Sulzenko: Trump may be often impulsive but he's bang on with this $50B China trade tarrif

Sulzenko: Trump may be often impulsive but he’s bang on with this $50B China trade tariff

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Andrei Sulzenko is a former trade negotiator and is currently an executive fellow at the School of Public Policy, University of Calgary.

Even though Donald Trump is widely criticized as being impulsive and unhinged, he clearly has some smart advisers who occasionally succeed in channelling his aggressive instincts into productive long-term directions. The jury is still out on North Korea, but the recent announcement of the intention to apply punitive tariffs on Chinese imports in response to chronic trade and investment transgressions is a strategically important milestone for international economic relations.

VIDEO: President Trump announces reciprocal trade tariffs designed to mirror existing trade tariffs that China already levies against US imports

Here’s why Canada and other Group of Seven countries should be quietly applauding.

A major step in China’s push to modernize and become a full participant in globalization was its accession to membership in the World Trade Organization. This was achieved in 2001 after a 15-year negotiation. It took that long because the price of entry involved significant policy changes toward a market-based economy.

Despite some misgivings about readiness for WTO accession, China had become too important to ignore and was already enjoying many of the benefits of membership without any of the obligations.

In retrospect, however, China has been able to have its cake and eat it too – in practice, this has meant having relatively unfettered access to global markets while maintaining its system of state-owned or controlled capitalism. That system has been used to dictate the terms of foreign access to the Chinese market and to seek out leading-edge technologies by all available means through its international entities.

The ensuing tilting of the playing field is most evident in China’s shabby treatment of foreign intellectual property rights, especially with respect to advanced technologies, the lightning rod for Mr. Trump’s recent announcement.

Canada has also had some experience with China’s unrelenting thirst for access to advanced technologies. As a result, the previous federal government put in place special provisions designed to limit investment access to Canada by state-owned or controlled firms, much to the relief of our security community.

Despite the fact that China’s behaviour has often been against both the spirit and laws of open and fair market-based dealing, the international community has been reluctant to confront that behaviour for fear of retaliation through arbitrarily reduced access to its huge market. No country was brave enough to lead the charge and then lose ground to competitors who kept quiet – until now.

It is ironic that an avowedly protectionist U.S. administration is leading on a strategic issue critical for all Western countries. Although most countries probably support the thrust of the U.S. initiative, they would rather not say so for fear of Chinese retribution. Notice the lack of public outcry about the current U.S. trade volley targeted against China compared with the recent much broader steel and aluminum tariff threat. That’s in part because the steel and aluminum action was overtly protectionist with a national security fig leaf, while the current action in large measure is legitimate. It’s also about narrow national self-interest.

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