Escalating the trade war is risky for Trump. Signing a deal with China may be even riskier.
President Trump in October announced a "phase one" trade deal with China, but the specifics still needed hammering out. And the hammering continues. Actually, it may continue for some time.
Trump now says he's prepared to wait until after next year's U.S. elections before finalizing a deal with Beijing, if ever. As the president told reporters on Tuesday in London, where he is attending the NATO summit, "The China trade deal is dependent on one thing: Do I want to make it?"
Maybe Trump doesn't. Or maybe he's just not sure. Now there's no doubt that Wall Street would love a pause in the U.S.-China trade war. Most bullish forecasts for next year assume just such a scenario. For example: Goldman Sachs expects economic growth to "accelerate modestly ... for several reasons. First, the drag from the trade war should fade absent further escalation." The president surely wants a buoyant stock market in 2020 along with a steady, even strengthening, economy.
But signing a deal isn't without political risk for Trump. Media reports on its outline suggest China would agree to buy more U.S. farm goods, do more to protect U.S. intellectual property, refrain from currency manipulation, and further open its financial sector to American firms. Overall, it sounds like the sort of deal Washington might sign with a rising economic power and competitor that's transitioning to a more market-based economy.
But fewer and fewer people in Washington still see China in those benign terms, especially in Trump's own party. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) warns of China's "long-term plan to supplant the United States of America as the world's dominant political, military, and economic power." Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) says Chinese President Xi Jinping is establishing a "new evil empire" and Washington should stop American companies from helping him. The conservative "Committee on the Present Danger: China" explains that "as with the Soviet Union in the past, Communist China represents an existential and ideological threat to the United States and to the idea of freedom." Indeed, America is "in the race of our lives" against China, according to Fox News host Tucker Carlson.
But if China really is so dangerous, why would Trump want to make American farmers more dependent on it? Why would Trump want China to make itself more hospitable to American business and investment? Why would Trump treat Chinese tech companies as bargaining chips to increase purchases of America-grown sorghum rather than as the nefarious national champions of a hostile power?
These are exactly the kind of questions Trump will get asked if he signs a deal that fails to treat China as a serious geopolitical threat and not just an economic rival — which almost certainly describes any realistic U.S.-China agreement. China isn't going to abandon its top-down, state capitalist model, something Beijing views as both economically successful and a key part of maintaining the Communist Party's hold on power. Moreover, there's little evidence Trump strategically sees the two nations as a fighting a long, multifront war for 21st century global supremacy. If he did, he would be bracing the American public for years of conflict. After all, the Soviet Union wasn't defeated by a clever deal but rather by decades of Western military, economic, and ideological pressure at great financial and human cost. While his fellow Republicans call Xi a dictator running an evil empire, Trump calls him "a king" with whom he gets along "great."
So it's not inconceivable that some high-profile Republicans bash a Trump trade deal. At least in foreign policy, GOPers have shown a degree of independence from the president, such as when they criticized his abandonment of the Kurds and backed legislation supporting Hong Kong's pro-democracy protesters. A deal would also give the Democratic 2020 candidates an opportunity to out-hawk Trump on perhaps his signature issue by finally advocating a comprehensive action plan to contain China.
So Trump's conundrum: If he signs a deal, he could look out-of-step, even dovish on China, hurting his re-election chances. And if he doesn't sign a deal, markets and the economy could weaken, also hurting his re-election chances.
Hey, no one ever said trade wars were good and easy to win. Other than Trump, of course.
Want more essential commentary and analysis like this delivered straight to your inbox? Sign up for The Week's "Today's best articles" newsletter here.