For the best part of two years now, hardliners in the US Congress have been calling for a tougher stance on China. Legislation ranging from punitive tariffs on American imports from China in retaliation for an allegedly overvalued yuan to the removal of normal trade relations with Beijing as punishment for human rights abuses has been put forward.
Nothing significant has got far, largely because the White House has managed to leverage its House majority to stop bills in their tracks or cut deals on the sidelines.
The Democrats reclaiming control of both houses of Congress in November's midterm elections has the potential to change all this. Beijing will have to weather the slings and arrows of an aggressive, protectionist House of Representatives and a Senate willing to waft the missiles on their way.
What's more, the string puller in the Speaker's chair is Nancy Pelosi, best known to Beijing as the politician who visited Tiananmen Square in 1991 to publicly honor the victims of the 1989 massacre.
In Pelosi, who has voted against China on trade and security issues, the China hawks might just have found their poster girl.
As for ammunition, there is plenty: China's WTO accession obligations, its global energy quest, the shadier elements of its foreign policy, its alleged human rights offenses, its overvalued currency and a trade surplus with the US that is on course to surpass last year's record US$202 billion.
The question is how far and how hard will the agitators be allowed to push. The US has taken a largely pragmatic attitude towards China in recent times – unsurprising, given how bilateral ties are deepening. When issues such as North Korea's nuclear development are factored into the equation, the importance of a stable and fully engaged relationship between Washington and Beijing gains significant weight.
What is likely to emerge is a delicate balance as Capitol Hill and the White House juggle domestic and foreign policy interests. Exactly how this will play out remains to be seen but any decline in the US economy would almost certainly propel trade issues to the forefront.
After years of consumers spending money they don't have by borrowing against the value of their homes, the US economy has to re-adjust. Now, slowing property prices appear to be poised to bring this credit line to a halt. When consumers ask Washington why things are turning sour, a mercantilist, US job-eating China is likely to be blamed.
It's not that China is solely responsible – the US should have stepped in to end the consumption binge before it got out of hand, and the dollar needs to depreciate against the currencies of most Asian countries, not just the yuan. But China's huge trade surplus (which is there largely by virtue of other countries moving production to the country) and reputation for non-compliance may well see tariffs, anti-dumping cases and WTO complaints brought against it.
Needless to say, a trade war would benefit neither side: China stands to lose its key export market while US consumers lose access to the lowest cost goods at a time when they are looking for ways to tighten their belts.
Months of acrimony – during which diplomatic allies fret about the two parties taking their eyes off the nuclear ball – would likely end in compromise as both sides realize that they must live with each other, if only because they can't live without each other.
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