America Does Not Want to “Win” The Trade War

Conventional wisdom along with direct statements from Donald Trump would indicate that the US is seeking to use a combination of tariffs and sanctions to try and force both long term trading partners as well as rivals to open their markets to more American goods. While the traditional method to achieve this would be through diplomatic engagement rather than a strategy of geo-economic brinkmanship, it is still widely regarding that the desired result of the current brinkmanship strategy is to force other countries to open their doors to the US more than in previous years and decades.

Yet beyond the rhetorical analysis of both pro-Trump protectionists and global advocates of freer trade, the economic realities of how the US is pursuing its trade war indicate that it is seeking the opposite outcome of that which American policy makers are saying.

One should consider the situations that make the appeal of one’s goods in foreign markets increase. In order to make one’s goods more competitive one generally seeks a currency that is relatively weakened, low interest rates to encourage foreign borrowing, a system that further encourages the opening up of foreign markets to one’s exports in exchange for favourable borrowing conditions, an increase in foreign investment as a means of pursuing reciprocal trade deals as well as negotiating the lowering of tariffs on a bilateral basis. Indeed, these were some of the very policies (and attempted policies) of both the Bush and Obama years.

Instead, Donald Trump has taken the opposite strategy. In addition to pursuing sanctions and/or tariffs on much of the industrialised world including China, Russia the European Union, Turkey, South Korea, Japan, Canada, Mexico, Iran and many more, the US is presently taking a number of other steps which indicate that there is no inherent desire on the part of the Trump administration to make US goods more competitive on the world market.

At present, the US is forcing much of the world into the arms of the Chinese free trading model which would appear to be the opposite of Trump’s publicly described intentions. And yet because Chinese credit lines are now easier to secure and offer better terms than American ones and because China is opening up its own markets more than at any time in its history while openly courting win-win free trading agreements with its partners across the developing world, an increasingly closed door America is making the Chinese open door look all the more appealing.

In addition to the economic “fortress America” making China look more open, reliable and stable in terms of being a long term economic partner by comparison, China’s perennial appeal of being a nation that tends to combine free trading agreements with generous developmental cooperation in Asia, Africa and beyond along with the fact that China does not demand changes to a trading partner’s system of internal governance nor military alliances (quite unlike the US), means that China’s position as the superpower bastion of a new free and fair trading order is becoming increasingly solidified.

At the same time, America’s gradually increasing interest rates. This along with the Federal Reserve’s divestment strategy in the developing world and the resultant strong Dollar has combined to increase the purchasing power of Americans while increasing the real terms debt of much of the developing world that will be looking for new lines of credit in places other than the US – and that’s just among the nations that haven’t been shut out from the US financial system due to sanctions.

Taken in totality, the US is putting immense pressure on all developing nations both fiscally and monetarily. While China must now shoulder much of this burden on behalf of its partners, because China is uniquely well placed to do so, Donald Trump’s policies are actually hastening the long term (and frankly inevitable) ascension of China to the position of not only the world’s number one over all economy in terms of GDP (China has already surpassed the US in terms of purchasing power parity) but Trump is also hastening the rise of China as the world’s leader of a wider free trade consensus and the world’s leading financier for the rest of the developing and even much of the economically developed world.

By using a strong Dollar to increase American purchasing power while making the prospect of trade with the US unappealing both due to monetary realities and due to the fact that the US is now seen as an increasingly unreliable partner (however strong the US economy is), it would appear that Donald Trump is not interested in completing with China. In fact, Trump is playing a completely different game from China entirely so far as trade is concerned.

Rather than look towards rivalling China as an increasingly open economy that prioritises long term sustainable growth and innovation, Trump’s United States is looking to take a road that prioritises self-sufficiency, stability and more modest growth over the long term. While China’s long planned historic opening of its own economy could have been an opportunity seized by Trump to embark on the win-win formula that in Trump’s lexicon is known as “fair trade”, Trump instead decided to escalate his tariff war against China at a time when Beijing is more prepared than ever before to have foreign goods on its shelves, including those from the US. The result has been that while China moves to create more open, free and fair deals with much of the world, the US is being left out. In many ways though this is exactly where Trump wants to be.

Trump’s strategy is therefore far more similar to that of Japan than that of China. In aiming to be a country with high domestic purchasing power but whose goods are naturally overpriced by the standards of purchasing power across the wider world, Trump is preparing the US to become a more insular and self-sufficient economy that is cautious in respect of imports and whose exports will rely on a “take it or leave it” quality rather than one of negotiated or de-facto bilateralism.

Just as Japan continues to rely on the quality of its exports having the ability to overcome questions of cost, it could also be the case that in future years, a protectionist US will resort to the historic Japanese process of selling goods at a loss in order to overwhelm the geo-economic competition and generate revenue in terms of volume rather than on the basis of a dollar-for-dollar sale price.

While the US has to catch up with Japan in terms of education rates and workforce discipline, as a larger nation with vastly more natural resources, the US is actually in a position to become more economically Japanese than Japan so long as it continues to invest in modernising its own domestic industry – something that has been woefully neglected since the late 1970s. If the US hastens its energy self-sufficiency strategy and continues along its current trajectory to be a net energy exporter, the US will become even more secure in its self-sufficiency, not least because energy is among the top commodities that can be shifted on the “take it or leave it” basis.

But if the combination of a strong Dollar and Trump era tax incentives can motivate businesses to re-invest profits into innovation on the Japanese model, it could well be that in spite of short term hostility towards a free trading world order, a long term and perhaps counter-intuitive win-win could be the result of Trump’s overall reckless trading strategy.

The subtext of Trump’s anti-China narrative is that ‘the world is not big enough for the both of us’. The subtext of this subtext is that China and the US cannot both be leaders of a free trading world order. Clearly someone will be ahead of the other in such a circumstance. But rather than taking steps to integrate a US industrial base that has suffered since the 1980s through a combination of lethargy and divestment into the One Belt-One Road initiative on the classical principles of a cooperative win-win basis, Trump has decided to go the opposite direction and adopt Japanese economic characteristics of caution, a closed attitude to imports and the infamous ‘take it or leave it’ export strategy.

Just as modern China and modern Japan coexist in spite not only of antithetical economic practices and a dark geopolitical history, so too might a win-win scenario unfold in future years where a less globally involved US economy learns to coexist with an outward looking and forward thinking Chinese economy. Of course, many nations are suffering in the interim. That being said, so long as China can work with its partners across the developing world to weather the current crisis, there could be light at both ends of the tunnel for the partners of both major economic superpowers that are each travelling in the opposite direction, in spite of a great deal of unfortunate and unnecessary collateral damage in the interim period.

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