Donald Trump’s China trade talk is all about politics, not real policy reform

Robert Delaney says the US president has shifted his blame for the American trade deficit from China to past presidents in order to stir the domestic political arguments he thrives on

PUBLISHED : Monday, 13 November, 2017, 12:40pm
UPDATED : Monday, 13 November, 2017, 7:23pm

US President Donald Trump doesn’t need The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board on his case, but perhaps the flattery he received in Beijing emboldened him to ignore growing political problems back at home. 

Trump’s vow in Beijing to change US trade policies and his outcry in Vietnam against multilateral trade agreements raise more questions than answers.

One stands out: does he think he can tread on the interests of US multinationals and their shareholders who profit from made-in-China goods in America?

One of the most provocative moments on Trump’s 12-day tour of Asia came when he said he blamed his immediate White House predecessors, not Beijing, for the steadily growing US-China trade imbalance. 

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Why, he asked, would China not exploit its low-cost manufacturing advantage and other loopholes to close the gap with the US in economic might and sophistication?

Let’s forget that, a year earlier, Trump made accusations of China’s unfair, predatory trading practices central to his foreign policy rhetoric. He says whatever suits the moment, regardless of how it contradicts earlier positions because these transgressions don’t bother his base. 

The question of Beijing’s trade policy is entirely reasonable and might earn Trump respect for his lucidity. However, the blame side of his argument reveals what appears to be extreme naivety, but is more likely a disingenuous, intentionally misleading partisan barb. 

Whether it’s iPhones, air conditioners or T-shirts, most of the profit on goods made in China and sold in America accrues to US shareholders. 

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This is why the US has a trade deficit of almost US$350 billion with China. American shareholders make a lot of money on products that account for the huge trade gap, and these interests are more powerful than the will of any individual in the Oval Office. 

Behind any initiative to whittle down the trade deficit stand thousands of shareholder-funded Washington lobbyists who force lawmakers to uphold the status quo by any means necessary. Attacking Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton for the trade gap is nothing but political opportunism.

Factor in advanced manufacturing technology to the trade scenario, and anyone linking the trade gap directly to the loss of US manufacturing jobs and diminished prospects is making an argument as flimsy as those endorsing trickle-down economics as a panacea for poverty. 

So when Trump said the US must “change its policies”, no wonder he offered no details about how this initiative would unfold.

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Equally unsurprising is The Wall Street Journal’s assessment of Trump’s speech. The publication’s editorial board traditionally aligns with Republican policies, but said Trump’s speech “dismays America’s friends, gives a new opening to China, and threatens the rules-based order Mr. Trump says he wants. The biggest victim will be the United States”.

Daniel Russel, special assistant to Obama and the National Security Council’s senior director for Asian affairs, expressed similar sentiments. In a “Pod Save the World” podcast, he said Trump showed “countries in the region that if you thought this guy and the Americans were going to come riding to your rescue, if you got crosswise with China and tried to invoke some alliance document or some international legal principle, just look because he’s clearly choosing China”.

Trump is always up for a fight because the headlines feed his ego. With the notes he struck in Asia, he’s created entirely new battlegrounds.

Robert Delaney is a US correspondent for the Post based in New York