Jan 25th 2017

China’s Big Sticks

by Stephen S. Roach

Stephen S. Roach, a faculty member at Yale University and former Chairman of Morgan Stanley Asia, is the author of a new book Unbalanced: The Codependency of America and China.


NEW HAVEN – US President Donald Trump’s administration is making a major miscalculation by going after China. It appears to be contemplating a wide range of economic and political sanctions – from imposing punitive tariffs and designating China as a “currency manipulator” to embracing Taiwan and casting aside some 40 years of diplomacy framed around the so-called One-China policy.

This strategy will backfire. It is based on the mistaken belief that a newly muscular United States has all the leverage in dealing with its presumed adversary, and that any Chinese response is hardly worth considering. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Yes, the US is one of China’s largest export markets – and thus a central pillar of its spectacular 35-year development trajectory. Closing off the US market would certainly crimp Chinese economic growth.

But the US has also become heavily dependent on China, which is now America’s third largest and fastest-growing export market. And, as the owner of over $1.25 trillion in Treasuries and other dollar-based assets, China has played a vital role in funding America’s chronic budget deficits – in effect, lending much of its surplus saving to a US that has been woefully derelict in saving enough to support its own economy.

This two-way dependency – the economic equivalent of what psychologists call codependency – has deep roots. Back in the early 1980s, in the wake of the Cultural Revolution, which left its economy in shambles, China was desperate for a new source of economic growth. Coming out of a destructive bout of stagflation in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the US also needed a new economic recipe. The hard-pressed American consumer solved both problems, by becoming a powerful source of external support for Chinese growth and by benefiting from the lower prices of products made in China.

The two countries thus entered into an awkward marriage of convenience that served each other’s needs. China built an increasingly powerful economy as the Ultimate Producer while the US embraced the ethos of Ultimate Consumer.

As mirror images of each other, interactions between the two economies became increasingly comfortable and ultimately addictive – so much so that these codependent partners were keen to enable each other’s economic identities. The US opened the door to China’s accession to the World Trade Organization in 2001 – a milestone in China’s ascendancy as the Ultimate Producer. And China’s voracious appetite for Treasuries in the early 2000s helped keep US interest rates low, sustaining the froth in asset markets that allowed the Ultimate Consumer to live well beyond its means – until the music stopped in 2008.

As in the case of humans, economic codependency is ultimately a very destructive relationship. Blinded by the gratification phase of codependency, both the US and China lost their way. Each became so caught up in its role of serving the other that both effectively repressed their economic sense of self. Therein lies the ultimate twist of codependency: one partner invariably looks inward and turns on the other, in order to recapture that missing piece of its identity.

That’s where Trump enters the equation, by targeting China as the villain that purportedly prevents America from being great. Trump has assembled a team of like-minded senior trade advisers to plan the attack. From Peter Navarro as Director of the National Trade Council, to Wilbur Ross as Commerce Secretary, Robert Lighthizer as US Trade Representative, and Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State, the new administration’s anti-China biases are without modern precedent.

Yet their battle plan overlooks a critical risk: codependency is a highly reactive relationship. When one partner changes the terms of engagement, the other, feeling scorned, usually responds in kind. In the aftermath of the provocative December 2 phone call between Trump and Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen, stunned Chinese officials said little at first. But as Trump’s China-bashing strategy started to crystalize around the advisers he appointed and the issues he raised, China’s official media finally warned that “big sticks” would be used in defense, if need be.

This is very much in keeping with what could be expected from the reactive phase of a destabilized codependency. The scorned partner, China, is threatening to hit back. And now America will have to face the consequences.

Smugly confident that the US has nothing to fear, the Trump administration could quickly feel the full wrath of Chinese retaliation. If it follows through with its threats, expect China to reciprocate with sanctions on US companies operating there, and ultimately with tariffs on US imports – hardly trivial considerations for a growth-starved US economy. Also expect China to be far less interested in buying Treasury debt – a potentially serious problem, given the expanded federal budget deficits that are likely under Trumponomics.

But the greatest tragedy for the US may well be the toll all of this takes on the American consumer. “America first” – whether it comes at the expense of China or via the so-called border-tax equalization that appears to be a central feature of proposed corporate tax reforms – will unwind many of the efficiencies of global supply chains that hold down consumer-goods prices in the US (think Wal-Mart).

With their incomes and jobs under long and sustained pressure, American consumers count on low prices for their economic survival. If Trump’s China policy causes those prices to rise, the middle class will be the biggest loser of all.

Sino-American codependency poses a formidable challenge to Trump’s strategy of China bashing. It frames the ominous prospect of a rupture in the world’s most important economic relationship, with potentially devastating spillovers on the rest of the world.


Stephen S. Roach, a faculty member at Yale University and former Chairman of Morgan Stanley Asia, is the author of Unbalanced: The Codependency of America and China.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2017.
www.project-syndicate.org
=

 


This article is brought to you by Project Syndicate that is a not for profit organization.

Project Syndicate brings original, engaging, and thought-provoking commentaries by esteemed leaders and thinkers from around the world to readers everywhere. By offering incisive perspectives on our changing world from those who are shaping its economics, politics, science, and culture, Project Syndicate has created an unrivalled venue for informed public debate. Please see: www.project-syndicate.org.

Should you want to support Project Syndicate you can do it by using the PayPal icon below. Your donation is paid to Project Syndicate in full after PayPal has deducted its transaction fee. Facts & Arts neither receives information about your donation nor a commission.

 

 

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Apr 9th 2021
EXTRACT: "New ways of thinking about the role of government are as important as new priorities. Many commentators have framed Biden’s infrastructure plan as a return to big government. But the package is spread over eight years, will raise public spending by only one percentage point of GDP, and is projected to pay for itself eventually. A boost in public investment in infrastructure, the green transition, and job creation is long overdue."
Apr 7th 2021
EXTRACT: " One can, and perhaps should, take the optimistic view that moral panics in the US blow over; reason will once again prevail. It could be that the Biden era will take the sting out of Trumpism, and the tolerance for which American intellectual life has often been admired will be reinvigorated. This might even happen while the noxious effects of American influence still rage in other countries. For the sake of America and the world, one can only hope it happens soon.  "
Mar 28th 2021
EXTRACT: "By refusing (despite having some good reasons) to end electoral gerrymandering, Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., has directly enabled the paralyzing hyper-partisanship that reached its nadir during Donald Trump’s presidency. By striking down all limits on corporate spending on political campaigns in the infamous 2010 Citizens United decision, he has helped to entrench dark money in US politics. And by gutting the 1965 Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder, Roberts has facilitated the racist voter-suppression tactics now being pursued in many Republican-controlled states."
Mar 24th 2021
EXTRACT: "the UK’s tough choices accumulate, and the problems lurking around the corner look menacing. Britain will have to make the best of Brexit. But it will be a long, hard struggle, all the more so with an evasive fabulist in charge."
Mar 15th 2021
EXTRACT: "Over the years, the approach of most American policymakers toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been Israel-centric with near total disregard for the suffering endured by the Palestinian people. The architects of policy in successive US administrations have discussed the conflict as if the fate of only one party (Israel) really mattered. Israelis were treated as full human beings with hopes and fears, while Palestinians were reduced to a problem that needed to be solved so that Israelis could live in peace and security.  ..... It is not just that Israelis and Palestinians haven’t been viewed with an equal measure of concern. It’s worse than that. It appears that Palestinians were judged as less ​human than Israelis, and were, therefore, not entitled to make demands to have their rights recognized and protected."
Mar 8th 2021
EXTRACTS: "XThere’s a global shortage in semiconductors, and it’s becoming increasingly serious." ...... "The automotive sector has been worst affected by the drought, in an era where microchips now form the backbone of most cars. Ford is predicting a 20% slump in production and Tesla shut down its model 3 assembly line for two weeks. In the UK, Honda was forced to temporarily shut its plant as well." ..... " As much as 70% of the world’s semiconductors are manufactured by just two companies, Taiwan Semiconductor (TSMC) and Samsung."
Mar 5th 2021
EXTRACT: "Back in 1992, Lawrence H. Summers, then the chief economist at the World Bank, and I warned that pushing the US Federal Reserve’s annual inflation target down from 4% to 2% risked causing big problems. Not only was the 4% target not producing any discontent, but a 2% target would increase the risk of the Fed’s interest-rate policy hitting the zero lower bound. Our objections went unheeded. Fed Chair Alan Greenspan reduced the inflation target to 2%, and we have been paying for it ever since. I have long thought that many of our economic problems would go away if we could rejigger asset markets in such a way as to make a 5% federal funds rate consistent with full employment in the late stage of a business cycle."
Mar 2nd 2021
EXTRACT: "Under these conditions, the Fed is probably worried that markets will instantly crash if it takes away the punch bowl. And with the increase in public and private debt preventing the eventual monetary normalization, the likelihood of stagflation in the medium term – and a hard landing for asset markets and economies – continues to increase."
Mar 1st 2021
EXTRACT: "Massive fiscal and monetary stimulus programs in the United States and other advanced economies are fueling a raging debate about whether higher inflation could be just around the corner. Ten-year US Treasury yields and mortgage rates are already climbing in anticipation that the US Federal Reserve – the de facto global central bank – will be forced to hike rates, potentially bursting asset-price bubbles around the world. But while markets are probably overstating short-term inflation risks for 2021, they do not yet fully appreciate the longer-term dangers."
Feb 28th 2021
EXTRACT: "To be sure, calls to “build back better” from the pandemic imply some awareness of the need for systemic change. But the transformation we need extends beyond constructing modern infrastructure or unlocking private investment in any one country. We need to re-orient – indeed, re-invent – global politics, so that countries can cooperate far more effectively in creating a better world."
Feb 23rd 2021
EXTRACT: "So, notwithstanding the predictable release of pent-up demand for consumer durables, face-to-face services show clear evidence – in terms of both consumer demand and employment – of permanent scarring. Consequently, with the snapback of pent-up demand for durables nearing its point of exhaustion, the recovery of the post-pandemic US economy is likely to fall well short of vaccine development’s “warp speed.” "
Feb 20th 2021
EXTRACT: "Human rights abuses under Erdogan are beyond the pale of inhumanity and moral decadence. The list of Erdogan’s violations and cruelty is too long to numerate. The detention and horrifying torture of thousands of innocent people for months and at times for years, without being charged, is hard to fathom. Many prisoners are left languishing in dark cells, often in solitary confinement. The detention of tens of thousands of men and hundreds of women, many with their children, especially following the 2016 failed coup, has become common. It is calculated to inflict horrendous pain and suffering to bring the prisoners to the breaking point, so that they confess to crimes they have never committed."
Feb 20th 2021
Courtyard of the Amsterdam Stock Exchange, circa 1670, (Job Adriaenszoon Berckheyde).
Feb 12th 2021
EXTRACT: "Global regulators will no doubt be concerned about a potential volatility spillover from digital asset prices into traditional capital markets. They may not permit what could quickly amount to effective proxy approval by the back door for companies holding large proportions of a volatile asset on their balance sheets."
Feb 11th 2021
EXTRACT: "Since Russians began protesting opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s imprisonment, the security forces have apparently had carte blanche to arrest demonstrators – and they have done so by the thousands. If Russians so much as honk their car horns in solidarity with the protesters, they risk personal repercussions. The official response to the protests goes beyond the Kremlin’s past repression. It is war."
Feb 6th 2021
EXTRACT: ".......like Biden, Roosevelt was certainly no revolutionary. His task was to save American capitalism. He was a repairer, a fixer. The New Deal was achieved not because of Roosevelt’s genius or heroism, but because enough people trusted him to act in good faith. That is precisely what people are expecting from Biden, too. He must save US democracy from the ravages of a political crisis. To do so, he must reestablish trust in the system. He has promised to make his country less polarized, and to restore civility and truth to political discourse. In this endeavor, his lack of charisma may turn out to be his greatest strength. For all that he lacks in grandeur, he makes up for by exuding an air of decency."
Feb 2nd 2021
EXTRACT: "Europe must not lose sight of the long game, which inevitably will center on China, not Russia or relations with post-Brexit Britain. China is already establishing a presence in Iran, and demonstrating that it has the capital, know-how, and technology to project power and influence beyond its borders. Should it succeed in turning the Belt and Road Initiative into a line of geopolitical stepping-stones, it might soon emerge at Europe’s southeastern border in a form that no one in the EU foresaw."
Jan 29th 2021
EXTRACT: "One sign of this change is that, unlike all recent Democratic administrations, Biden’s hasn’t paid obeisance to Wall Street by giving bankers top jobs. The new Secretary of the Treasury, Janet Yellen, is a former Federal Reserve chair and academic who has made it clear that she understands the country’s pressing social needs. Moreover, Biden consulted Warren on her economic views, and has named a former Warren adviser as Yellen’s deputy. Yellen’s appointment demonstrates that Biden shares the insight that enabled Trump’s rise: that too many Americans feel that they cannot get a fair share. "
Jan 24th 2021
EXTRACT: "Barack Obama cautioned in his final speech as president that, “Our democracy is threatened whenever we take it for granted.” Yet isn’t that exactly what America has been doing? In a decade punctuated by the global financial crisis, the COVID-19 crisis, a racial-justice crisis, an inequality crisis, and now a political crisis, we have only paid lip service to lofty democratic ideals. ... Sadly, this complacency has come at a time of growing fragility for the American experiment. Internet-enabled connectivity is dangerously amplifying an increasingly polarized national discourse in an era of mounting social and political instability. The resulting vulnerability was brought into painfully sharp focus on January 6. The stewardship of democracy is at grave risk. "
Jan 23rd 2021
EXTRACT: "To be sure, if cornered, any populist might resort to Trump’s endgame methods: trying to coerce elites into committing fraud to prevent a transfer of power, or deploying right-wing extremists on the ground to intimidate lawmakers. These desperate acts signaled Trump’s weakness. But it is important to note that most Republicans still did not disown Trump even when confronted with his blatant lawlessness on January 6. ... Other right-wing populists may well take notice of this fact. The recent events in the United States have shown that elites who are prepared to collaborate with authoritarians will tolerate quite a lot in the end. This ignominious precedent is especially likely to hold true in other countries where crony capitalism has implicated the business community in illegal behavior."