Crucial trade talks involving hundreds of billions of dollars, global prestige and political fortunes are scheduled to reopen this week between China and the United States. They will close soon after. Nothing much will come of it — again.
“This is a trade war, trade battle, call it anything you want,” says President Donald Trump.
Since early 2015, Trump has been inveighing, accurately, against China’s unfair trade practices, industrial espionage and grand-scale grand larceny of intellectual property. This has been a common complaint of modern U.S. presidents, too often satisfied by vague Chinese promises of reform, never kept.
Trump, as you may have noticed, does not shy from confrontations. Uncommonly, he has actually tried to do something about the trade games and imbalance, using selective tariffs to force a change in China’s international economic behavior. It’s a costly duel for both sides, exacting a price that American leaders have been loathe to pay.
As usual in these juvenile tit-for-tat, they-started-it-first trade confrontations, the other side responds in kind. No change is yet detectable, beyond some pro forma promises to buy more American goods and help right the ridiculously lopsided trade imbalance of $419 billion in Beijing’s favor.
“China would love to make a deal,” Trump claims, as he likes to do with sparse evidence. “We’ll see what happens.”
We certainly will.
The grand dealmaker won’t admit it, but, in truth, he’s in a very tough spot, and his leverage slips by the day. On the surface, China has more to lose than the United States. It sold some $540 billion to the United States last year, a very large tariff target for Trump. China, on the other hand, has only $120 billion of U.S. imports to tax.
Here’s where the real leverage comes in. China’s president, Xi Jinping, faces no real elections or leadership challenges. He can force as much economic pain on anyone he wants, as long as he keeps the military happy. Anyone who challenges Xi suddenly faces serious business/family/jail challenges.
Free elections are what make democracies strong. But not when dealing with other nations, especially those that play by flexible rulebooks. China — indeed, most of Asia — operates on an extended, far more patient timeline than Western countries.
China’s emperors began ruling that vast land 220 years before Christ. China invented paper, printing, the compass and arguably the most impactful invention since the wheel, gunpowder, which had been blowing people and things up for about 1,200 years when American revolutionaries used it to win freedom.
So, you’ll have to excuse China if it’s decided to wait out the remaining months of one puny presidential term in hopes of facing another more amenable U.S. leader. Probably the same patience in Iran and North Korea, maybe Moscow, too.
Reelection is Trump’s top priority. When he’s facing hard-hit Midwestern farmers and manufacturers, will Trump cave?
Again, on Thursday, Chinese representatives will talk and talk with U.S. counterparts. And then talk some more. Dangle a centimeter or two of progress.
Can you blame China? Trump’s loyal base won’t believe this, but most everyone else has a feeling this president’s Oval Office days are numbered, as in 470 days until Jan. 20, 2021. It’s dangerous to dismiss Donald Trump’s chances of success anytime. Ask Hillary Clinton.
He’s had numerous policy successes, for which the media and Washington give him scant credit. A strong economy with the lowest national unemployment rate in a half-century, lowest ever for women, Hispanics, blacks.
Media desperately seek signs of recession. So far, consumer spending, the American economy’s main pillar of growth, remains strong. And holiday spending approacheth.
Trump also exterminated the ISIS caliphate, as promised. He engineered massive tax cuts producing record employment. He fulfilled the promises of numerous presidents, moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem. Slashed regulations. Convinced Congress to rebuild the military badly weakened during former President Barack Obama’s two tedious terms.
But Trump faces a mountain of difficulties, many of his own bulldoggish making. The most recent incident jarring the needle on Washington’s Outrage Meter is this Ukraine phone call. It looks bad, a president trying to use foreign governments to probe domestic opponents.
If you must explain anything in politics, you’ve already lost the argument. Trump has lost the argument, even if there was an explanation. But being Trump, he doubled down.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s political warnings about overkill and blowback were insufficient to stem the fervor of her radical caucus. The country now confronts another impeachment inquiry, and the full impact on both parties next fall — and beyond — cannot be gauged.
This will all be a wondrous boon for the news industry and Pepcid. It will erase any political chances of progress on issues such as infrastructure repairs and drug price reforms.
At times, it seems Trump actually seeks House impeachment charges, knowing the rallying power this latest attack has on his loyal, if minority, base. Such orchestrated opposition attacks usually come in waves. Two whistleblowers now. Expect more.
Trump also knows that barring any unexpected stunners, the GOP Senate won’t find two-thirds to convict. And he counts on a repeat of midterm voters’ anger over Bill Clinton’s 1998 impeachment.
Democrats want to resettle 2016 once and for all. Perhaps voters will grow so tired of turmoil they’ll opt for a Democratic alternative, even one advocating an explosion of spending and government power.
And China just watches and waits.