China-US trade relations have traversed quite a journey. Thanks to multiple rounds of negotiations, the “trade war” has de-escalated into mere trade friction, which is on the course to be settled through a comprehensive trade agreement. Common sense finally prevails, to the benefit of both sides and the world at large.
The trade war was in a sense inevitable, as China has transformed itself from a mediocre developing economy to an emerging market behemoth, exercising global leadership. This transformation prompts political elites in the US to see US-China relations through a revisionist lens -- they thus see to restructure the relationship in one way or another. There are some subtle differences between President Trump and the hawkish establishment circle, in that the president focuses almost single-mindedly on narrowing the trade deficit to achieve what he perceives as fair trade, while the latter will not settle for anything less than a structural change in China according to US design.
That said, we should put the gap between Trump’s pragmatic mindset and the hawks’ conservatism into perspective, as they have shared purpose, driven partly by domestic pressure to reach a settlement with China and partly by political consensus to contain China. The conflicting interests between China and the US hail from structural issues and competition for supremacy, thus negating the possibility that just one agreement could apply a quick fix.
Underlying the trade frictions is more than the need to rebalance trade ties, but concerns over the spread of China’s economic model at the expense of US influence. The US seems to center the ongoing trade negotiations around China’s “structural issues,” suggesting that the trade deficit is caused by one-sided institutional inadequacies on the part of China. The truth is that the US doesn’t want to embrace the prospect of a China-centric model of globalization in parallel with the existing America-centric model. China’s growth model is gaining traction across the globe and has already touched a raw political nerve in the US.
What is at stake is not a competition between different products, but between the political models underpinning the markets where the products come from. In the past few decades, the democratic model created by the US has failed to gain the upper hand against what it regards as the authoritarian model practiced by China. So beneath the trade negotiations, there lies the competition between future paths for politics and development. In the unlikely event that China compromises and opts for the US development path, what China has achieved through arduous work over the past century would be unraveled. In no event would the Chinese Communist Party or the Chinese people countenance such a scenario. The Chinese model of development underpinned by independent foreign policy and peaceful development complements, and in some aspects even surpasses, the US model of development. Narrow-minded and selfish attempts to coerce China into abandoning its path would jeopardize the interests, rights, and development of the Chinese people, while undermining the pursuit of diversity in humanity’s development as a whole.
Trump’s public statements referred to the imperative for China to take on more global responsibilities, and even suggested that China take part in US-Russia arms control and its associated framework agreement. To some degree, it points to US recognition of China’s role in global affairs over the course of the trade negotiations, thanks to China’s growing political and economic heft as well as its sensible negotiation style. As a matter of fact, China is an active global player already, engaging in matters of worldwide importance, in particular through the Belt and Road Initiative with the aim of building a shared future for mankind and establishing an improved global governance architecture which truly epitomizes globalism and a benefit-for-all mindset.
All in all, the trade war and the “maximum pressure” tactics employed by the Trump administration may serve to fast-track China’s structural reforms. But fundamentally it is China’s own will and determination to pursue reform that remains the driving force — China will set its own pace as it sees fit. There will be no “color revolution” as some forces may be hoping for. On the contrary, self-initiated reforms will only see China emerge stronger, with the firm leadership of the Communist Party under the rule of law, which will usher in an era of more openness, innovation, and a correspondingly stronger role for China in global leadership. The trade agreement will be a milestone that heralds a more open and more globally engaged China.