Foreign Policy's Clyde Prestowitz writes that the United States shouldn't pretend China is interested in free trade. China's neo-mercantile policies have precedent in Japan, South Korea, Brazil, Germany, and large portions of the rest of the world, he writes--why should China be avoiding the fiscal gray areas that have worked for others?
In their Oval Office meeting earlier this week, President Obama predictably warned China's visiting president-in-waiting Xi Jinping that China must play by the rules in international trade. It sounded right and fair and slightly tough as it was carefully crafted to do by top White House political advisers, and the president may even believe it. But he shouldn't have said it.
Put aside for the moment the indelicacy of implicitly calling the soon to be president of the a country that is the world's second most powerful and that highly values "face" (pride, dignity) a cheater. I mean, can you imagine the reaction here if Xi had lectured Obama on playing by the rules? But I digress.
There are three problems. The phrase "all must play by the same rules" implies that all are playing the same game, but in actuality they are not. In many instances there are no rules or the rules are vague, untested, and unclear. Even where there are rules, many countries have been ignoring them for a long time and there is thus strong precedent for not playing by the rules or even for interpreting the rules such that they are actually said to bless the apparent violations.