No trade deal can dictate our relationship with China

February 5th, 2019

As the United States and China continue to joust over trade and technology, the U.S. policy debate contrasts two views of the primary problem.

A first view expressed often in President Trump’s tweets locates the key issue in the bilateral trade deficit that the United States chronically runs with China. On this theory of the problem, a solution is relatively easy: The Chinese could rearrange their imports of soybeans, fossil fuels and other products so more of them come from the United States, while countries now supplying China could export instead to nations now importing from the United States. This is what the Chinese keep offering since it means almost no real change in their economy. Neither levels of employment, output or total trade deficits and surpluses are likely to change much in either the United States or China.

A second view, held by more serious alarmists about the U.S.-China relationship, such as U.S. Trade Representative Robert E. Lighthizer, emphasizes problematic Chinese practices in key technological sectors. These range from theft of U.S. technologies to requirements that U.S. firms wishing to do business in China — chiefly in the development of key technologies, such as artificial intelligence — must form joint ventures with Chinese firms, especially those with connections to the Chinese government.

Such technological alarmists in and out of the administration hold that we can wall off U.S. technologies with sufficiently aggressive policies so China cannot steal them, or that we can pressure China to the point where it will give up government efforts at industrial leadership. Neither of these prospects is realistic.

In many ways, U.S. concerns over China and technology parallel concerns over the Soviet Union in the post-Sputnik missile gap period just before President John F. Kennedy’s election in 1960. Or over Japan in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when it was often joked that “the Cold War is over and Japan won.”

When atomic weapons were our most sensitive military secret, their creation required extensive sophisticated infrastructure. Yet the United States and Russia essentially had no normal interchange, so we were able to maintain a lead of three or four years with respect to both fission and fusion weapons.

Technology for artificial intelligence in development today, however, can be operated on widely available equipment. And there are hundreds of thousands of Chinese citizens studying in the United States or working for U.S. companies that develop such technology. Keeping U.S. knowledge out of Chinese hands for substantial lengths of time is impracticable short of a massive breaking of economic ties.

Nor is it likely for the Chinese government to halt its support of technology development. How would the United States react if other countries demanded that we close down DARPA, the Defense Department’s advanced research agency, because it represented unfair competition? Or if trading partners argued that U.S. support for private clean-energy companies, such as the subsidies provided by the Obama administration, was an unfair trade practice? Much of our current information technology and communications infrastructure comes directly or indirectly out of Bell Labs, which was financed out of the profits of a government-regulated and -protected monopoly. Would the United States have responded constructively to demands from other countries to dismantle the Bell system?

A focus on resisting the Chinese economic threat will likely not only be ineffective but may also be counterproductive if it diverts private and public energy from more productive pursuits. I remember well from the early Clinton administration that the great symbol of efforts to constrain unfair Japanese practices was Kodak’s case against Fuji, the Japanese photographic film company that attracted massive attention from Kodak’s senior management and U.S. policymakers. Perhaps if Kodak had instead focused on the digital photography ideas its scientists had developed, it would still be a significant company.

Where we can mobilize international support, we should, of course, push China to live up to its trade obligations and seek to modify rules in the World Trade Organization where they do not cover problematic practices. But in reality, our competitive success over the next generation will depend much more on what happens in our economy and society than at any international negotiating table.

Will our national investment in applied scientific research continue to languish to the point where even the most brilliant young scientists cannot get their first research grants until they are in their 40s? Will public officials who surely know better continue to allow creationism to be taught as serious science in U.S. public schools in a century with so much progress in life sciences? Will public policy concern itself with the strength and competitiveness of U.S. information technology companies as well as with their marketing practices? Will a national effort be made to improve the dismal performance of U.S. students at every level in international comparisons of mathematical and scientific achievement?

These questions and others like them, much more than any trade negotiation, will determine how the United States competes over the next generation. The Russian and the Japanese challenges pushed us forward as a nation in very constructive ways. So can the Chinese challenge if we seize the opportunity it represents.

February 5, 2019