China’s mercantilist trade war against the US effectively started when China joined the World Trade Organization (WTO) on December 11, 2001. The US supported China’s admission to the WTO, expecting that China would abide by the organization’s rules, which mostly promoted free trade among its 144 member nations back then. (There are 164 members currently.) Instead, the Chinese abused their membership by pursuing mercantilist trade policies. They persistently and systematically violated the organization’s trade rules by using their WTO status to unfair advantage.
However, US officials didn’t publicly acknowledge that the US had been duped until Donald Trump became president. During the presidential election campaign, Trump often promised to take effective measures to correct America’s huge bilateral trade deficit with China. He called China one of the “greatest currency manipulators ever.” He declared that he would instruct the Treasury Department to so label China when he became president.
On April 13, 2018, the Treasury Department, in its biannual currency exchange report, scolded China for its lack of progress in reducing the trade deficit with the US but did not find that it was improperly devaluing its currency, the renminbi. Actually, it was the third time since Trump assumed the presidency that the Treasury Department opted not to accuse China of improper meddling. Instead, the administration opted for tariffs as an alternative means to pressure the Chinese to fix the trade problem.
By the way, previous administrations recognized the problem, but chose a less public and lower-key diplomatic approach to get China to change its ways. For example, to kick-start negotiations to resolve the problem, the Clinton administration slapped the “currency manipulator” label on China in 1994. That was well before China was admitted to the WTO.
In other words, the problem has been festering for a very long time indeed. The US merchandise trade deficit with China was $29.5 billion in 1994 (Fig. 1). Even back then, it was almost 20% of the total US trade deficit (Fig. 2). By 2018, it was up to $419.0 billion, accounting for 48% of the total trade gap.
Let’s briefly review the escalating tensions in the Cold War between the US and China:
(1) Peter Navarro is still Trump’s China hawk. Unlike most of President Donald Trump’s early-term advisers, Peter Navarro is still in the White House. Melissa and I profiled him in our March 8, 2018 Morning Briefing, fittingly titled “Meet Peter Navarro.” We wrote that “the White House director of the National Trade Council seems to be gaining influence and may even be up for a promotion.” Sure enough, he since has been promoted to assistant to the President, Director of Trade and Manufacturing Policy, and the national Defense Production Act policy coordinator.
Navarro long has been a critic of China’s mercantile trade practices. In fact, he literally wrote the book on this subject in 2011, fittingly titled Death by China: Confronting the Dragon—A Global Call to Action. Here is an excerpt from the book’s Amazon description: “The world’s most populous nation and soon-to-be largest economy is rapidly turning into the planet’s most efficient assassin. Unscrupulous Chinese entrepreneurs are flooding world markets with lethal products. China’s perverse form of capitalism combines illegal mercantilist and protectionist weapons to pick off American industries, job by job. China’s emboldened military is racing towards head-on confrontation with the U.S. Meanwhile, America’s executives, politicians, and even academics remain silent about the looming threat.” Most importantly, above and beyond China’s unfair trade practices, Navarro strongly suggested that China posed an existential threat to America’s national security.
(2) The President’s 2018 UN speech. In his September 25, 2018 speech before the United Nations General Assembly, Trump said the following about China, focusing on trade: “The United States lost over 3 million manufacturing jobs, nearly a quarter of all steel jobs, and 60,000 factories after China joined the WTO. And we have racked up $13 trillion in trade deficits over the last two decades. But those days are over. We will no longer tolerate such abuse. We will not allow our workers to be victimized, our companies to be cheated, and our wealth to be plundered and transferred. America will never apologize for protecting its citizens. … China’s market distortions and the way they deal cannot be tolerated.”
(3) The Vice President’s 2018 speech. In an October 4, 2018 speech at the Hudson Institute, Vice President Mike Pence discussed the administration’s case against China in far greater detail. He started out by warning: “Beijing is employing a whole-of-government approach, using political, economic, and military tools, as well as propaganda, to advance its influence and benefit its interests in the United States.”
The rest of the speech was a no-holds-barred blistering attack on the Chinese government. He accused the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) of using “an arsenal of policies inconsistent with free and fair trade, including tariffs, quotas, currency manipulation, forced technology transfer, intellectual property theft, and industrial subsidies that are handed out like candy to foreign investment.” He specifically berated the party’s “Made in China 2025” plan for aiming to control 90% of the “world’s most advanced industries including robotics, biotechnology, and artificial intelligence.” He accused China of economic and military aggression abroad. Pence also documented instances of China using so-called “debt diplomacy” to expand its influence. Pence accused the Chinese government of oppressing its own people at home. He stated that the US was taking steps “to protect our national security from Beijing’s predatory actions.”
The S&P 500 plunged 19.8% from September 20 through December 24, 2018. In our October 15, 2018 Morning Briefing titled “Panic Attack #62,” we listed six reasons for the selloff. We included the Veep’s speech: “Also setting the stage for last week’s selloff was a 10/4 speech by Vice President Mike Pence detailing the Trump administration’s long list of complaints against China. It wasn’t just about trade … Pence’s speech made it clear that the problem is that China aspires to be a superpower at the expense of the US. While Trump seems to be winning his trade wars with most of America’s major trading partners, the conflict with China is likely to worsen because it isn’t just about trade. It is about national security.”
(4) The President’s 2019 UN speech. In a September 24, 2019 speech at the UN, Trump again called out China, berating Beijing as follows: “In 2001, China was admitted to the WTO. Our leaders then argued that this decision would compel China to liberalize its economy and strengthen protections … for private property and for the rule of law. Two decades later, this theory has been tested and proven completely wrong. Not only has China declined to adopt promised reforms, it has embraced an economic model dependent on massive market barriers, heavy state subsidies, currency manipulation, product dumping, forced technology transfers, and the theft of intellectual property and also trade secrets on a grand scale.”
(5) No Phase 2 to follow Phase 1. After an escalating trade war between the US and China during 2018 and 2019, with both sides raising their tariffs on the other, both parties signed a “Phase 1” trade agreement at the start of this year. It deescalated the trade tensions but left some of the toughest issues for a future Phase 2 deal. While Phase 1 focused mainly on Chinese purchases of US goods, improved US access to China’s financial services market, and some intellectual property issues, Phase 2 was meant to tackle far more difficult issues associated with China’s technology transfer policies, industrial espionage, and government subsidies to state-owned enterprises.
On Tuesday, July 14, Trump shut the door on the next round of trade negotiations with China, saying he does not want to talk to Beijing about trade because of the coronavirus pandemic. “We made a great trade deal,” Trump said, of the Phase 1 agreement signed in January. “But as soon as the deal was done, the ink wasn’t even dry, and they hit us with the plague,” he said, referring to the novel coronavirus, which emerged from the Chinese city of Wuhan.
At the White House, Trump also announced that he signed legislation and an executive order to hold China accountable for the “oppressive” national security law it imposed on Hong Kong. The measure approved by Congress gives Trump’s administration the authority to penalize banks doing business with Chinese officials who implement Beijing’s new national security law on Hong Kong. Trump said he has no plans to talk with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
(6) Pompeo weighs in. In a statement on Monday, July 13, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said he was aligning the US position on China’s maritime claims in the South China Sea with the 2016 ruling of an international arbitral tribunal in The Hague. This places the US squarely behind the interests of Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei, and the Philippines, all of which have serious disputes with Beijing.
On Thursday, July 16, Pompeo repeated the administration’s charge that the Chinese government “was aware of human-to-human transmission” of the coronavirus “before they shared this with the world.” The day before, he said, “I’m very confident that the world will look at China differently and engage with them on fundamentally different terms than they did before this catastrophic disaster.”
(7) Raising other barriers. The Senate passed legislation on May 15 that could ban many Chinese companies from listing shares on US exchanges or raising money from American investors without adhering to Washington’s regulatory and audit standards. That same day, the Trump administration issued a new rule that will bar Huawei and its suppliers from using American technology and software, a significant escalation in the White House’s battle with the Chinese telecom giant and one that is likely to inflame tensions with Beijing. The rule change, which is slated to go into effect in September, will block companies around the world from using American-made machinery and software to design or produce chips for Huawei or its entities.
On August 15, companies that bid on US federal contracts must certify that they do not use banned products or services from telecom giants Huawei and ZTE, camera makers Hangzhou Hikvision Digital Technology and Zhejiang Dahua Technology, or radio manufacturer Hytera Communications. Washington cites the risk of sensitive information leaking to Beijing.
Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. Ltd stopped taking new orders from Huawei in May and does not plan to ship wafers after September 15. On July 14, Britain announced that it would ban equipment from Huawei from the country’s high-speed wireless network, a victory for the Trump administration that escalates the battle between Western powers and China over critical technology.
Last week, reports surfaced that the White House is considering putting TikTok on a blacklist that effectively would prevent Americans from using the popular video app, as one option to prevent China from obtaining personal data via the social media platform.
(8) Japan paying companies to leave China. On July 18, Bloomberg reported that the Japanese government will pay at least $536 million for companies to leave China: “Japan’s government will start paying its companies to move factories out of China and back home or to Southeast Asia, part of a new program to secure supply chains and reduce dependence on manufacturing in China.”
(9) The Attorney General’s speech. On Thursday, July 16, Attorney General William Barr warned that the CCP has launched an “economic blitzkrieg” to topple the US from its perch as the world’s superpower, laying out the threat as the most important issue of this century and calling for the Free World to join together in a “whole of society approach” against it.
“How the United States responds to this challenge will have historic implications and will determine whether the United States and its liberal democratic allies will continue to shape their own destiny or whether the CCP and its autocratic tributaries will control the future,” Barr said during a July 17 speech in Michigan.
In some ways, Barr’s speech was even more blistering than Pence’s speech in 2018. He got personal: “The General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, Xi Jinping, who has centralized power to a degree not seen since the dictatorship of Mao Zedong, now speaks openly of China moving ‘closer to center stage,’ ‘building a socialism that is superior to capitalism,’ and replacing the American Dream with the ‘Chinese solution.’”
As Pence had done in his speech, Barr blasted the CCP’s “Made in China 2025” initiative to dominate high-tech industries like robotics and information technology and electric vehicles, which “poses a real threat to US technological leadership.” The 2025 plan is a “state-led, mercantilist economic model. For American companies in the global marketplace, free and fair competition with China has long been a fantasy.” Barr warned that the “ultimate ambition of China’s rulers isn’t to trade with the United States. It is to raid the United States.”
Barr attacked China’s “ruthless crackdown of Hong Kong.” He said that China is as authoritarian now as it was in 1989 when tanks confronted pro-democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square. He criticized American companies that “have come under Beijing’s influence—even at the expense of freedom and openness in the United States.”
(10) Closing consulates. On Wednesday, July 22, we learned that the US State Department abruptly ordered China to shut down its consulate in Houston “in order to protect American intellectual property and Americans’ private information.” In addition, the Justice Department announced criminal charges against hackers, working with the Chinese government, who targeted firms developing vaccines for the coronavirus and stole hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of intellectual property and trade secrets from companies across the world.
On Thursday, July 23, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivered a blistering attack in a speech titled “Communist China and the Free World’s Future.” Here, in his words, is the key theme of his speech: “The truth is that our policies—and those of other free nations—resurrected China’s failing economy, only to see Beijing bite the international hands that were feeding it. … Securing our freedoms from the Chinese Communist Party is the mission of our time, and America is perfectly positioned to lead it because our founding principles give us that opportunity.” His main conclusion was unambiguously hostile toward the Chinese government: “The free world must triumph over this new tyranny.”
On Friday, July 24, Beijing retaliated by ordering the closure of the American consulate in Chengdu. So far, the Chinese haven’t retaliated for the US moves to block Huawei from doing business around the world. What if the Chinese do so against Apple, Microsoft, NVIDIA, Tesla, or other American companies?
Peter Navarro certainly has won the debate over China within the Trump administration, hands down.
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