The U.S.-China relationship is one issue on which President Trump’s instincts are at least partly right — for China, let’s be honest, does not always play fair in international economic relations. It has limited respect for intellectual property; it subsidizes strategic industries with bargain loans and export credits; it uses government power over procurement to favor domestic firms. But diagnosing China’s sins is not the same as stopping them. The question is whether Trump, at this week’s summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping and in the future, can hit upon a strategy that actually helps U.S. workers.
There are, broadly, two ways to influence China. The first is direct bilateral pressure: The United States announces that certain forms of conduct are not acceptable. Bill Clinton famously tried this at the start of his presidency, when he linked China’s human rights to trade access; he got nowhere. During last year’s campaign, Trump promised similar toughness: He would declare China to be a currency manipulator “on day one.” Sensibly, Trump has backed away from that bravado. Most of the time, on most issues, China is too big to push around.