PRESIDENT TRUMP wrote in his 1987 bestseller, “The Art of the Deal” : “People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular. I call it truthful hyperbole. It’s an innocent form of exaggeration — and a very effective form of promotion.” That approach seems to have guided administration pronouncements about the new “100-day action plan” on trade with China, agreed on between the Trump administration and President Xi Jinping’s representatives May 11 — which Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross billed as “the first real breakthrough that we’ve had with China in decades.”
To call that an overstatement would be an understatement. The agreement would allow American beef producers to sell to the People’s Republic, expedite rulings on certain American genetically modified seeds and authorize a limited number of American bond rating agencies and underwriters to provide services there, along with U.S. credit-card issuers. At most, the deal, if fully implemented by China’s notoriously grudging bureaucracy, would provide a few billion dollars’ worth of business for relatively pro-Trump constituencies — red-state agriculture and Wall Street. In granting this market access, however, China would be doing little more than reversing a scientifically obsolete 13-year-old ban on U.S. beef and obeying a five-year-old World Trade Organization ruling against its credit-card protectionism. Additionally, the plan offers China the right to purchase U.S. liquefied natural gas, which is a potentially lucrative area, though China does not actually commit to buy any.
On the whole, Mr. Trump’s action plan positions the United States as a supplier of primary products and financial services to a tech-producing nation with which we would still enjoy a massive deficit in manufactured goods. Eliminating the latter was supposedly the Trump administration’s top goal with Beijing, but there isn’t even a reference in the plan to the United States’ most legitimate complaint regarding Chinese industrial mercantilism — its overcapacity in steel and aluminum. In any case, the administration’s focus on market-by-market bilateral governmental management, which this plan epitomizes, is economically irrational and plays to state capitalist China’s strengths.
Alas, Mr. Ross appears to have more of the same in mind for future negotiations with Canada and Mexico. In an important speech to hemispheric diplomats on May 9, the commerce secretary said the U.S. “principal objective” in those talks would be “increasing American exports,” and that this could be done by having “our trading partners give us a higher market share of products they already buy both from the U.S. and other countries.” The U.S. would impose tariffs or other barriers as a last resort to get its way. This could mean nothing more than a toughening of NAFTA domestic-content rules to require more sourcing of auto parts from within the trade bloc. Or, it could be Mr. Ross’s way of saying, “If you want to keep doing business with us, you’ll have to squeeze out other countries.”
These are the dilemmas inherent in any attempt to manipulate and manage trade flows, but these recent policy moves suggest that managed trade is the new administration’s preferred option.
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