trump xi jinping JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images

Xi and Trump Miss Their Chance

A successful US-Japan agreement on structural reforms three decades ago could potentially serve as a useful model for the current China-US trade negotiations. But Chinese President Xi Jinping appears to care only about maintaining political control, while US President Donald Trump seems to care only about himself.

CAMBRIDGE – President Donald Trump has postponed until at least April the supposed deadline for concluding the United States’ current trade negotiations with China. A good outcome for both sides would be reached if China agreed to protect property rights better and reduce the state’s role in its economy; the US agreed to strengthen national saving and public investment; and both sides agreed to reverse their recent tariff increases. Unfortunately, this is not the deal that is likely to materialize.

For starters, Trump fixates on the bilateral US merchandise trade deficit. The Chinese could probably deliver on the verifiable – but worthless – step of committing to buy more US soybeans, natural gas, and other commodities. But this would have little or no effect on the overall US trade balance, because the US would export less soybeans and natural gas to other countries. Congressional Democrats would rightly point out that the gain was illusory, again highlighting the irrelevance of bilateral trade balances. The more meaningful measure – the overall US trade deficit – widened last year, the predictable result of Trump’s budget-busting fiscal policy.

The US and other countries have more legitimate complaints against China regarding technology transfer and intellectual property rights. The effective way to pursue these grievances would have been in cooperation with allies, via multilateral institutions such as the World Trade Organization or the Trans-Pacific Partnership. But Trump has gone out of his way to take the opposite approach, making progress difficult.

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