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Tariffs Won’t Fix Our China Problems
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Tariffs Won’t Fix Our China Problems

Both presidential candidates are responding to a long-term threat with short-term economic nationalism.

Lee Yu-shun, a former pro-democracy district councilor, leaves the West Kowloon Magistrates' Courts during a break in a verdict hearing for 47 pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong, China, on May 30, 2024. The court found 14 opposition figures guilty in the city's largest national security case that targeted scores of pro-democracy activists. (Photo by Martin Henery/Anadolu via Getty Images)

In Hong Kong, the local factota operating in the interests of Beijing have convicted 14 democracy activists of subversion for the crime—and it is, under local law, a crime—of working to organize a slate of candidates for office who would work for liberty and democracy in Hong Kong. In a moment of perhaps unintentional candor, the junta pretending to be a court of law found that electing such candidates would provoke “a constitutional crisis for Hong Kong,” which is, of course, entirely true, though perhaps not in the way the authorities meant it. 

This is one of those periodic reminders that Washington cannot articulate a coherent China policy because Washington cannot figure out what kind of relationship the United States should have with the so-called People’s Republic of China. Answering that question is probably going to be the most important foreign policy issue of the next half-century or more. Unhappily, the two main competing currents of thought on U.S.-China relations are represented at the moment by Joe Biden and Donald Trump, which means that they are barely competing currents at all but instead are two very closely related variations on the theme of short-term parochial economic nationalism. Biden wants a 100 percent tariff on Chinese-made electric cars; Trump, in … contrast? …  prefers a 100-percent tariff on Chinese-made electric cars, other Chinese-made vehicles, and pretty much everything else made in China

Washington talks as though the United States were on the verge of war with China. Our top foreign policy thinkers have been describing China as a U.S. enemy—as the main U.S. enemy—for a quarter-century. Some 40 percent of Americans describe China as an “enemy.” Beijing, for its part, makes practically no effort to disguise its belligerent attitude toward the United States. And, yet, relations between the two countries are, at the formal level, utterly normal. The two countries enjoy ordinary diplomatic relations; there is a robust market for air travel between the countries, one that is returning to normal after a COVID-era disruption; and, most famously, the two nations are seemingly locked into a trade relationship that is politically thorny but apparently inescapable as an economic matter. 

About that trade relationship, some clarification often is needed. China is the third-largest single-country market for U.S. exports, behind (surprise!) Canada and Mexico, our rich neighbor to the north and our less-rich neighbor to the south, countries with which the United States has enjoyed a long and productive relationship of open trade. U.S. exports to China ($150 billion in 2022) are well less than half of U.S. exports to either Canada ($357 billion) or Mexico ($324 billion). U.S. exports to China also are well below those to the European Union ($350 billion). Total U.S. exports exceed $2 trillion a year. What that means is that our economic relationship with China is one of convenience and not, as would-be isolationists sometimes insist, one of dependency. 

Exports are politically easy. Imports are politically fraught, thanks in large part to the economic illiteracy of Americans who elect politicians promising to protect them from being victimized by abundance and low prices. For millennia, kings and emperors fielded armies and navies to keep trade routes open and to establish trade relationships that would enrich their kingdoms. That was then. Today, the world brings everything it has to offer to our shores and lays it down at Americans’ feet—and, somehow, this is a crisis

But, of course, it isn’t.

The problem with the U.S.-China trade relationship is not the economic aspect, whatever Biden or Trump wants you to believe. It may be a moral problem: Surely I am not the only American who would be willing to pay twice as much for a screwdriver if I could walk into Harbor Freight and buy one that wasn’t manufactured in a single-party police state by a Beijing-backed cartel that might very well employ slave labor. But, in spite of what our economic nationalists insist, it isn’t the cartelization and the slave labor that makes Chinese manufacturing competitive; in the long run, these woeful features of Chinese governance probably make local firms less competitive. (As you might expect, given the nature of the regime, China suffers from massive misallocation of capital and consequent economic problems.) In the case of the aforementioned tools and many other manufactured goods, you can find comparable products at comparable prices made by Chinese people working in a very free market in Taiwan. And you can find other alternatives of non-Chinese origin, if you look a bit.

Which is to say: The problem with the U.S.-China relationship isn’t that the scheming corporatists in Beijing are putting price pressure on tool manufacturers in Wisconsin. U.S. manufacturing has been kicking ass and taking names for a very long time, and output has been at or near record highs in recent years. U.S. manufacturing output today is five times what it was in the supposed golden days of the 1950s and 1960s. 

The problem with the U.S.-China relationship is, in effect, everything except the economic cooperation between the countries, which has—icky though the fact may make us feel sometimes—left both countries better off. The problem Washington should have with China is that China is a single-party police state with a nuclear arsenal and plans to dominate its region and ultimately to replace the United States at the apex of power. The question of whether the United States is better off with a richer China than it would have been with a poorer China is a legitimate one; my own view is that a poorer China would have been even more brutal than the China we have today and that, having less to lose, it would have been even more prone to disruptive behavior. Notice that the recent economic troubles in China have left the regime more aggressive rather than more accommodating. 

Our problem with China is not fundamentally an economic one. And so it isn’t a problem that is going to be fixed with tariffs. 

At the same time, the situation necessarily must be tense—and precarious—when the United States maintains a seemingly normal and fruitful economic relationship with China while our relationship with the country is strained and thoroughly abnormal at the highest level. The status quo is effectively that the United States and China intend to go on making money from one another while they wait—and prepare—to go to war with one another. That war would be catastrophic, but it is not an inevitability. 

How should the U.S. proceed, given the reality of our relationship with China? It is remarkable how little serious thought seems to have been given to the issue by the people in Washington who might make a difference. The Biden administration, for its part, is preoccupied with trying to gin up a few new electric-vehicle jobs at China’s expense in the hopes that the promise of more will pull the president over the line in November in a few old Rust Belt constituencies that have threatened to abandon Biden and his party for reasons that are, in general, more than understandable. As short-term and shallow thinking goes, that wins the gold medal.  

On the other hand, we already know what kind of man the Trump administration is going to listen to when it comes to China: Currently incarcerated nut cutlet Peter Navarro tops the list. Expect more tariff talk—more of the same.

But the emblem of our trouble with Beijing isn’t the “Made in China” label on all the flip-flops in Walmart. It is those 14 enemies of the state in Hong Kong. If there is somebody in Washington who understands that, he should try to introduce himself to Joe Biden or commit whatever kind of crime is necessary to catch the attention of Donald Trump these days. 

Kevin D. Williamson is national correspondent at The Dispatch and is based in Virginia. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 15 years as a writer and editor at National Review, worked as the theater critic at the New Criterion, and had a long career in local newspapers. He is also a writer in residence at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. When Kevin is not reporting on the world outside Washington for his Wanderland newsletter, you can find him at the rifle range or reading a book about literally almost anything other than politics.