At their Dec. 1 meeting in Buenos Aires, Presidents Xi Jinping and Donald Trump agreed to launch yet another round of intense trade negotiations. Xi’s primary motivation was to avoid an escalation in U.S. tariffs aimed at leveraging Beijing to implement reforms.
The Americans want to redress problems in four areas: market access for U.S. exports; the treatment of foreign investment in China and forced technology transfer; the broader protection of U.S. intellectual property in China including state-enabled intellectual property theft; and export subsidies.
Much of this ground has been covered in past negotiations that yielded agreements that Beijing ultimately failed to honor. And much on the U.S. list flies in the face of Beijing’s Made in 2025 program to achieve global dominance in the chip-making and software technologies that define artificial intelligence.
True to form, Chinese officials emerged from the Buenos Aires refusing to even admit they accepted the U.S. agenda. They characterized these latest talks as focusing on eliminating the limited tariffs the U.S. has already imposed in exchange for beefing up purchases of U.S. agricultural products and energy.
However, the U.S. tariffs are blamed for toughening economic conditions, and Xi, facing internal pressures from within the Communist Party for souring relations with the United States, now seems willing to address a broader range of issues.
China’s mercantilist policies, espionage and discriminatory private behavior are so embedded in the culture of its authoritarian, socialist government and private sector it is hard to see how any agreement reached by the March 1 deadline can fundamentally resolve commercial tensions. And given the failure of past agreements, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer has placed unusually high emphasis on verification mechanism for compliance.
Ultimately, the winners will be Beijing and large U.S. multinationals, like Google and GM, who are so intoxicated with penetrating China’s large markets that they abandon national loyalty. And Wall Street financial houses, who arrange for the financing that outsources American jobs and recycles the dollars that China steals through its bilateral trade surplus into ownership of American businesses, real estate and securities.
Those decadent interests are effectively represented in the Trump administration by Goldman Sachs alumni Secretary Steven Mnuchin.
It is noteworthy, for example, that he was rewarded by Xi for brokering the Buenos Aires armistice with concessions loosening restrictions on the activities of U.S. banks in China. Those will further both Beijing’s and Wall Street’s agendas to move U.S. factories to the Middle Kingdom and do nothing to alleviate American complaints about China’s high-tech kleptocracy.
It is important to recognize Trump is negotiating with a repressive criminal regime.
Beijing persecutes its Muslim and Buddhist minorities, harvests prisoners’ organs for transplant, tightly controls internet content, and monitors the actions and thoughts of its citizens to compel ideological purity and robotic behavior.
Those should elicit cries of outrage and support for more substantial American policies punishing Chinese violations of human rights and international commitments from activists like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and congressional Democrats generally.
However, either they are too enamored with Chinese socialism or too bent on defeating Trump in 2020 to voice any support for his efforts.
It all smells of decay, and Beijing may have time on its side.
The midterm shellacking Republicans took after Trump campaigned so vigorously on their behalf likely confirmed in Xi’s mind that the president will soon be a lame duck and just needs to be slow-walked a bit longer.
Still Mitt Romney and Hillary Clinton both promised to slap on big tariffs to move China to open its markets or at least unilaterally reduce the $360 billion bilateral trade imbalance, and Xi is miscalculating if he believes he will have an easier time with the next U.S. president.
In the end the current talks could produce a large and complex text that yields little significant progress in reducing the trade imbalance and only a temporary hold on some of China’s more egregious offenses.
The 2015 agreement to end state-sponsored commercial espionage offers a cautionary tale. For a few years, Beijing redirected its pirates toward more vulnerable targets in Asia and Europe but then, when President Barack Obama left office, resumed directly stealing American intellectual property.
If that repeats with the agreements that come out of the current round of negotiations, historians may conclude Buenos Aires was Trump’s Munich moment.
Peter Morici is an economist and business professor at the University of Maryland, and a national columnist. © 2019, The Washington Times, LLC.