As I wrote recently, I believe that we need to do something about China’s trade cheating even if our actions don’t fit under the rubric of free trade. What I fear about the current effort, though, is that the administration believes that it can wave around headline-generating tariffs and get to an accommodation with China relatively quickly, perhaps without even imposing the tariffs. Any such deal would almost certainly be meaningless. The Chinese are deeply committed to their mercantilism and have proven that any promises they make to reform can’t be trusted. If we are really determined to make any progress here, it’s going to have to be a long-term campaign, which is why the administration would be better off with a more deft and/or strategic approach that would be more sustainable.
I view China trade as a little like the North Korea crisis. 1) Despite the saber-rattling, it is more likely to end in a negotiation — and one without a great result — rather than full-blown hostilities. 2) Trump deserves credit for realizing that the approach of past administrations didn’t work, but forging something better is easier said than done.