Those inscrutable occidentals3rd December 2018
Put yourself in the position of the Chinese leadership, trying to figure out the goals of Western policymakers, particular the Americans. Recall that last spring we negotiated a trade agreement with China, and then changed our mind. What do those Westerners actually want from us?
For years the West has complained about the massive Chinese current account surpluses, which peaked at about 10% of GDP. This year China’s surplus is expected to be 0.5% of GDP, the most nearly balanced of any major economy. Only Belgium will be closer to “perfection”, if that’s how you look at a current account of zero.
Is the West happy? Not at all. Two new complaints have arisen. First, China continues to run a large surplus in the trade in manufactured goods:
Many analysts doubt that most trading partners will be persuaded by Beijing’s rhetoric or by the declining current account surplus. While commodity exporters and tourist destinations have increased sales to China, displaced manufacturing workers who have fuelled support for Mr Trump and other populist leaders have not seen much benefit.
“Workers in the manufacturing sector around the world do not have much reason to be impressed by China’s rebalancing, since it hasn’t helped them in the aggregate,” said Brad Setser, senior fellow for international economics at the Council on Foreign Relations.
And second, many foreign policy hawks are now saying that the rise in China is itself a bad thing. We need a “new cold war” aimed at slowing China’s rise. So if those are your two policy concerns, what is the single most disastrous action that China could take? Here’s a FT piece discussing the recent trade war truce:
Complicating matters further were different interpretations of the deal emerging on Saturday night from the two capitals.
China raised the prospect that the tariffs could be eliminated entirely after the new round of talks, which the US did not highlight. Beijing did not mention the 90-day deadline for the negotiations, or the possibility that the tariff escalation could return if no agreement was reached. China was also much less detailed on the purchases of American goods it was committing to.
However the optimistic tone struck by the two leaders in Buenos Aires suggested a willingness to strike a deal.
If China liberalized its economy then it would grow even faster. That should be really bad news for the Cold War crowd, those who fear the increasing military strength of China. In addition, a liberalized China would buy even more commodities, services and high tech goods, and export even more of the manufactured goods that are adversely impacting America’s Rustbelt. So is this what the Trump Administration wants? More Chinese liberalization? Or would they prefer that China go back to the Maoist era when they were a threat to neither the US military nor to America’s blue-collar workers? Search me.
As for the protectionists who are looking to Trump as their savior, good luck with that:
There were already some signs of a backlash to the truce from some of Mr Trump’s supporters most hostile to China.
“Is #Trump making a huge mistake? The devil is in the details! But I’d be lying if I didn’t say at first glance this is very disappointing,” wrote Dan DiMicco, a steel executive who led Mr Trump’s trade unit during the presidential transition. “I don’t agree but I defer to the president.”
Defer to the president? DiMicco might want to consider what happened to those who worried about the South Korean Free Trade agreement and “deferred to the president” to renegotiate it. Or those who trusted Trump to re-negotiate NAFTA. Or those who trusted him to strike a deal with EU President Juncker. Or those who trusted him to negotiate with North Korea. Or those who trusted him to lobby Congress to get rid of Obamacare. Or those who trusted him to get Congress to build a border wall.
I’m actually not all that upset that’s there’s no there there. When it comes to protectionism, incoherence and incompetence are something to be welcomed. But I do feel for the Chinese leadership, trying to figure out whether the US wants China to be like the US, or whether the US believes the world’s only big enough for one United States of America.
I sometimes wonder if Trump is a secret fan of Mao, worried that rapacious capitalists residing in the world’s largest economy are exploiting Latin American countries:
At times, Mr Bolsonaro’s gripes echoed those of the Trump administration, far to the north. In October Mike Pompeo, the American secretary of state, accused Chinese state-owned firms of “predatory economic activity” in the region. Mr Pompeo’s predecessor, Rex Tillerson, had urged Latin Americans to reject “new imperial powers” like China, bent on extracting natural resources while issuing unpayable loans.
Is Noam Chomsky now writing Pompeo’s speeches?
PS. In many ways the US is becoming more like China. Consider the Tiananmen event of 1976. Zhou Enlai had recently died, and there was an enormous outpouring of grief in Tiananmen Square. Lots of flower wreaths were laid at a statue in the center of the square, for day after day. This continued for so long that eventually people began to recognize that it was an implicit protest against Mao, and the square was then cleared by the military. It happened again in 1989, after the death of the lead reformer in the Chinese government, Hu Yaobang. In a totalitarian society, people are afraid to speak out in protest, and must work through a medium that cannot be criticized—the Catholic Church in communist Poland, Islam in Middle Eastern dictatorships, or the death of a hero in China.
Americans are free to publicly criticize Trump, unless they are Republican Party officials. In that case, they must offer any criticism in the most subtle way possible, which is hard for us occidentals. Fortunately, some GOP officials have learned from Communist China, and are now offering implicit criticism of Trump via extravagant praise for recently deceased GOP leaders such as McCain and Bush, especially praise focused on exactly those qualities that are lacking in Trump.
PPS. Speaking of China, the American Cultural Revolution has still not crested. As in China circa 1966-76, there is still lots of naming, shaming, and public confessions, especially if you are born into a privileged group. Just today I learned that the holiday song “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” has been banned from a Cleveland radio station. With each new form of idiocy, I naively think it can’t get any worse. I recall thinking the Yale Halloween fiasco was the peak. I’d be interested in the views of commenters—predict the year of “peak idiocy” in the current wave of political correctness. I say two years into the administration immediately following Trump.
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