U.S.-China trade rift deeper than talk alone can mend
Washington — Cake and conversation, it seems, can go only so far to mend longstanding economic rifts between the United States and China.
Three months after President Donald Trump and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, shared chocolate cake at an amiable summit in Florida, tensions between the world’s two biggest economies are flaring again.
Just as officials of the two nations prepare to meet Wednesday in Washington, the Trump administration is considering slapping tariffs on steel imports, a step that risks igniting a trade war.
For the United States, it’s a perilous option to address a problem caused largely by China’s overproduction of steel.
And Trump is criticizing China again for failing to use its economic leverage to rein in its neighbor and ally, the nuclear rogue state North Korea.
Could this week’s U.S.-China Comprehensive Dialogue produce a meaningful breakthrough in economic relations? Most China watchers are skeptical.
For one thing, the points of difference between the two countries run deep. For another, Xi faces political pressures at home and won’t want to cause a stir in Beijing.
For all the tensions between the two nations, Trump’s words about Xi himself have remained warm. He has suggested that the personal bond he formed with Xi when the two met April 6-7 at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort can overcome fundamental differences on trade and national security.
At a White House event Monday, Trump suggested that the relationship is so strong that he asked during the Florida summit to start exporting U.S. beef to China and that the request was quickly granted.
“We welcome this opportunity,” Kenny Graner, a North Dakota cattle farmer who is president of the U.S. Cattlemen’s Association, says of the China market. “They have a middle class that’s growing in income. It’s big, a lot of people.”
After the meeting, the president softened his accusations of abusive Chinese practices, dropped his threat to label China a currency manipulator and expressed optimism that China would pressure North Korea to scale back its nuclear program.
Still, the Trump-Xi relationship has yet to deliver the substantive changes that Trump the candidate had promised voters — a core piece of his mantra to put “America first.” The economic irritants are likely to vex U.S. and Chinese officials this week.
Trump had campaigned on a promise to shrink America’s trade deficits, which he blames for wiping out American factories and manufacturing jobs. The United States last year ran a trade deficit in goods with China of $347 billion, the amount by which imports exceeded exports. It’s by far the widest gap that U.S. has with any country. Trump says China unfairly subsidizes exports.
Take steel. From 2000 to 2016, China accelerated steel production, raising its share of the world market from 15 percent to nearly 50 percent. As Chinese steel poured into the market, global prices fell, hurting American steelmakers. Scissors notes that China has long promised to stop subsidizing steel and to slow production but hasn’t delivered.
The Trump administration responded by invoking a little-used weapon in American trade law that lets the president tax or restrict imports — if a U.S. Commerce Department investigation finds that they imperil national security. The result of Commerce’s investigation of steel imports is expected soon.
The rationale was that the American military relies on steel for airplanes, ships and other equipment. Steel also goes into roads, bridges and other infrastructure.
The problem is that the United States already blocks most Chinese steel imports. So any tariffs or limits on imports would instead hurt other countries, including such staunch allies as Canada and South Korea.
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