As the reported terms of the Trump administration’s truce with China show, however, Mr. Trump to date seems to have spent American leverage on a predictably futile effort to achieve large short-term reductions in the $375 billion annual U.S. merchandise trade deficit with China. He agreed to withdraw tariff threats in return for China’s doing the same with its counterthreat, plus promises from Beijing to buy more U.S. agricultural goods and liquefied natural gas. These U.S. sales won’t dent the trade deficit, and they will simply shift global trade flows rather than expand them, because China was already in the market for these raw materials. Nor will China’s ballyhooed reduction in auto tariffs from 25 percent to 15 percent do much to change foreign firms’ overwhelming incentives to build cars in China as opposed to export them there from the United States.
Meanwhile, China has achieved important objectives, both tangible and intangible. In the tangible category, the most important is the president’s apparent willingness to back off a seven-year ban on U.S. sales of components to the Chinese telecommunications giant ZTE, which would have crippled that firm. The U.S. ban was punishment for serious violations of U.S. national security-related laws, specifically, ZTE’s business dealings with Iran and North Korea, and the company’s subsequent lies in its initial settlement with the United States. Mr. Trump has indicated now, however, that, in deference to his good relationship with Chinese dictator Xi Jinping, the United States would settle for a fine and changes to ZTE management. That’s an intangible victory for China too, in that it shows the United States will treat national security policy as a subject of trade negotiation. Also favorable to China is the revelation that Mr. Trump’s policy team is deeply divided and is susceptible to pressure from America’s politically pivotal farm belt.
From the start, the administration should have focused on the truly important, and legitimate, U.S. grievances with China: that country’s restrictions on foreign investment, its intellectual property theft and its attempts to dominate future high-tech industries. On these structural issues, Chinese policy remains the same; Mr. Trump, by showing that he defines victory as selling more U.S. raw materials, gives Beijing no reason to change.
Perhaps this unfavorable truce was the best Mr. Trump could achieve at a time when he also needs Mr. Xi’s help dealing with North Korea. Yet that conflict of interest, too, was foreseeable. No one ever said winning a trade war would be easy, except for the one person who has just proved that it’s not.