NEW HAVEN – In a rare moment of bipartisan agreement, America’s Republicans and Democrats are now on the same page on one key issue: Blaming China for all that ails the United States. China bashing has never had broader appeal.
This fixation on China as an existential threat to the cherished American Dream is having serious consequences. It has led to tit-for-tat tariffs, escalating security threats, warnings of a new cold war, and even whispers of a military clash between the rising power and the incumbent global hegemon.
With a trade deal apparently imminent, it’s tempting to conclude that all this will pass. That may be wishful thinking. Sino-American trust is now in tatters. The likelihood of a superficial deal won’t change that. A new era of mutual suspicion, tension, and conflict is a very real possibility.
But what if the US chattering class has it all wrong and the China bashing is more an outgrowth of domestic problems than a response to a genuine external threat? In fact, there are strong grounds to believe that an insecure US – afflicted with macroeconomic imbalances of its own making and fearful of the consequences of its own retreat from global leadership – has embraced a false narrative on China.
Consider trade. In 2018, the US had a $419 billion merchandise trade deficit with China, fully 48% of the massive overall trade gap of $879 billion. This is the lightening rod in the debate, the culprit behind what US President Donald Trump calls the “carnage” of job losses and wage pressures.
But what Trump – and most other US politicians – won’t admit is that the US ran trade deficits with 102 countries in 2018. This reflects a profound shortfall of domestic saving, owing in large part to the reckless budget deficits approved by none other than Congress and the president. Nor is there any recognition of supply-chain distortions – arising from inputs made in other countries but assembled and shipped from China – that are estimated to overstate the US-China trade imbalance by as much as 35-40%. Never mind basic macroeconomics and new efficiencies from global production platforms that benefit US consumers. Apparently, it is much easier to vilify China as the major obstacle to making America great again.
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© Project Syndicate