If Washington was Serious About the China Economic Challenge

Alan Tonelson |

However understandable, the intense administration and media focus during Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s U.S. visit on Beijing’s cyber-hacking has overshadowed several other major Chinese threats to American national security and economic well-being – and the need to fix U.S. strategies that are failing badly to cope with them. High on the list is China’s widespread practice of extorting corporate investment and technology transfer by threatening to shut uncooperative companies out of its large and potentially bigger market. And this blackmail deserves special attention this week because two big examples of it have made it into the news recently.

The first involves Boeing, which apparently will build its first foreign factory in China – a move that not so coincidentally coincided with China’s announcement that it would buy 300 Boeing jets. The second was Cisco Systems’ decision to start cooperating with a Chinese server company on projects that reportedly could include developing new telecommunications hardware products. This deal has followed several years in which Cisco has encountered big trouble in China due to fall-out from Edward Snowden’s techno-spying revelations and charges, and to Beijing’s policy of punishing American companies after Congress in effect froze China’s version of Cisco out of the U.S. market due to espionage concerns.

Since aerospace and telecommunications are clearly central to military strength, these American corporate cave-ins could easily endanger national security – unless you believe that they’ll forever remain in their current limited form. So more effective responses are urgently needed – unless Washington wants to face ever more harmful Chinese cyber-hacking (see this article of mine on how American firms have undoubtedly shared advanced cyber-war-related technologies with China), or ever better armed Chinese forces in possible future military showdowns in the South China Sea and other disputed Asian waters.

The companies themselves explain their agreement to China’s trade and investment conditions with the “half-a-loaf” argument, and it’s not completely unreasonable. They’re obviously not thrilled to be helping create likely new competitors (whether they care about American security is another matter entirely), but they point out that any China business they preserve or gain via their cooperation is more than they’d have without the China market. In fact, Beijing has used its leverage to string them along effectively enough that they’re reluctant even to complain about their China troubles to Washington – for fear of becoming targets for Chinese retaliation, and of excessively rocking the boat of bilateral economic relations generally.

But although the companies’ behavior may be justifiable from their own individual standpoints, their unavoidably narrow, self-interested perspectives make clear why they can’t be relied to protect or advance broader U.S. interests. Washington needs to take the lead. But can it do so without imposing heavy costs on these firms? To me, the answer clearly is “Yes” – and not just because China’s economy is slowing down. The key to success is understanding that a case-by-case approach inevitably leaves China in the driver’s seat, and that the United States can and should capitalize on position as an export market desperately needed by China to ensure adequate growth.

Severely restricting China’s access to this American market would grab Beijing’s attention not only for economic reasons. Chinese leaders would begin worrying about their political futures – and their own personal well-being – since their hold on power depends so strongly on delivering jobs and rising incomes to the country’s increasingly restive population. Moreover, even keeping in mind that short-term costs for the U.S. economy are inevitable – because policy shifts of this magnitude are always disruptive, and because it may take Beijing a while to get the message – the most obvious objections are surprisingly easy to dismiss.

Where will affected companies find customers to replace those they may temporarily lose in China? In many cases, in the American market, because the smaller U.S. trade deficit with China that would result from import curbs would spur more American growth overall. Moreover, so much U.S.-China trade nowadays is “head-to-head,” (in which the same goods compete with each other), that many American firms could fill the gap left by missing Chinese imports. And when it comes to U.S. companies that can’t make up China losses this way, government compensation seems appropriate.

Given Washington’s willingness to bail out Wall Street and auto-makers for blunders largely of their own making, subsidies look defensible for firms in the line of fire of whatever trade conflict develops. (One possible caveat: Many larger, multinational companies rely on China business heavily because they lobbied so effectively for the U.S. China trade policies that have created their vulnerabilities – and other major damage to the American economy – in the first place. So there’s also a case for letting them take their lumps, at least to some extent.)

If such subsidies don’t pass muster politically in the United States, another alternative is available to Washington: using the power of the American market to dissuade non-Chinese competitors to U.S. firms from seizing the opportunities created by these new American policies to boost their own China sales. Although the American firms’ China sales would remain lost, they at least wouldn’t lose competitve ground to foreign rivals.

Further, giving these third-party companies and countries the choice of doing business with China, or with the far bigger – and more reliable – United States would have the added benefit of adding international support to American efforts to fight Chinese protectionism and economic predation.  Working with Washington would also aid foreign governments and companies by reducing China’s scope to play trade partners off against one another. 

Finally, it’s true that the kind of jobs and even technology extortion used by China are standard operating procedures – especially in aerospace and in military aerospace – for many foreign governments, including those of U.S. allies. So how could Washington justify singling out China for counter-measures? Yet when it comes to allies and their policies (called offsets), the answer couldn’t be more evident: They’re allies and China manifestly is not. It makes no sense whatever to treat all foreign governments and economies the same when their relationships with the United States are so dramatically different, and this kind of foolish consistency certainly shouldn’t hamstring America’s approach to China’s economic transgressions.

There is, however, one obstacle to this kind of revamp of U.S.-China economic relations that I don’t see being overcome anytime soon – the continued domination of China policy-making in Washington by those aforementioned multinational, offshoring-happy business interests. The China policy status quo has undermined the American economy’s productive core, and increasingly threatens national security. But the offshoring lobby believes it’s worked well enough for its members. So until a critical mass of national political leaders decides to reject their lavish campaign contributions, expect China to keep taking America to the cleaners. And when Chinese actions sting enough, expect a few grumbles from the multinationals – no doubt mainly for show.

DISCLOSURE: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors, and do not represent the views of equities.com. Readers should not consider statements made by the author as formal recommendations and should consult their financial advisor before making any investment decisions. To read our full disclosure, please go to: http://www.equities.com/disclaimer


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