Getting Productive with China

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This is yet another note about China. It’s hard to stop thinking about it, as our current policies are both dangerously unproductive and difficult to undo.

Let’s start by believing the worst.  Suppose the Chinese really do represent the devil incarnate—the third Reich back again for another racist attempt at world domination.  What should we be doing in that case?

The answer is clear.  The Chinese have a huge population, world-class technology, and the industrial might to back it all up.  They are a formidable adversary, and need to be confronted (as in the past) by a world united against them.  What we need are strong alliances, in the Far East and elsewhere, to counteract the threat.  That alliance must be ready to act in everyone’s interest, with partners able to trust each other’s long-term commitments and no one looking to make a few bucks off the others on the sly.

We just failed that one, so let’s back the threat down.  Suppose the Chinese threat of domination is economic, not military and political.  In that case we need to protect world-wide supply chains, so the Chinese can’t just pull the rug out from under the existing order.  And we need clear rules defining fair trade, so that it’s obvious who is a renegade.  That sounds like some version of TPP and the WTO—so the highest priority is getting those right.  (TPP can’t be too bad, since large chunks of it were taken verbatim in the new version of NAFTA.)  What it doesn’t sound like is our modern version of protectionism, where we reserve the right to do anything we like and impose it unilaterally on anyone else.

Now let’s add one more element to the picture—China is the largest most rapidly growing market in the world.  This is an item of some interest, although it doesn’t get the press it deserves.  For one thing China has just added an inconceivable number of people to the world’s middle class.  One of our grievances is that China has not opened its markets as it should.

There are two remarks to be made.   One is that China has only recently developed enough of an upper middle class to be an effective market for us.  This is a matter for emphasis now, and the maximum leverage is when the US and EU work together (each representing 18 percent of Chinese exports).   There are actually multiple reasons to be guardedly optimistic about current prospects for negotiation.

Second, the fact is that as a country we’re actually rather reluctant exporters.  Our domestic market has always been so large as to be primary.  Going forward, this is a matter of some concern.  For example we claim we want to sell cars in China and elsewhere, but we’re relaxing environmental regulations to help our manufacturers—and guarantee that the mainline production won’t be acceptable in most other countries.  Denying climate change has the same kind of effects across the board.  We can’t forget that open markets are only the first step to actually selling the stuff.  Even today the Europeans, with the same level of Chinese imports as us, have a substantially lower trade deficit.

As a next point, in formulating China policy we should at least make an attempt to think about things from their point of view.  That doesn’t justify it, but we have a large blind spot if we don’t try.   It’s a worthwhile exercise independent of whether we like their current leadership or not.

On that subject the primary factor is that China underwent some of the worst effects of western imperialism, lasting well into the twentieth century.  The Opium Wars deserve their name.  The British made fortunes with opium produced in India and sold under military protection in China.  And the rest of the West joined in.  The Chinese had expected some help in the aftermath of World War I, but were denied.

It is not surprising that the Chinese feel both suspicion and hostility toward the West, as well as a need to be fully in control of their own destiny.  In that light it is easy to imagine the attitude of the Chinese toward Trump’s initial set of demands in the trade war, expressed as terms for unconditional surrender.  It probably made Trump feel important and powerful, but it’s hard to imagine anything less likely to produce real cooperation. As for Chinese attitudes toward the South China Sea and intellectual property, we should remember the “Monroe Doctrine” and the heroes who brought British textile technology to the early US.  That’s not to say they’re right; it’s just counterproductive—and frequently delusional—to approach international cooperation as a moral crusade.

The only solid basis for relations with China (or anyone else) is shared interest—again regardless of whether we like their current leadership or not.  We’re not going to defeat them—in either military or economic terms—so it’s crazy to assume that’s the right model for policy.  (You can even go farther and say that’s it’s not even in our interest, but we don’t have to go that far here.)  They’re no more willing to capitulate than we are, so it’s a lot more productive to stay in the real world.  Mutual trust is a requirement for success.

With that we can make some suggestions:

  1. We should be negotiating rules for open markets and intellectual property protection as a matter for the WTO. As noted, there is ample basis for agreement of those subjects going forward, so there is reason for guarded optimism—meaning not just agreement but cooperation.  To be clear, the US has historically won 85% of its cases with the WTO.
  2. Technological competition with China is inevitable. They are already formidable competitors, but our strengths and weaknesses are different, so there is room for both of us in a growing world economy. Above all we should recognize and take care of our own strengths.
  3. We have work to do in preparing our economy for a world where the outside is at least as important as the domestic market. Not being the world’s biggest economy is a big change.
  4. We have even more work to do to make sure that the whole population profits from an ever more highly-integrated and highly-automated world. That’s not only a moral requirement, but the only way to defeat the parasitic demagogues who threaten to take over here and elsewhere.

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