American Trade Policy: China & Moral Values

President Donald Trump greets Chinese Vice Premier Liu He after signing phase one of the U.S.-China trade agreement in the East Room of the White House, January 15, 2020. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

We should prefer a moral approach, or we are likely to be worse off both morally and materially.

Since Donald Trump announced his candidacy in June 2015, trade policy has emerged as one of the more contentious issues on the American right. For decades, with some notable exceptions, the Republican Party generally championed free trade while many Democrats warned that it was leading to the offshoring of American jobs — particularly in the manufacturing sector. Trump adopted the latter view, and accused both his primary opponents and Hillary Clinton of betraying American interests with their thoughtless support of trade deals such as NAFTA and TPP. Three and a half years into Trump’s presidency and many rounds of tariffs later, the Right remains divided between its prior orthodoxy and Trump’s reflexive protectionism.

Concerning trade with China specifically, however, Trump has been more successfully persuasive, with many assenting to his case for tariffs. A September 2019 Harvard CAPS/Harris poll found that although a majority of Americans disliked paying higher prices as a result of Trump’s tariffs on China, 67 percent said they believed that it was “necessary to confront China over its trade practices.” Polling from YouGov/The Economist in December confirmed that Republicans, Democrats, and Independents all believed, by at least 28 point margins, that China engaged in unfair trade practices with the United States. The same poll showed that over half of all three groups saw China as either “unfriendly” to the U.S. or an outright enemy.

Yet not everyone who agrees that China is a delinquent trading partner or should be treated as an enemy agrees on what our priorities should be in confronting the burgeoning superpower. And these divergent priorities are bound to have downstream effects on how the U.S. prosecutes the trade war.

Aside from economic competition, China also represents an ideological challenge to the model of liberal democracy championed by the U.S. In Xinjiang, China has rounded up its Uyghur Muslim population and put them in concentration camps. What is happening there can rightly and should be called a genocide. In Hong Kong, China has shown just how quickly a state possessing the arbitrary power and resources of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) can strip a people of their autonomy and freedoms. In Taiwan, it would like to do the same. For third-wave neoconservatives and those sympathetic to that worldview, these serve as far more compelling justifications for tariffs than the traditional economic arguments.

In other quarters of the right, these human-rights concerns are considered second- or third-order reasons for the trade war. Bringing back manufacturing jobs is the driving ambition of these conservatives’ support of an aggressive posture toward China. Some members of this camp take it even further, worrying aloud that offshoring to places such as Taiwan is troubling because it could put pressure on the U.S. to intervene should China invade the free island off of its southeastern coast.

Articulating this view in American Compass, Marshall Auerback argues that the U.S.’s goal should be “not to underwrite the freedom aspirations of another country (even a vibrant multi-party democracy such as Taiwan)” but to rebuild its own manufacturing sector. Auerback urges his readers to “consider the full implications of a perceived military ‘solution’” which he speculates as being “thousands of lives” and a “long-term quagmire.” This argument makes plain the difference in philosophy and policy preferences between the moral and material trade warriors. Auerback and his compatriots see industrial policy as a valuable tool to be used indiscriminately with all trading partners — a tool that has the added benefit of keeping the U.S. isolated and uninvolved in controversies such as those in Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. Setting aside the economic arguments over protectionism, neoconservative types view trade policy as a way to signal to the Chinese Communist Party that the U.S. is willing to confront it on myriad issues, including human rights.

The ultimate question dividing these two groups is whether an aggressive tariff regime should be seen as a conduit to a more isolationist or interventionist foreign policy in East Asia. To advocate the former is to not only morally indefensible, but would ultimately undermine the economic interests that the “pure” protectionists value.

While Auerback and those inclined to agree with his priorities may find it easy to dismiss the rights of Uyghurs, Hong Kongers, and Taiwanese to life, speech, religion, and self-determination as superfluous to American foreign policy, I would argue that they are essential. Under its current regime, China is not just an economic power, but also an expansionist one, seeking power and influence far from its borders. This expansionary instinct is observable not only in China’s Belt and Road Initiative, but also in its activity in the South China Sea, espionage activities in the U.S., and steady infiltration of supposedly trustworthy international institutions such as the World Health Organization.

To stop the Chinese from eclipsing the U.S. as the world’s dominant power, we must not only outcompete them economically, diplomatically, and militarily, but morally as well. Tariffs must not be relegated to the role of cold economic mechanism, but instead to that of a moral statement, used to condemn a regime that blindfolds and binds religious minorities before shipping them off to concentration camps, as a video from a year ago showed the CCP doing. Unfortunately, as much as it looks like a scene straight out of Schindler’s List, we know that the Uyghurs are facing even worse.

Moreover, the hands-off approach regarding Taiwan favored by Auerback would be an economic disaster for the U.S. Were China to invade — an action that could be deterred by more support of the Taiwanese, not less — the Chinese would have access to even more resources and capital than they do now, rendering them more able to outcompete us, not less.

Even Joe Biden — whose plan for addressing the Chinese threat is non-existent — has declared that there “is no back to business as usual on trade.” So regardless of who occupies the Oval Office in January, the trade war will continue. How we prosecute it will depend on whether our chief concerns are moral or materialistic. We should prefer a moral approach, or we are likely to be worse off on both fronts.

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