Economists like to think of the wreckage caused by stock market downturns, widespread bankruptcies, and corporate downsizing as “creative destruction.” As it destroys the old and the dysfunctional, the capitalist system continually spurs innovation, much as a forest fire prepares the ground for new growth.
Or so the representatives of the dismal science argue.
Donald Trump, who is neither economist nor scientist, has his own version of creative destruction. He is determined to destroy the Affordable Care Act and replace it with his own health insurance alternative. He has torn up the Iran nuclear deal in favor of negotiating something brand new with Tehran. He has withdrawn from the Paris climate accord and argues that the United States is reducing carbon emissions in its own superior manner.
The problem, of course, is that Trump is very good at destruction but, despite his previous job as a real estate mogul, exceedingly bad at construction. Indeed, there’s abundant evidence that he never intended to replace what he is destroying with anything at all. Trump has never offered any viable alternative to Obamacare or any new negotiating framework with Iran. And prior to the recent economic downturn, U.S. carbon emissions were increasing after several years of decline.
Perhaps the most dangerous example of Trump’s uncreative destruction is his approach to China.
Previously, Trump said that he simply wanted to level the playing field by placing trade with China on a fairer and more reciprocal basis, strengthening the regime of intellectual property rights, and stopping Beijing from manipulating its currency.
He was willing to go to great lengths to accomplish this goal. The tariffs that Trump imposed on Chinese products precipitated a trade war that jeopardized the livelihoods of millions of American farmers and workers. The initial trade deal that the United States and China signed in January, even though many of the U.S. tariffs remain in place, was supposed to be the grand alternative to the old and dysfunctional trade relationship.
But here again, Trump is not telling the truth. He and his team have a very different set of objectives. As with so many other elements of his domestic and foreign policy, Trump wants to tear apart the current system — in this case, the network of economic ties between the United States and China — and replace it with absolutely nothing at all.
Oh sure, Trump believes that U.S. manufacturers can step up to take the place of Chinese suppliers. More recently, as the administration “turbocharges” its efforts to isolate China in response to its purported pandemic mistakes, it has talked of creating an Economic Prosperity Network of trusted allies like South Korea, Australia, India, and Vietnam. But this is all whistling in the dark, because the administration doesn’t really understand the consequences — for the world economy, for the U.S. economy — of tearing apart the global supply chain in this way.
Just how poorly Trump understands all this is reflected in his statement last week that “we could cut off the whole relationship” with China and “save $500 billion.” This from the president who erroneously believes that China is paying the United States “billions and billions of dollars of tariffs a month.” What else do you expect from a man who received a BS in economics from Wharton?
Unlike many of the administration’s other policies, however, its hardline approach to China has some bipartisan support. Engagement with China has virtually disappeared as a policy option in the Democratic Party. Joe Biden, the Democrats’ presumptive presidential candidate, has attempted to present himself as the tougher alternative when it comes to China, a misguided effort to fend off charges of his bedding down with Beijing.
Finger to the wind, Biden is crafting policies in response not just to Trump but to public opinion. In 2017, 44 percent of Americans had a favorable view of China, compared to 47 percent who held an unfavorable opinion of the country, according to Pew. In this year’s survey, only 26 percent looked at China positively versus 66 percent who viewed it negatively. The latter category includes 62 percent of Democrats.
Writing for the Atlantic Council, Michael Greenwald sums up the new conventional wisdom of the centrists:
The United States can no longer remain content with the notion of a Chinese economic threat arising in the distant future. The advent of COVID-19 has made it more apparent than any other time including the US-China trade war that now is the moment for the United States, European Union, and other like-minded countries to diversify supply chains away from China.
That’s what makes Trump’s uncreative destruction vis a vis China so dangerous. It may not stop after November, no matter who wins the election.
The Great Disentanglement
China’s economic shutdown at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic disrupted many global supply chains, prompting a number of countries and corporations to accelerate their strategy of reducing their dependency on China for components.
Rising labor costs in China, concerns over human rights abuses there, but especially the trade war between Washington and Beijing had contributed to the U.S. fashion industry and tech firms like Apple rethinking their own supply chains. Japan, heavily dependent on Chinese trade, is using $2 billion in economic stimulus funds to subsidize the move of Japanese firms out of China.
The Trump administration is thus swimming with the current in its effort to isolate China. It has imposed sanctions because of China’s violations of Uyghur human rights. It has levied penalties against China for its cooperation with Iranian firms. And it has threatened to add another set of tariffs on top of the existing ones for China’s handling of the coronavirus.
Its latest initiative has been to tighten the screws on the Chinese technology firm, Huawei. Last week, the administration announced sanctions against any firms using U.S.-made equipment that supply the Chinese tech giant. The chief victim of these new restrictions will be the Taiwanese firm TSMC, which supplies 90 percent of Huawei’s smartphone chips.
In other words, the Trump administration is committed not only to severing U.S. economic connections with China. It wants to put as much pressure on other countries as well to disentangle themselves from Chinese manufacturing. Taiwan, of course, has no particular love for Mainland China. It battles Beijing on a daily basis to get international recognition — from other countries and from global organizations like the World Health Organization.
But the Taiwanese economy is also heavily dependent on its cross-strait neighbor. As Eleanor Albert points out:
China is Taiwan’s largest trading partner, accounting for nearly 30 percent of the island’s total trade, and trade between the two reached $150.5 billion in 2018 (up from $35 billion in 1999). China and Taiwan have also agreed to allow banks, insurers, and other financial service providers to work in both markets.
And it probably won’t be Huawei but Taiwan that suffers from the U.S. move. As Michael Reilly notes, “Huawei’s size in the global market means its Taiwanese suppliers cannot easily find an alternative customer of comparable standing to replace it.” China, meanwhile, will either find another source of chips outside the U.S. sphere, or it will do what the United States has been threatening to do: bring production of critical components back closer to home.
Another key player in the containment of China is India. Trump’s friendship with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a right-wing Hindu nationalist, is more than simply an ideological affection. Trump sealed a $3 billion in military sales deal with India in February, with a trade deal still on the horizon.
Modi, in turn, is hoping to be the biggest beneficiary of the falling out between Washington and Beijing. “The government in April reached out to more than 1,000 companies in the U.S. and through overseas missions to offer incentives for manufacturers seeking to move out of China,” reports Bloomberg. “India is prioritizing medical equipment suppliers, food processing units, textiles, leather, and auto part makers among more than 550 products covered in the discussions.”
Vietnam is another regional competitor that the United States is supporting in its containment strategy. With only a couple hundred reported coronavirus cases and zero deaths, Vietnam is poised to emerge from the current crisis virtually unscathed. With low labor costs and an authoritarian government that can enforce deals, it is already a favored alternative for corporations looking for alternatives to China. But wildcat strikes have been happening in greater numbers in the country, and the Vietnamese government recently approved the country’s first independent trade union.
Yet with a more technologically sophisticated infrastructure, China will continue to look more attractive to investors than India or Vietnam.
Don’t Count Out China
If your image of the Chinese economy is stuck in the 1980s — cheap toys and mass-produced baubles — then you probably think that severing economic ties with the country is no big deal. America can produce its own plastic junk, right?
But China is no longer hurrying to catch up to the West. In some ways, the West is already in China’s rearview mirror.
Huawei is well-known for the part it’s playing in the rollout of 5G networks worldwide. China is not only ahead of the curve in upgrading to 5G domestically, it is busy manufacturing all the new tech that will run on these high-speed networks, like virtual reality and augmented reality and AI-driven devices.
Perhaps more to the point, China is not simply part of the global supply chain. It is using these new technologies to revolutionize the global supply chain.
For instance, it’s using 3-D modeling to shorten product development. It has long integrated drones into its distribution networks. “Chinese supply chain companies are incorporating groundbreaking technologies like cloud-based systems, data analytics, and artificial intelligence (AI) and using them to redesign supply chain operations,” writes Adina-Laura Achim.
And don’t discount the role of a well-financed, centralized, authoritarian government. The Trump administration is, frankly, at a huge disadvantage when it tries to pressure companies to relocate their operations. Writes Manisha Mirchandani:
The global technology and consumer electronics sectors are especially reliant on China’s infrastructure and specialized labor pool, neither of which will be easy to replicate. The Chinese government is already mobilizing resources to convince producers of China’s unique merits as a manufacturing location. Zhengzhou, within Henan Province, has appointed officials to support Apple’s partner Foxconn in mitigating the disruptions caused by the coronavirus, while the Ministry of Finance is increasing credit support to the manufacturing sector. Further, the Chinese government is likely to channel stimulus efforts to develop the country’s high-tech manufacturing infrastructure, moving away from its low-value manufacturing base and accelerating its vision for a technology-driven services economy.
The Trump administration is playing the short game, trying to use tariffs and anti-Chinese sentiment to hobble a rising power. China, on the other hand, is playing the long game, translating its trade surpluses into structural advantages in a fast-evolving global economy.
Will the Conflict Turn Hot?
Despite the economic ravages of the pandemic, the Pentagon continues to demand the lion’s share of the U.S. budget. It wants another $705 billion for 2021, after increasing its budget by 20 percent between 2016 and 2020.
This appalling waste of government resources has already caused long-term damage to the economic competitiveness of the United States. But it’s all the money the Pentagon is spending on “deterring China” that might prove more devastating in the short term.
The U.S. Navy announced this month that it was sending its entire forward-deployed sub fleet on “contingency response operations” as a warning to China. Last month, the U.S. Navy Expeditionary Strike Group sailed into the South China Sea to support Malaysia’s oil exploration in an area that China claims. Aside from the reality that oil exploration makes no economic sense at a time of record low oil prices, the United States should be helping the countries bordering the South China Sea come to a fair resolution of their disputes, not throwing more armaments at the problem.
There’s also heightened risk of confrontation in the Taiwan Strait, the East China Sea, and even in outer space. A huge portion of the Pentagon’s budget goes toward preparing for war with China — and, frankly, provoking war as well.
What does this all have to do with the Great Disentanglement?
The close economic ties between the United States and China have always represented a significant constraint on military confrontation. Surely the two countries would not risk grievous economic harm by coming to blows. Economic cooperation also provides multiple channels for resolving conflicts and communicating discontent. The United States and Soviet Union never had that kind of buffer.
If the Great Disentanglement goes forward, however, then the two countries have less to lose economically in a military confrontation. Trading partners, of course, sometimes go to war with one another. But as the data demonstrates, more trade generally translates into less war.
There are lots and lots of problems in the U.S.-China economic relationship. But they pale in comparison to World War III.
Foreign Policy In Focus, May 20, 2020