Anyone who has been closely watching the Trump administration’s strategy for remaking global trade might have reasonably believed at times that it had no strategy for remaking global trade.
But that has changed in recent weeks, with a more coherent approach starting to become apparent — though not one with any guarantee of success.
The strategy that has jelled goes something like this: The president has been beating up on traditional allies, including Canada, Mexico, the European Union, Japan and South Korea. He has been assailing them publicly, placing tariffs on their steel and aluminum, and threatening to tax their automobiles. But fundamentally, that was just about softening them up to extract moderate concessions favorable to American interests.
That has now been achieved with a trade deal with South Korea in late September and a new Nafta, now to be called U.S.M.C.A. (for United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement), struck last weekend.
Now that the administration has shown it can get to yes with those deals, similarly patterned agreements with Europe and Japan are expected to come next. After revised deals with those allies are in place, the administration will most likely seek a concerted effort among them to isolate China and compel major changes to Chinese business and trade practices.
The ultimate goal, in other words, is to reset the economic relationship between China and the rest of the world. It may take time and cause pain in the interim. But the idea is it’s a multistep process to attain more leverage with which to force China to allow American companies to sell their goods and operate freely, without having their technology stolen. And it bolsters the United States in a geopolitical rivalry with China that is becoming more tense, as Vice President Pence articulated in a speech last week.
One telling piece of evidence for this strategy: a provision in the new North American deal that will make it hard for Mexico or Canada to negotiate a trade deal with a “nonmarket” economy like China without risking their favored access to the United States’ huge market.
Larry Kudlow, the White House economic adviser, outlined this strategy at the Economic Club of Washington on Thursday. “China is first and foremost,” he said at one point.
“There’s a lot of unfair trading practices, and the biggest culprit is China,” he said. The administration was able to complete the new North American deal, he said, with “a combination of pressure and negotiations.”