During the course of Trump’s administration, there was a massive shift in America’s, and indeed the entire world’s perception of China. In 2016, China was admired for its embrace of capitalism and its rapid pace of economic development. Chairman Xi Jinping was admired for slowly and in subtle ways guiding his country away from communism and, so the world hoped, shifting gradually toward democracy. Even Trump was charmed by his cow-eyed, benevolent smile and was taken in by his promise to be America’s economic partner.
Soon, however, all that began to change. China engaged in a massive military buildup, laid claim to a vast swathe of the South China Sea, bullied its neighbors there, engaged in ethnic cleansing of its Uighur muslim population and unleashed a horrible pandemic on the world’s population while covering up its role. Chairman Xi was named chairman of China for life. He quickly reneged on every promise he made on trade.
By his third year in office, Trump could see the truth – that Xi was a dictator bent on subjugating the U.S. and on world domination. They couldn’t be trusted. He imposed 25% tariffs on half of all their exports. With Trump on the verge of extending those tariffs across the board, China agreed to a deal – the “Phase 1” deal it signed in January of last year. In exchange for holding off on the additional tariffs (and likely counting on America’s traditional lack of enforcement of trade deals), China agreed to specific benchmarks for dramatically increasing its imports of American goods in 2020 and 2021.
By the end of Trump’s administration, the whole western world agreed with its assessment of China – that it represents an existential threat that must be confronted. Upon winning the election, and eager to demonstrate that he would not be the kind of weak leader that many feared, Biden vowed to continue the tough stance on China.
Now, with the Commerce Department’s release of the final trade data for 2020 last week, comes Biden’s first and biggest chance to prove what he meant. True to form, China completely ignored the requirements of the Phase 1 trade deal. Not only did it not meet the 2020 goal, it barely exceeded the 2017 baseline that was the basis for those goals. Here’s the Phase 1 trade deal data.
China missed its goal for total goods imports by $62 billion. In fact, it barely beat the 2017 baseline, rising by only $1.9 billion from 2017. In the all-important category of manufactured goods where the most jobs are created, China not ony fell short of the goal for 2020 by $37.5 billion, it actually fell short of the 2017 baseline by $4.7 billion. In terms of energy products, it barely beat the 2017 baseline while falling short of the 2020 goal by $17.7 billion. It also fell short of the goal for agricultural imports, the category key to support by America’s farmers, by $9.9 billion. This failure cost Trump critical support in the heartland and his failure to enforce this deal cost him support all across the country.
The results are in and they’re horrible. Predictably, China has once again reneged on this critical trade benchmark. So what’ll it be, president Biden? This is your big chance to prove that you meant what you said about being tough with China. Declare China in breach of the deal and extend the tariffs across the board on all Chinese imports. Failure to act – and giving China yet another chance would constitute such a failure – will prove that your rhetoric was just bluster and that you are the kind of weak leader that many feared.