On Tuesday, June 25, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer said that the administration of President Donald Trump will challenge the People’s Republic of China on its use of subsidies for its export industry; a Chinese policy that (in the administration’s view) undermines the competitiveness of U.S. jobs.
Lighthizer, speaking on a conservative radio talk show, said there is no question but “that China has an industrial policy that is designed to create jobs and wealth in China.” Lighthizer doesn’t dispute China’s prerogative to have a China First policy, but he says, “Our objective is not to let that go on in an unfair way.”
The bilateral relationship between the US and the PRC was an important element in Trump’s campaign for President last year. Candidate Trump promised that he would have China officially labeled a currency manipulator, and he charged that it had committed one of the “greatest thefts in the history of the world what they have done to our country.”
In office, Trump has backed off the currency-manipulation charge. Further, within the broader context of US/China relations, his concern with trade has taken a back seat to the issue of North Korea, and of Trump’s hope that China can be of assistance to the U.S. in reining in its satellite’s nuclear and/or missile program.
Right Wing View
Lighthizer’s statement dropped into the middle of a very hectic few hours for political news – hours during which all eyes seemed turned toward the Jeff Sessions saga, or the health care reform debate, or a new front in the culture wars over transgender rights, or the strengthening of the sanctions on Russia. Lighthizer’s candor has been lost in the shuffle.
But it is clear that many voices to the right of the center line in U.S. politics want good relations between the U.S. and China. Indeed, this is so to a degree that would probably have astonished the founders of modern American conservatism, men like William F. Buckley and James Burnham, who always believed that only the nationalist government in Taiwan should be regarded as speaking for China. Even in recent days, when for example Penny Starr at Breitbart writes about Trump’s China policy, she ends up praising him for selling weapons to Taiwan.
Appropriately, perhaps, the Trump administration once confused Taiwan with the PRC in an official statement.
But again: many on the right have now moved past Taipei-centric nostalgia and want a good relationship between Washington and Beijing. They are full of advice for President Trump. Sean Rushton, writing in the National Review, July 13, 2017, proposed that the Trump administration work with the European Union on the one hand and with Beijing on the other to create a stable monetary structure for the world. This stable “dollar-euro-yuan bloc” would then “facilitate trade and productive capital flows and end the era of exchange-rate-driven crises.”
Similarly, Lloyd Blankfein, Chairman and CEO of Goldman Sachs speaks publicly about his view that China is a rising self-confident power, allowing for the inference that the United States ought to want to be on its good side if possible.
Left Wing View
From the viewpoint of the hard left, the Mao-was-wonderful left, the PRC has been run by sell-outs since the Gang of Four went on trial in 1981.
In the center left inhabited for example by New York’s Senator Chuck Schumer, though, one finds important areas of agreement with the positions Trump staked out during the campaign. One finds for example harsh commentary on President Trump’ retreat from that stance on twitter:
Um tax reform, repeal/replace, infrastructure, the wall, drug prices, Chinese currency manipulation, coal jobs… Believing 🤡= being a fool.
— Carl Appleton (@4L4RM1NG) July 24, 2017
Schumer himself has been very clear that China ought to be labeled a currency manipulator, as part of a move toward protecting American workers from unfair overseas competition, and preventing a race to the bottom on wages and benefits.
There is also the concern, among such center left politicians, that better trade with China would mean an end run around product safety regulations for the imports. Rosa DeLauro, a Connecticut Congresswoman, complains that “trade always trumps public health in the U.S.,” and China trade is her example.
— Global Trade Watch (@PCGTW) July 26, 2017
If President Trump does at some point want to return to the tough-on-China portion of his original agenda: will he be willing to reach out to Schumer and the like-minded in order to create an unlikely seeming alliance? That is an intriguing question, for which no answer now presents itself.