Understanding the U.S.-China Trade War


Three major concerns drove the U.S. into initiating the trade war, and they are (a) the concern that China’s chronically large trade surplus was depressing job creation in the U.S. (b) the concern that China was using illegal and unfair methods to acquire U.S. technology at an effectively discounted price; and (c) the concern that China seeks to weaken U.S. national security and its international standing. On the dispute over China’s exchange rate and trade imbalance, the first conclusion is that it was marked by analytical confusion over the meaning of the term ‘equilibrium exchange rate’. The second conclu- sion is that China’s trade imbalance reflects the economic conditions in both China and U.S., and that the efficient and fair solution of the problem requires policy changes in both countries. On the industrial policy dispute, the first conclusion is that the issue of forced technol- ogy transfer is largely a dispute about China using its market power to benefit itself at the expense of its trade partners. The second conclu- sion is that China’s use of market power can last only until the other large countries could unite and retaliate as a group. The inevitability of retaliation means that China should replace the joint-venture (JV) mechanism for technological diffusion with other ways to strengthen its technological capability. On the U.S. concern about whether China trade weakens its national security, the first conclusion is that the notion of national security that is commonly adopted in the U.S. trade policy debate is ignorant about the primary determinants of U. S. capability in innovation. By focusing instead mainly on how to hold down China technologically, the long-run outcome will be a techno- logically weaker U.S. and hence, a more vulnerable U.S. The second conclusion is that the U.S. must identify a clear, short list of critical technologies and critical infrastructure for the recently reformed Committee for Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) to cover, and update this list constantly. Otherwise, the broad and chan- ging nature of notions about national security would allow the bureau- cratically driven phenomenon of mission-creep to steadily expand the coverage of the CFIUS process, thereby steadily rendering CFIUS to be operationally capricious. Our principal policy suggestion to China is that, because China’s economy in 2018 is very different from that in 1978 (e.g. many parts of China now look like Singapore and China is Africa’s biggest donor), there should be more reciprocity in China’s trade and investment relations with the advanced economies despite China’s status as a developing economy under WTO rules. Our princi- pal policy suggestion to President Trump is to stop equating strategic competition with economic competition. Strategic competition is nor- mally a zero-sum game. While fair economic competition is usually a zero-sum game in the short run, it generally creates a win-win out- come in the long run.

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