US trade deal with China is progress

United States President Donald Trump's administration has just announced a deal with China to open its markets across a range of industries, from beef to financial services. "This is more than has been done in the whole history of US-China relations on trade," declared Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, with Trumpian modesty.

Rhetoric aside, Mr Trump has put China on notice that he intends to target a long list of protectionist economic policies. Given the industries covered, it seems likely that President Barack Obama's administration could have secured a similar deal had it been a priority. By repeatedly raising the issue, and demonstrating his commitment to it, Mr Trump actually got it done. So give credit where it's due.

That said, this deal shouldn't be oversold.

Some of the measures China agreed to are long-time obligations that it has simply been refusing to abide by. For instance, it first committed to granting access to foreign payment providers as part of its accession to the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in 2000. It dragged its feet for so long that the Obama administration brought a challenge at the WTO in 2010. By now, though, the dominant Chinese card provider is UnionPay, which is owned by the People's Bank of China. Electronic payments are dominated by national champions such as Tencent Holdings and Alibaba Group Holding. So it's no wonder that Beijing has now opted to yield, nearly 20 years after agreeing to: It has little to fear.

Likewise, the Trump administration is touting China's agreement to ease imports of natural gas from US producers. But this is less about opening a restricted market than about new Chinese policy objectives. Facing criticism at home about extreme pollution levels, Beijing has made shifting away from coal a major priority. This means increasing generation of solar electricity, but also cleaner-burning fuels - such as natural gas.

The US concessions to Beijing are similarly modest. China thinks its banks are being subjected to unfair scrutiny in the US, so the Trump administration agreed to apply "the same bank prudential supervisory and regulatory standards to Chinese banking institutions" as it does to other banks. It also agreed to send a delegation to the weekend's Belt and Road Forum in Beijing. Neither is a concession of any consequence.

And potential pitfalls still abound. China remains fiercely protectionist, and US companies will still complain about intellectual property theft and a hostile business environment there. Nor is the agreement likely to affect the bilateral trade deficit, a persistent fixation of Mr Trump's.

But the reality is that the US simply has a weak hand to play when it comes to negotiating with China. There's an inherent asymmetry to the relationship: With one of the world's most open economies, the US has very little to offer China in terms of market access, while China has an enormous amount it could offer the US.

In that light, the agreement should be viewed as a stepping stone. Mr Trump reached this deal because he highlighted real problems and prodded China relentlessly about them. He should continue to push for more openness and fairness. It would help if he did so in forums other than Twitter.


• The writer is an associate professor of business and economics at the HSBC Business School in Shenzhen and author of Sovereign Wealth Funds: The New Intersection Of Money And Power.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 15, 2017, with the headline 'US trade deal with China is progress'. Print Edition | Subscribe