Trump’s troops prepare the ground for trade battles
In a 1949 telegram to the US consul in Shanghai, Dean Acheson, then secretary of state, delineated possible responses to a Communist victory in China “should Commie commercial policy” disappoint. Among the options: invoking Section 338 of the Trade Act of 1930, which allows presidents to impose tariffs of up to 50 per cent on imports from countries found to “discriminate” against the US.
The telegram marks the last known official mention of the arcane bit of legislation. But when John Veroneau, a top trade lawyer in the administration of George W Bush, uncovered the statute recently he found it was still active and available for use.
For Mr Veroneau, who now leads the trade practice at law firm Covington & Burling, this illustrates a simple point. Buried in US law are plenty of tools to enable Donald Trump to unilaterally deploy new shock tariffs against big US trading partners.
In contrast with his recent predecessors, Mr Trump may well want to use them. By naming an avowed protectionist as his top trade negotiator and convincing companies such as Ford to bring jobs back to America, the president-elect this week has again shown US economic relations with the world are set for a significant shift.
“I think we are in very dangerous waters,” says Robert Zoellick, the former World Bank president and US trade representative.
Robert Lighthizer, the lawyer Mr Trump picked for US trade representative, has for years likened free-trade advocates to political naifs. He will join Peter Navarro, another outspoken China hawk set to lead a new National Trade Council, and Wilbur Ross, the billionaire investor and the president-elect’s pick for commerce secretary, in a triumvirate chosen to deliver on Mr Trump’s campaign promise of an “America First” trade policy.
On the campaign trail that policy amounted to getting tough with China, threatening companies that send factories overseas with punitive tariffs and promising to rip up or renegotiate trade agreements.
But what might Mr Trump really do once he takes office?
Mr Trump has made clear that the main target of US trade policy will be China and in Mr Lighthizer, his new top trade negotiator, he has a man with a plan.
In 2010 testimony to a congressional commission Mr Lighthizer called for the US to adopt a “significantly more aggressive approach [to China] than we have followed thus far”. Among his suggestions was a vigorous challenge to China’s alleged currency manipulation, something Mr Trump has repeatedly griped about.
Besides officially designating China a currency manipulator, which recent US administrations have resisted, Mr Lighthizer called for the imposition of special duties on Chinese imports. He also suggested taking China to the World Trade Organisation, arguing its currency policy represented an illegal export subsidy. “We need strong leaders who are prepared to make tough decisions, and who will not be satisfied until this crisis has been resolved,” Mr Lighthizer wrote.
Economists argue that concerns about China’s currency manipulation are outdated as, if anything, Beijing has in recent years been intervening to prop up the renminbi.
But Mr Lighthizer’s views are echoed by Mr Navarro, the economist and author of Death by China, named to head Mr Trump’s new National Trade Council.
And that is why many fear that Mr Trump could set off a trade war with China. “I think the biggest risk is conflict with China that spins out of control,” says Mr Zoellick.
While much of the discussion about Mr Trump’s trade plans has focused on his threats to impose punitive tariffs, Republican lawmakers are already considering an alternative.
Under a radical overhaul of the US corporate tax system proposed by Republican leaders in the House of Representatives, imports would be taxed while exports would not. The “border-adjusted” tax would come alongside a cut in the corporate tax rate to 20 per cent and would encourage more US production of goods, according to advocates. Steve Moore, a Heritage Foundation economist who advised Mr Trump’s campaign, said the plan would “tilt the playing field” in favour of domestic production. “I personally think [Mr] Trump could be persuaded this is a smart thing to do and if you do it you don’t need any [punitive] tariffs,” he said. Import-intensive companies including retailers have already begun lobbying against it. The tax also faces potential opposition in the Senate and could be challenged at the WTO.
Mr Trump has put renegotiating the 22-year-old North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico high on his list of priorities. With his threat this week to impose a “big border tax” on General Motors cars made in Mexico the incoming president also levelled a trade bazooka at the elaborate regional supply chains that have sprung up under Nafta.
Canada and Mexico have said they would be willing to discuss updating Nafta. But that may still be harder than it seems, argues Matt Gold, a former deputy assistant US trade representative for North America who teaches law at Fordham University. All three countries have things they would like to change. But all attempts to negotiate those have failed in the past.
Moreover, Mr Trump’s threat to withdraw from Nafta would present a huge blow to the US economy. “It is simply not realistic for the United States to withdraw from Nafta and the Canadians and Mexicans know that,” Mr Gold says.
Ignore the WTO
For decades Washington has been one of the main backers of the WTO and treated its rules as sacrosanct. Mr Trump has threatened to pull the US out of the trade body. That would be an extreme option. But a Trump administration will test the bounds of WTO rules. In his 2010 testimony, Mr Lighthizer called for Washington to do exactly that, arguing against a “simplistic and slavish dedication to the mantra of ‘WTO-consistency’”.
这是美国官方上一次提及这条鲜为人知的贸易法令。但是当曾在乔治?W?布什(George W Bush)政府担任高级贸易律师的约翰?韦罗诺(John Veroneau)最近披露这条法规的时候，他发现该法规仍然有效且能够随时使用。
目前在科文顿?柏灵律所(Covington & Burling)负责贸易事务的韦罗诺认为，这说明了一个简单的事实。美国法律中有很多工具，能让唐纳德?特朗普(Donald Trump)单方面对美国大型贸易伙伴征收令人震惊的新关税。
世界银行(World Bank)前行长、美国前贸易代表罗伯特?佐利克(Robert Zoellick)表示：“我认为，我们处于非常危险的水域。”
被特朗普任命为美国贸易代表的律师罗伯特?莱特希泽(Robert Lighthizer)多年来将自由贸易倡导者比作政治上的小白。另一位对华鹰派人士彼得?纳瓦罗(Peter Navarro)将会出任新成立的国家贸易委员会的主席一职，而亿万富翁投资者威尔伯?罗斯(Wilbur Ross)将会担任美国商务部长。特朗普选中莱特希泽、纳瓦罗和罗斯这三人来落实他在竞选中承诺的“美国优先”的贸易政策。
但莱特希泽的观点得到了纳瓦罗的呼应。纳瓦罗是一位经济学家，著有《致命中国》(Death by China)一书，被特朗普提名出任新的国家贸易委员会的主席。
按照众议院共和党领袖提出的彻底改革美国企业税制的建议，美国将会对进口征收关税，但不会对出口征税。倡导人士表示，在征收“边境调节”税的同时，将把企业税率削减至20%，这将会鼓励企业在美国生产更多的商品。为特朗普提供竞选咨询服务的美国传统基金会(Heritage Foundation)经济学家史蒂夫?穆尔(Steve Moore)表示，该计划将会让国内生产“获得竞争优势”。他说：“我个人认为，特朗普可能被说服，认为这是明智之举，如果你这么做了，就不需要什么（惩罚性）关税了。”包括零售商在内的有着大量进口业务的公司已经开始游说反对该提案。“边境税”也可能在参议院遭到反对，并难过WTO这一关。
加拿大和墨西哥表示，它们将愿意讨论升级NAFTA。但曾任美国北美副助理贸易代表、如今在福坦莫大学(Fordham University)教授法学的马特?戈德(Matt Gold)表示，事情仍然不会像表面上看起来那么容易。三个国家都希望有所改变，但过去就此谈判的所有努力全都失败了。