The meeting between President Donald Trump and President Xi Jinping in Argentina in late November may prove to be a turning point for not only for the US-China relationship, but for global trade. Both leaders enter these discussions knowing the far more important question is whether there can be a sustainable co-existence between a Western market-driven economy with democratic ideals and a centrally-managed Chinese economy led by the Communist Party of China.
Trade wars, like real wars, are costly. But people are willing to sacrifice — at least up to a point — when they believe a cause is worth fighting for. Doing nothing in response to China’s policies would have cost nothing in the short run. But if the concerns raised by China’s policies are legitimate, doing nothing to fix them now will cost more to fix over time — if they remain fixable at all.
Made in China 2025 calls for achieving “self-sufficiency” through technology substitution while becoming a “manufacturing superpower” that dominates the global market in critical high-tech industries. That could be a problem for countries that rely on exporting high-tech products or the global supply chain for high-tech components.
The United States has a long history of advancing the rules-based order and, as a practical matter, has never lost a dispute arising from one of its many investment agreements. But investor-state dispute settlement procedures may not have a future.
Although the steel and aluminum tariffs are promoted by the Trump administration as a strategy to seek fairness for those industries, the tariffs will incite retaliation by trading partners, imposing significant costs on large numbers of U.S. producers and consumers who have nothing to do with these industries’ grievances.
With over 2,500 international investment agreements in force and only a total of 817 known investor-state dispute settlement arbitrations, it’s safe to say that the majority of these agreements have operated without a single dispute.
International investment agreements have been a remarkably successful policy innovation: today, there are over 3,000 of them in force worldwide.
If you’re a millennial like me, odds are your refrigerator and recycling bin are currently jammed full of colorful cans and bottles of sparkling water. But an ongoing trade dispute about beef could directly affecting the choice of sparkling water available on your grocery store shelves.
Trade rules typically cover a category of goods or services and affect all firms engaged in trade. Investment disputes, on the other hand, are usually about a state’s treatment of an individual enterprise.
We often talk about “trade wars,” but in the era of a rules-based trading system the phrase typically refers to the use of tariffs or import restrictions to inflict economic harm. It was not always so. Before the GATT and its design for the peaceful settlement of commercial disputes, the use of military power in international economics was commonplace. Take the case of the fight over control of nutmeg production in the 1660s.