No one familiar with the Smoot-Hawley tariff of 1930 should relish the prospect of a trade war with China -- but that seems to be where we're headed and is probably where we should be headed. Although the Smoot-Hawley tariff did not cause the Great Depression, it contributed to its severity by provoking widespread retaliation. Confronting China's export subsidies risks a similar tit-for-tat cycle at a time when the global economic recovery is weak. This is a risk, unfortunately, we need to take.
In a decade, China has gone from a huge, poor nation to an economic colossus. Although its per capita income ($6,600 in 2009) is only one-seventh that of the United States ($46,400), the sheer size of its economy gives it a growing global influence. China passed Japan this year as the second-largest national economy. In 2009, it displaced Germany as the biggest exporter and also became the world's largest energy user.
The trouble is that China has never genuinely accepted the basic rules governing the world economy. China follows those rules when they suit its interests and rejects, modifies or ignores them when they don't. Every nation, including the United States, would like to do the same, and most have tried. What's different is that most other countries support the legitimacy of the rules -- often requiring the sacrifice of immediate economic self-interest -- and none is as big as China. Their departures from norms don't threaten the entire system.
China's worst abuse involves its undervalued currency and its promotion of export-led economic growth. The United States isn't the only victim. China's underpricing of exports and overpricing of imports hurt most trading nations, from Brazil to India. From 2006 to 2010, China's share of world exports jumped from 7 percent to 10 percent.
One remedy would be for China to revalue its currency, reducing the competitiveness of its exports. American presidents have urged this for years. The Chinese acknowledge that they need stronger domestic spending but seem willing to let the renminbi (RMB) appreciate only if it doesn't really hurt their exports. Thus, the appreciation of about 20 percent permitted from mid-2005 to mid-2008 was largely offset by higher productivity (aka, more efficiency) that lowered costs. China halted even this when the global economy crashed and has only recently permitted the currency to rise. In practice, the RMB has barely budged. [...]
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