Why is U.S. President Donald Trump willing to negotiate and compromise with Mexico and the EU on trade, and not China? The answer, in short, is that Trump’s dispute with China is more than just America’s trade deficit. It is a head-to-head struggle between an incumbent superpower and a rising challenger, fueled by a deep conviction among the White House’s economic policy team that America’s problem with China is not just the trade deficit, but China’s very economic structure itself, which disadvantages foreigners not only in trade, but also in investing and operating in China, and distorting business competition in favor of Chinese companies.
In Trump’s crosshairs is the Made in China 2025 initiative, announced in 2015 aiming to upgrade comprehensively within a decade China’s industrial production, especially in manufacturing, to be among the best in the world. It is therefore being seen increasingly in the U.S. as a direct challenge to its global economic dominance. In fact, the Council on Foreign Relations, a U.S. policy think tank, stated in 2018 that “[Made in China 2025] is a real existential threat to U.S. technological leadership.”
China is indeed snapping at the heels of the U.S. in closing the technology gap. According to the UNIDO Competitive Industrial Performance Database, the share of exports that can be considered medium/high tech in 2016 is 63% for the U.S. and 58% for China. This is getting uncomfortably close for the U.S. China clearly has come a long way from the days of exporting low-tech, labor-intensive exports like garments and shoes.
Consequently, Trump’s trade war with China is really about blocking, or at least slowing down, China’s technology upgrade and its expanding global economic influence. Chinese investment in the tech sector in the U.S. has come under tougher scrutiny, and American government agencies are put on high alert against Chinese efforts in industrial espionage. The clause of protecting national security in the U.S. Trade Act of 1974 is increasingly invoked to impose new tariffs on Chinese imports and to curtail China’s business mergers and acquisitions in the U.S.
However, the tactics with which the Trump trade war is being fought to block China’s technological advances will fail. Trump and his economic advisers are stuck in the old paradigm of industrial production where trade and industry secrets are recorded in design blue prints, instructions and protocols that are locked up in a safe. In today’s modern economic production, the more complicated and high value-added the task, the more important is tacit knowledge, or knowhow, which resides only in people’s brains, especially in knowledge and capital intensive industries like banking and finance, biotechnology, aerospace, nanotechnology and artificial intelligence.
Knowhow is everything that we need to know but find hard to explain. Skiing is a knowhow. We learn how to ski by skiing with good skiers, not by studying the physics of skiing. The only way to acquire knowhow is to have the opportunity of working alongside people who already have such knowhow. In this connection, as Trump’s trade war makes it increasingly difficult for American businesses to export to China, they will need to move more of their operations to China to produce locally in order to sell their goods and services in one of the fastest growing consumer markets in the world. And that means more American brains with high grade technical and management knowhow will be spending more time in China, offering more opportunities for their Chinese colleagues and employees to work alongside them to acquire their knowhow.
In 2017, the value of products that American companies made and sold in China was estimated at $250 billion, about double that of U.S. exports to China, according to the IMF Direction of Trade Statistics This is a consumer market that is growing at 14% a year, about four times faster than the U.S. In the next few years, it is set to bypass the U.S. to become the world’s largest consumer market. This is not a market that global companies can ignore. If the only way to sell more in this market is to move more production there because of Trump’s trade war, that’s what global companies will do. And that in turn means creating a great deal more opportunities for China to acquire valuable American knowhow that is critical to upgrading China’s technology, helping Made in China 2025 to succeed.
The only way for President Trump to stop China from acquiring American technological knowhow is to bar all Americans traveling to and working in China. This is not going to happen. His trade war is making it more necessary for more American brains with the knowhow that China needs to spend time in China. We are conditioned to think only that leadership is critical for countries to rise and succeed. The fact of the matter is that leadership is equally important for countries to fail and decline. President Trump will be seen in history as a pivotal leader that seriously undermined America in its struggle against China for global economic dominance.
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