The key to avoiding a US-China trade war

PUBLISHED : Monday, 17 September, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 17 September, 2007, 12:00am

A top-level group, chaired by the US secretary of health and human services, last week issued strategic recommendations to President George W. Bush to improve the safety of products imported to America. Indeed, since the April recall of more than 150 brands of contaminated pet food from China, the safety of Chinese food and consumer products has become a major concern for Americans.

While the product safety issue is important, it is equally important to retain a rational view of US-China trade and not allow individual cases or political rhetoric to instigate a trade war.

Both the Chinese and US governments are engaged in active diplomacy to establish a framework which promotes trade while protecting consumers. These efforts will ultimately lead to closer co-operation and the enforcement of agreements.

The negotiations present a critical opportunity for US officials to discuss the recommendations of the Interagency Working Group on Import Safety with their Chinese counterparts. The US should raise three points. First, it must be clear that the broad recommendations are not targeting China. US officials are well aware that imports come from 150 countries, and Chinese assertions that other nations have also had shipments rejected in the past 12 months have merit. The working group's report is aimed at all US imports.

Second, US regulators will be looking to 'public-private partnerships' to help support long-term solutions. Likewise, Beijing should take industry's concerns seriously and work more closely with them.

Finally, US officials should impress upon their counterparts that long-term, substantive and transparent solutions are needed if the 'Made in China' brand is to win back consumer confidence.

Chinese Vice-Premier Wu Yi recently announced a four-month 'war' on unsafe products. The US should clearly state that it expects a zero-tolerance attitude for defective products. The fact that other countries export defective or sub-standard products is not relevant, either. Improving the quality and safety of products will require substantive, long-term efforts on the part of the Chinese government and industry.

Consultations will help ensure Chinese officials do not think that US efforts are political or part of a conspiracy to undermine Chinese industry, or balance bilateral trade. The current strategic framework will be followed up by an 'action plan' of recommendations. Bilateral engagement prior to the plan's release will build trust, and encourage more co-operation and transparency. A lack of engagement could result in tit-for-tat measures or new restrictions on US exports.

China faces many internal challenges to establishing a system that ensures its exports are safe, and officials acknowledge this. Working together to assuage concerns will ultimately avert a potential trade war and ensure safe and affordable products for US consumers.

Drew Thompson is the director of China Studies and Starr Senior Fellow at The Nixon Centre in Washington