Is it just a phase? Redesigning trade deals in the age of Trump
Published 16 January 2020
The US-China trade deal attempts to rewire China's economic system, something so complex it requires building it in phases. What does this tell us about how trade deals are being redesigned in the age of Trump?
Comprehensive is out, “phased” is in
Within the first few months of the Trump Administration in 2017, the U.S. Trade Representative issued a report identifying intellectual property theft and forced technology transfer as crucial sources of China’s growing technological advantage at the expense of US innovation. Tariffs would be applied until a trade deal to address these practices could be reached.
But expectations had to be reset early in the negotiations – China’s offenses cannot be pinpointed to one set of laws, regulations or practices, and so the complex wiring of China’s national approach cannot be untangled or rewired in one pass, in one agreement, even if China shared that goal. An agreement this ambitious would have to be built in phases.
In presenting the “Phase One” agreement signed between the United States and China on January 15, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer said the deal represents “a big step forward in writing the rules we need” to address the anti-competitive aspects of China’s state-run economy. And it is a serious document.
Beyond its detailed provisions, the strategic and commercial impact of the deal will take more time to evaluate. What is clear in the meanwhile, is that this administration has departed from the standard free trade agreement template.
Comprehensive agreements are out. Partial or phased agreements are in.
It’s common in trade negotiations to whittle down differences, leaving the hardest issues to the end. Early wins keep parties at the table, building a set of outcomes in which the parties become invested and more willing to forge compromises around the remaining difficult issues. One way to avoid settling for deals that leave aside the most meaningful – and often hardest – concessions is to stipulate that “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.”
For this administration, however, the art of the deal is – quite simply – closing the elements of the deal available. With China, that may be the best and only way for the United States to achieve a deal. And it may very well represent significant progress. At turns, a larger deal looked as if it would collapse under its own political weight in China. Some things agreed is probably a better outcome than nothing agreed.
A way out or a way forward?
The deal lays down tracks for more detailed intellectual property rights and newer prohibitions on forced technology transfer. Among other commitments, the deal also breaks ground on previously intractable regulatory barriers to selling more US agricultural and food products in China including dairy, poultry, meat, fish, and grains. But it does not address subsidies provided to China’s state-owned enterprises, a complaint shared by all of China’s major trading partners, Having dodged the issue for now, China may have created an advantage by stringing out its commitments over phases.
The Trump administration brought China to the table with billions in tariffs on imported goods. While compelling, it is not a durable approach. The US macroeconomy is withstanding the self-inflicted pain, but tariffs have real and negative effects on US farmers and business owners who will vote in November. Even a temporary tariff détente is a welcome respite, but uncertainty remains. And while we wait to see if the provisions on intellectual property and technology transfer prove fruitful, what of the lost agricultural sales for US farmers and sunk costs for US businesses?
As part of the deal (a part that gets phased out), China committed to shop for US$200 billion in American goods and services over the next two years, including more than US$77 billion in manufactured goods, US$52 billion in energy products, US$32 billion in agricultural goods and US$40 billion in services. If fulfilled, the purchases in Phase One would appear to solve the problem of waning US exports to China, but that was a problem of our own making so the administration might only merit partial credit for this part of the deal.
Journey of a thousand miles
Of course, the Trump administration’s phased and partial approach to reaching trade deals may simply stem from impatience or a focus on the transactional – comprehensive deals take too long to complete. But the approach may also make sense if these deals are stepping-stones in a bigger, longer game.
In a June 2018 report, the White House offered a taxonomy of 30 different ways the Chinese government acquires American technologies and intellectual property, including through US exports of dual-use technologies, Chinese investments in the United States, and the extraction of competitive information through research arms of universities and companies in the United States.
Ambitious as it is, the administration is not limiting itself to the new Economic and Trade Agreement to solve all the problems it identified. The Department of Justice has initiated intellectual property theft cases, the Department of Commerce is expanding controls over the export of dual-use technologies, and the Treasury Department oversees a process to tighten reviews of proposed inward investments.
A Chinese proverb says that “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Concerns the administration will not limit or end its quest with Phase One were evident in the letter from President Xi read aloud at the signing which urged continued engagement to avoid further “discriminatory restrictions” on China’s economic activity in the United States.
Just a phase?
Beyond engagement with China, the administration has nearly consistently favored partial deals, with the United States-Mexico-Canada agreement (USMCA) the exception. NAFTA needed to be modernized. Our economies have changed too much for the deal to keep pace without some upgrades. Could the modifications have been achieved without replacing the deal? Probably, but perhaps not politically, or it might have been done years sooner. NAFTA’s facelift as USMCA offered a chance for the administration to fashion provisions it intends for broader application, such as those on currency and state-owned enterprises. Though it replaced NAFTA, USMCA changes constitute a partial re-negotiation.
With Japan, the administration set much narrower parameters, hiving off market access and digital trade as an initial set of deliverables. Last September, President Trump finalized a partial trade deal with Prime Minister Abe that went into effect on January 1. Limited in scope, it encompasses two separate agreements that only cover market access for certain agriculture and industrial goods and digital trade.
The White House characterized the partial deal as a set of “early achievements,” with follow-on negotiations on trade in services, investment and other issues to commerce around April this year. But crucially, the partial deal enabled the United States to avoid addressing its own tariffs on autos and auto parts, which comprise nearly 40 percent of Japan’s merchandise exports to the United States, while securing access to Japan’s market for US agricultural exports.
The United States also restarted talks in 2018 on a partial trade agreement with the European Union that is stalemated over whether to include agriculture.
Preferential market access deals are an exception to WTO commitments. WTO members have agreed that free trade agreements outside the WTO should cover “substantially all trade” among the parties and that staging of tariff reductions are part of interim arrangements, not an end state. But with comprehensive negotiations stalled in the WTO itself, members are trying new negotiating approaches such as focusing on single sectors, like information technologies.
Although there was little mention of state-owned enterprises and subsidies in the US-China Phase One deal, something important happened on the margins of that ceremony that received little attention: The trade ministers of Japan, the United States and European Union released a joint statement proposing ways to strengthen the WTO’s provisions on industrial subsides, which they called “insufficient to tackle market and trade distorting subsidization existing in certain jurisdictions,” a reference to China. The statement proposed elements of new core disciplines – a first phase if you will in launching more formal negotiations among WTO members.
The deal signed with China this week envisions reforms to China’s laws, regulations and policies as they apply to any foreign company operating in China, not just the American ones. Perhaps our trading partners see it (only partially) as a go-it-alone strategy and partially as a way to create a corps of provisions that can be migrated to the WTO.
Construction phases: Trump’s real estate mindset
How is the real estate business like trade policy? It isn’t, except in the mind of Donald Trump. Buildings can be demolished or imploded in seconds. A giant hole is dug before its replacement is built. The builder then pours the concrete foundation constructs the frame long before wiring the interior and installing the finishes.
Maybe a phased trade deal represents the opportunity to reset the footing and frame out a solid structure for the future of US-China trade relations – and the finishing touches will come later.
Access the full agreement.
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