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After tariffs, Trump needs a trade win with China

President Trump’s long anticipated trade deal with Beijing might finally be in sight. This is an opportunity for Trump to help the United States, push China toward reform, and make a lasting mark in the realms of diplomacy and the global economy. But getting a good trade deal won’t be easy, and getting an easy trade deal won’t do much good.

Before the Trump administration are two roads: an easy one and a hard one. The easier road, which leads nowhere worth going, is to get China to promise to purchase certain quantities of U.S. goods. The harder but more fruitful path would be to force structural changes to China’s economic model. This would eliminate longstanding barriers to foreign competition and commerce, making both countries more prosperous in the long run.

Of course, if China promises to meet quotas of U.S. soybeans or cars, this would give some benefit to a couple of politically important industries. But such short-term wins would come at the sacrifice of an opportunity for real reform.

A deal that actually addresses the underlying issues between the two countries would bring a substantial and long-term boost to the U.S. economy, and set the country up for a stable and prosperous relationship with China, while proving to the world that Trump can make great deals on the world stage.

Trump should not shy away from negotiating a deal with China that addresses their trade barriers head-on. China’s tariffs and subsidies, as repeatedly highlighted by his administration, have prevented U.S. firms from competing on an equal playing field and allowed Beijing to exploit trade laws against U.S. interests. Such policies – including subsides, a reliance on state-owned enterprises, forced technology transfers, and a lack of intellectual property protections – must be addressed in any worthwhile agreement with Beijing.

Removing or limiting these anti-competitive practices would counter China’s unfair advantage in key industries, open up new markets for U.S. companies, give much needed protections to foreign companies in China, and increase trade between the two nations. In short, such an agreement could go a long way to fixing Washington’s problems with Beijing.

Ignoring those issues for the sake of some purchase quotas would be no deal at all. Quotas or promises to purchase more goods will simply distort markets even more and give China power over the U.S. economy. Worst of all, such a deal would allow Beijing to keep its trade distortions in place while also securing tariff relief.

Politically, such a deal would also be disastrous for Trump. It would open him up to well-founded criticisms that he secured a weak deal and allowed Beijing to gain the upper hand. In the long term, it would also damage the Republican Party by substituting a commitment to real economic growth for a few short-term deals that only benefits certain sectors.

Moreover, signing a deal that doesn’t address underlying trade barriers only delays the problem. Sooner or later, the U.S. will have to deal with the fundamental issues presented by China’s unequal trade practices.

Trump has already done the hard work of bringing China to the negotiating table. Now that an agreement seems likely, he has a real opportunity to make America great with an unprecedented trade deal with Beijing. He shouldn’t settle for less.