It’s a reasonable argument. But the best way to accelerate China’s transition is to build alliances with other governments concerned by its economic practices, and to use that common leverage to press Beijing. That was part of the strategy behind the Trans-Pacific Partnership, through which the United States and 11 other Pacific nations would lower their barriers to trade and investment. When the TPP’s prospects looked bright, China reportedly began considering joining itself, which could have compelled it to make some of the very changes Trump is demanding now. But in 2016, Trump, with the help of progressive Democrats such as Sanders, made TPP politically radioactive. And since taking office, rather than making common cause with Canada, Japan, France, and other democracies aggrieved by China’s trading practices, his administration has slapped tariffs on them. All of which has isolated the United States and left it seeking concessions from China that would be easier to secure were the Trump administration not working alone.
Read: The U.S.-China trade war isn’t going anywhere
One natural forum for such multilateral pressure is the World Trade Organization, which allows countries to bring claims against one another for unfair trade practices. Historically, the United States has been one of the WTO’s most successful plaintiffs. But according to Simon Lester of the Cato Institute, the Trump administration has brought only two new cases against China at the WTO. And Trump officials, in keeping with their general hostility toward international organizations, regularly trash the organization. A 2018 report from the office of Trump’s trade representative, Robert Lighthizer, declared that “the notion that our problems with China can be solved by bringing more cases at the WTO alone is naïve at best.”
But it’s not Xi who is crippling the WTO. It’s Trump. According to a November 2018 Cato Institute report, “China does a reasonably good job of complying with WTO complaints brought against it.” The Trump administration, by contrast, has systematically blocked the reappointment of judges on the WTO’s dispute-settlement body and thus, according to Reuters, has “plunge[d] the organization into crisis.”
Nothing illustrates the self-destructive absurdity of Trump’s behavior better than what happened this March. The WTO, responding to a case brought by the Obama administration, ruled that China must reduce its agricultural subsidies. China is appealing that decision to the WTO’s appellate court. But because the Trump administration has blocked the appointment of new WTO judges, that court may not be able to rule, which means China won’t have to comply.
Trump’s unilateral get-tough approach could prove costly in other ways, as well. Last summer, Congress—in an overwhelming bipartisan vote, and with China in mind—passed a law enabling new restrictions on the export of “emerging and foundational technologies.” But in one crucial emerging field, artificial intelligence, The New York Times recently noted that “research on the technology is often done collaboratively by scientists and engineers all over the world.” Which means that if American researchers cannot easily share their work with foreign counterparts, they may fall behind. Similarly, the Eurasia Group has warned that “U.S. efforts to increase scrutiny of Chinese STEM students, and to limit or reject their U.S. visa terms and applications, will reduce the flow of creative talent into the U.S.” If Chinese companies forge high-tech collaborations in Europe and Chinese students forge scientific breakthroughs at laboratories in Australia, American politicians—in their effort to quarantine China from global innovation—may end up quarantining the United States instead.