This week, Barack Obama trips to China as part of an eight-day trip to Asia. The White House paints a full agenda: Afghanistan, human rights, North Korean nukes, climate change, trade relations, and the economy. But it’s really just the economy, stupid.
For decades during the Cold War, the U.S. gave security concerns priority over economic issues. Now the economy is our central security concern. It will simply be another measure of the administration’s gathering calamity in Afghanistan if that is allowed to distract from the essential discussions about the economy.
On economic issues, Asian leaders, particularly the Chinese, are in the mood to deliver lectures, not receive them. It was the excesses of Wall Street that brought the world to its knees. And Asian nations, not burdened zombie banks or purblind conservative politicians, are enjoying a rapid recovery, after boosting demand with large-scale government spending.
But the president has a vital message to deliver. We can’t go back to the old bubble-bust economy. That requires more than just financial reform. Central to that old economy was our relationship to the mercantilist nations of Asia, particularly China. For years, the U.S. consumed more than it made, running up record trade deficits. The Asian nations, particularly China, financed our consumption to increase their exports and market share. The Chinese kept their currency undervalued, hoarded dollars and bought up treasury bills, enabling the U.S. to borrow more and more without suffering rising interest rates. That helped inflate the housing bubble that finally blew up in our faces.
Correcting this imbalance—even as we move to meet the challenge of catastrophic climate change—is essential. Thus far, President Obama has forwarded this discussion carefully. He got the G-20 nations (including China) to establish a mandate for more balanced growth as part of the global economic reconstruction. The IMF has been tasked with monitoring— and pressuring—surplus as well as deficit nations to change their ways.
And the president has shown some teeth. He signed off on slapping temporary tariffs on cheap tires flooding in from China. Punitive tariffs have just been imposed on steel pipe dumped on the market by the Chinese. Serendipitously, the World Trade Organization ruled in August that Chinese restrictions on foreign publications, film and music imports are illegal.
The Chinese haven’t gotten the message yet. They did a far better job than the administration in boosting their economy with a bold stimulus package, but much of the spending went to new infrastructure designed to boost exports. They continue to manipulate their currency while denying it. They decry protectionism while practicing it. They’ve now made a commitment to new energy, but significantly as an export industry, while continuing to open a coal-fired energy plant every week.
So what should the president do when he talks to our bankers in China? In public, for this president particularly, we can expect vision, not fireworks. We can hope for more candid discussions in private, with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton there to provide the needed grit. Here’s what we should look for from Obama in public.
1. Forcefully State the New Reality
The President should forcefully state the new reality. We can’t go back to the old imbalances. As recovery gains force, there must be adjustments in both surplus nations and deficit nations. This can be difficult and antagonistic or cooperative and mutually beneficial—but one way or the other, it must occur.
The U.S. has already begun. American consumers are tightening their belts, and have begun to save more and to pay down debts. The American government will invest more, and once the economy recovers, lower its deficits. The U.S. will export more and buy less from abroad. We will move to a more balanced trade posture.
Thus the surplus nations—whether Germany in Europe or China and Japan in Asia—must rely less on America as the source of demand. They should be consuming more of what they make. This can be immensely beneficial to their people. Workers should be empowered to gain better wages, and their societies can afford social supports from pensions to paid vacations. Service industries can expand. In emerging from the crisis, regional trade has already expanded faster than exports to the U.S.
2. Invoke the Vision of a New Age
The president should emphasize that the new economy will be built amid a new green industrial revolution. Catastrophic climate change, accelerating beyond scientific estimates, brooks no alternative. This, too, requires wrenching, massive transformation—but it also can be the source for growth and jobs as we balance the global economy.
Addressing catastrophic climate change will generate enormous demand—for new energy, for rebuilding old buildings, for new transportation systems. We will change the way we live, the way we travel, the way we work. This transition will generate new jobs, new inventions and new industries.
This transition can disintegrate into bitter disputes about who is to blame and who is to pay. Instead the president should focus on the challenges and the opportunities it presents. Mandating this transition can also help in the move to a more balanced global economy, fostering decentralized production closer to markets, just as the movement for slow food encourages local farming. Yes, we will need to assist poorer countries and poorer people within each country in the transition. Companies must not be allowed to undermine progress by playing off countries with weak environmental standards against those with stronger ones. But we should not let the costs and the disputes blind us to the opportunity.
3. Make Human Rights the Measure of Progress
The president should publicly reaffirm our commitment to human rights. The Declaration of Human Rights forged after World War II made protection of basic human rights, from freedom of speech to the right to organize to the right to a good job, the central charge of the peace. In the Cold War years, rivalry turned human rights into ideological weapons, with the U.S. championing free speech and property rights and the Soviet Union celebrating economic rights.
Now the president should reassert the reality that basic human rights are indivisible. And increasingly, we understand that they are also economic imperatives. A vibrant market cannot function without the rule of law. Free speech is essential to freedom of contract. To sustain growing economies over time, workers must have the right to organize so the blessings of growth can be widely shared. Basic protections like health care, education and old-age security make it possible for consumer societies to flourish.
4. Show Some Grit in Private
The private discussions will be and should be more contentious. The president needs to make it clear that the old days are over. The U.S. will move to more balanced trade. That means that we’ll invest to make our own economy more productive. We’ll slowly bring our budget deficits down as the economy recovers.
And we will enforce our trade laws. American states and localities will pass Buy America provisions. China should not be misled by corporate lobbies. It will find more and more resistance if it continues to play by a different set of rules.
The president should be clear about reality. China’s currency is undervalued. This feeds the trade imbalances. It threatens China too, as investors will increasingly move to China, assuming that the currency must go up. The Chinese will risk a growing bubble in assets—housing, commercial property, stock markets—that could well expand and burst with destructive consequence. Abrupt unilateral moves could destabilize the dollar. We have a mutual interest in agreeing on currency adjustment.
The Chinese want the U.S. to recognize it as a market economy, to make it more difficult to penalize its trade malpractices. The president should be brutally candid about this. A mercantilist nation that doesn’t play by the global rules will not be so recognized. A nation that doesn’t enforce labor rights will get special scrutiny. A country that undervalues its currency for trade advantage doesn’t qualify. Concessions on this will follow changes in practice, not promises of future reform.
Finally, the president should be frank about his human rights commitments. The U.S. will not seek to embarrass the Chinese generically. But the U.S. will remain an advocate of basic human rights. We will continue to report on violations, and condemn them when they are egregious. The president will meet with human rights champions, including the Dalai Lama.
Moreover, he should indicate that his administration will place increased emphasis on worker rights and decent work, as well as women’s rights, both at home and abroad. We will seek to help countries move to empowering workers, to guaranteeing basic rights. We surely will reward those countries that are democracies that respect human rights over those that are not.
China and the U.S. have been in a long, intense relationship that is no longer functional. Renegotiating the terms won’t be easy. Neither partner can afford a divorce. Both will find it difficult to change their own ways. Neither has exactly been straight with the other in the past. At best, this trip will lead both to agree that something must be done.