It’s better to have a truce on the trade front than not, but it would be better still to have actually achieved fundamental progress after 17 months of costly and destabilizing conflict, the burden of which has fallen on U.S. farmers, consumers and manufacturers. That has not happened, apparently. The administration said the Chinese agreed to “structural reforms and other changes to China’s economic and trade regime in the areas of intellectual property, technology transfer, agriculture, financial services, and currency and foreign exchange,” which sounds like a version of the relatively superficial adjustments Mr. Trump announced — and quickly retracted — in October.
The limited China truce, with the prospect of continued tariffs and haggling over market share, further confirms that Mr. Trump envisions an essentially permanent trade struggle with not only China but the entire world. Also this week, the administration allowed the World Trade Organization’s appeals panel to lapse for lack of a quorum, thus casting the preeminent global commercial dispute resolution agency into limbo. As in the case of bilateral dealings with China, Mr. Trump’s complaints against the WTO had some basis. Previous administrations, including that of President Barack Obama, had faulted the appeals panel for creating wide-ranging precedents in trade law, often at U.S. expense, rather than correcting errors in initial rulings, as the United States believed it should.
Nevertheless, the WTO represented the culmination of long-standing U.S.-led efforts to bring the rule of law to global commerce. Mr. Trump seems happy to walk away from that work rather than use American influence to reform the body. What lies ahead, for the United States and all other trading nations, is a global flow of goods and services increasingly shaped not by economic merits but by power politics. Mr. Trump seems to think American muscle will enable it to come out clearly ahead; the results of his latest deal with China suggest otherwise.