High-speed trains wait to be maintained in Wuhan, central China's Hubei Province Xinhua/Xiao Yijiu via Getty Images

America’s Weak Case Against China

The US Trade Representative appears to have made an ironclad case against China in the so-called Section 301 report issued on March 22. But the report – now widely viewed as evidence justifying the Trump administration's recent tariffs and other punitive measures against China – is wide of the mark in several key areas.

NEW HAVEN – On the surface, United States Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer appears to have made an ironclad case against China in the so-called Section 301 report issued on March 22. Laid out in a detailed 182-page document (which, with 1,139 footnotes and five appendices, would make any legal team blush with pride), the USTR’s indictment of China on charges of unfair trading practices regarding technology transfer, intellectual property, and innovation seems both urgent and compelling. It has quickly been accepted as foundational evidence in support of the tariffs and other punitive trade measures that President Donald Trump’s administration has initiated against China in recent months. It is powerful ammunition in a potential trade war.

But don’t be fooled. The report is wide of the mark in several key areas. First, it accuses China of “forced technology transfer,” arguing that US companies must turn over the blueprints of proprietary technologies and operating systems in order to do business in China. This transfer is alleged to take place within the structure of joint-venture arrangements – partnerships with domestic counterparts which China and other countries have long established as models for the growth and expansion of new businesses. Currently, there are more than 8,000 JVs operating in China, compared to a total of over 110,000 JVs and strategic alliances that have been set up around the world since 1990.

Significantly, US and other multinational corporations willingly enter into these legally-negotiated arrangements for commercially sound reasons – not only to establish a toehold in China’s rapidly growing domestic markets, but also as a means to improve operating efficiency with a low-cost offshore Chinese platform. Portraying US companies as innocent victims of Chinese pressure is certainly at odds with my own experience as an active participant in Morgan Stanley’s joint venture with the China Construction Bank (and a few small minority investors) to establish China International Capital Corporation in 1995.

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