this round of talks, but the issue is that the United States has already perceived or misperceived China exactly following the path of rising Imperial Germany one century ago. Some observers even hold that Trump’s trade approach is emotionally satisfying but diplomatically disastrous, therefore they fear his confrontational strategy and support a more cooperative economic relationship with China. Yet, in an overall sense, China has been described frequently as a rising power with patent ambition to take advantage of having a state-directed system competing in technology standards, innovation, financial politics, and geo-economics, which force the United States to seek a coordinated response. Given this, that American response should neither be blindly confrontational nor naively cooperative; instead it should be competitive. Sure competition remains the theme of the China-United States relations in the next decades. It is unclear if it takes the scenario of the cold war or the cold peace, but it is clear that the approach America will adopt would be to work with its allies to strengthen rules, set standards, punish Chinese industrial policy and technology theft, invest in research, welcome the world’s best and brightest, and create alternatives to its geo-economic statecraft. It is truly hard to predicate who might be able to play a better hand in this globalized chessboard.

Paul Wang
Paul Wang
Wang Li is Professor of International Relations and Diplomacy at the School of International and Public Affairs, Jilin University China.