(ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP/Getty Images)
April Fools
Donald Trump’s Not-So-Grand Strategy

The President committed a double folly this week: starting a trade war against China while pleasing Russia and Iran with a promised pull-out from Syria.

Published on: April 6, 2018
Josef Joffe is a member of TAI’s Executive Committee and a Fellow of Stanford’s Hoover Institution.
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  • KremlinKryptonite

    The author needs a better understanding of what’s going on, if I may be so bold. The US (and many others) have been suffering undue burdens posed by targeted as well as other more broad Chinese tariffs for decades. Then there’s the IP theft issue. Then there’s the Chinese restriction on FDI designed to protect more than 100 industries! (not companies, but whole industries) Indeed, the OECD still has China ranked 58th (fourth worst) out of 62 measured countries, ie most closed and unfair. Let’s take a look at what the Chinese Communist Party owns, and intends to continue to domineer. These are the top 20 Chinese firms listed on Fortunes 500 list. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/46173564861ca28fc85515a1a9822cd07380013d9402fa3be2dfd7d441031fd0.png https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/2acd7826d65f13278de5e12608adf277f0dc5701364576ba04e26d045e0667f8.png

    • AbleArcher

      Well it’s very clear, the author believes that if you get hit then you shouldn’t hit back. If you hit back then you’re the bad guy! China’s undervalued currency and average import tariff of 7% [which dwarfs America’s] are enough, just those two things, to massively distort trade. We have to talk about that first before we can even address the much larger problem of state owned enterprises, and the unelected communist party’s goal to dominate virtually every aspect of the economy in the same way that it does the political situation.

      • KremlinKryptonite

        This list of China’s top 20 on Fortune’s 2017 list (recent history) mirrors the near total domination of all of China by the unelected Communist Party, indeed. Even the nominally “private” firms on the list often have close ties to the Party, and/or can simply be taken over by the Party in an afternoon, and that does happen!
        For example, AnBang, the major insurance and real estate group which already was de-facto owned by the Communist Party, and which suspiciously offered to overpay Kushner for a stake in his 666 5th Ave property, is now de-jure owned by the Party. because. why not I guess? It’s topsy turvy red china, after all.
        http://www.latimes.com/world/asia/la-fg-china-anbang-20180223-story.html

      • AnonymoussSoldier

        This is another graphic that needs to be seen. When you hear anyone talking about DJT and tariffs and “starting a trade war” just twiddle your finger on your lips bla bla bla. They don’t know what they’re talking about, and worse they couldn’t even be bothered to do the simplest of research. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/757239293c93df394416b378ae59095a5a0ef070ced99da318a91c08ce530303.png

        • StudentZ

          That graph would be more meaningful if you included a title and labeled the axes (particularly the y-axis). Also, it’s good to provide a source, but a link to a report or website providing the original methodology and analysis included with the results would help explain the data depicted.

          • AnonymoussSoldier

            You don’t know what its about? What is this entire thread about? You should be able to infer that it’s representing tariff rates [percentages]! You have to use the WTO’s own tool, TAO (tariff analysis online), to do it. Go ahead and visit the WTO website and create an account, which you must do before using the TAO tools.

          • StudentZ

            What year is your data from? 2016? 2017? Multiple years? How are you calculating your averages? Are you using the tariff line averaging method or HS sub-heading averaging method? Does your graph show bound or applied duties? Which data are you excluding/including? Are you including non ad valorem duties?

            This is not simple stuff. If you don’t think my suggestion is useful, consider the way the WTO actually presents its findings and labels tables and graphs:
            https://www.wto.org/english/res_e/publications_e/world_tariff_profiles17_e.htm

            The WTO goes to great lengths to explain abbreviations and methodology, insisting that “certain caveats apply in the interpretation of these indicators and the reader is advised to read the methodological notes that precede the statistical tables.”

            Why rely on readers to make dubious inferences or create their own graphs? I might be willing to do that, but how many people would go to such lengths to try to understand a point you are trying to make? You’re the one who wants to have an impact, right? Why leave it to others to do the work? Mock me if you will, but my point was valid. If you take the trouble to make a graph, why not take the time to effectively communicate what it means? You can’t expect your audience to be as insightful as you, and I am assuming you are not just posting this for your own amusement.

          • AnonymoussSoldier

            What are you talkin’ about lol? China and the US each hold MFN status in the other’s territory, so simply averaged MFN rates apply. Obviously there’s no US-China FTA, bilateral or multilateral, so we’re dealing with MFN rates here. I used the WTO’s tools to create the graph and grabbed a screenshot already knowing which tariff schedule is used! You understand now? Oh, and the Chinese part is really worse than it even looks due to high VATs added to imports after the tariffs are applied. I’m guilty of presuming that you or anyone on this site, and in its small community, would just know off hand that the US and China apply their respective MFN rates, and that’s what these are.

          • KremlinKryptonite

            Look at the WTO cases brought by the US against China. 22 cases to date, and that’s 55% of all cases brought by WTO members against China. But perhaps even more interestingly, china has brought 10 cases against the US, and the majority of them have to deal with their dislike of US remedies to the trade distortions caused by the Chinese’ own practices. This is why Trump’s tweet this morning about hammering out a real meaningful deal to correct the distorting practices and iniquities was made in error. How does he expect to hammer out such a deal when they bring cases against you for even trying to hammer out a deal? That’s how serious they are about maintaining their very healthy surplus via mercantilist practices. Bet your life he tweeted that before running it by Navarro and Lighthizer.

          • StudentZ

            I was simply asking that you label your graph so it’s clear what is actually depicted.

            For example:

            https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/52ec38acb564dc8a4e53967c3bb5f425c44810c717ca6bbd1360d476a06c6782.png

            You could have graphed simple average final bound tariffs, simple average applied tariffs, or trade weighted averages, as shown in the first part of each country’s table below. The differences between the three are explained below.

            “MFN tariffs, simple average, final bound:
            The simple average of ‘ad valorem and ad valorem-equivalent final bound HS 6-digit duties’ excluding unbound tariff lines. ‘Final bound’ tariffs are the legally binding ceilings after reductions have been made as a result of trade negotiations. ‘Tariff lines’ are products defined at a highly detailed level for the purpose of setting import duties. A product or tariff line is ‘unbound’ if the country has not made any binding commitment on it in the WTO.”

            “MFN tariffs, simple average, applied:
            The simple averages of ‘ad-valorem and ad valorem-equivalent MFN applied HS 6-digit duties’ — in calculating the average tariffs, the same weight is given to all products, without taking into account how much the products are traded.”

            MFN tariffs, trade weighted average, applied
            “HS 6-digit MFN applied tariff” (jargon buster) averages weighted by HS 6-digit import flows for traded products (or “tariff lines”) — in calculating the average tariffs, more weight is given to products with larger import flows.”

            Source: https://www.wto.org/english/res_e/statis_e/popup_indicator_help_e.htm

            You could have also chosen to graph the tariffs imposed on each country when trying to export goods to the other country, as tabulated in Part B.

            https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/6048957b97fdaa3fc68bcab95b402425985a088b2b075672d4990b753b07ba1a.jpg
            https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/171d9cbf95a19ba9095b73c6ca0e092262217aca4c49e495dc16bce1ecb2e01b.jpg
            https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/d585f488b0ee4df7668f1433ff980ac0025ea52e52234c98550beadad8c2f11f.jpg https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/dcef0639aa5d4d0a9d428368e90b93211d7cf6b4cae72e30d1b6fc1b22273f22.jpg
            Source: World Tariff Profiles 2017 (

          • StudentZ

            I was simply asking that you label your graph so it’s clear what is actually depicted.

            For example:

            https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/c6b8a067c6412f63c865ac41d1ddc248376e31e2c2b46fa8dc59fadd4321bbdb.png

            No editor would ever allow you to publish a graph without doing that. There’s a reason WTO publishes reports with long tables and glossaries. Single, unlabeled graphs have limited value.

            You could have graphed simple average final bound tariffs, simple average applied tariffs, or trade weighted averages, as shown in the first part of each country’s table below. The differences between the three are explained below.

            “MFN tariffs, simple average, final bound:
            The simple average of ‘ad valorem and ad valorem-equivalent final bound HS 6-digit duties’ excluding unbound tariff lines. ‘Final bound’ tariffs are the legally binding ceilings after reductions have been made as a result of trade negotiations. ‘Tariff lines’ are products defined at a highly detailed level for the purpose of setting import duties. A product or tariff line is ‘unbound’ if the country has not made any binding commitment on it in the WTO.

            MFN tariffs, simple average, applied:
            The simple averages of ‘ad-valorem and ad valorem-equivalent MFN applied HS 6-digit duties’ — in calculating the average tariffs, the same weight is given to all products, without taking into account how much the products are traded.

            MFN tariffs, trade weighted average, applied
            ‘HS 6-digit MFN applied tariff’ averages weighted by HS 6-digit import flows for traded products (or ‘tariff lines’) — in calculating the average tariffs, more weight is given to products with larger import flows.”

            Source: https://www.wto.org/english/res_e/statis_e/popup_indicator_help_e.htm

            You could have also chosen to graph the tariffs imposed on each country when trying to export goods to the other country, as tabulated in Part B.

            https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/6048957b97fdaa3fc68bcab95b402425985a088b2b075672d4990b753b07ba1a.jpg
            https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/171d9cbf95a19ba9095b73c6ca0e092262217aca4c49e495dc16bce1ecb2e01b.jpg
            https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/d585f488b0ee4df7668f1433ff980ac0025ea52e52234c98550beadad8c2f11f.jpg https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/dcef0639aa5d4d0a9d428368e90b93211d7cf6b4cae72e30d1b6fc1b22273f22.jpg
            Source: World Tariff Profiles 2017

          • AbleArcher

            Well, my dear Watson, I was certainly able to deduce what is graft was about. Should probably always include the year though. But the WTO does require members to give each other reciprocal MFN status, although the US gave it to china 20 years ago, before China was a member. Amazingly, Chinese tariffs coming down from astronomical numbers to an average of still over 9% is considered good progress. Sigh.

          • AnonymoussSoldier

            I should’ve mentioned the year, but our student here definitely should’ve been able to figure out what the heck it was. Goodness gracious. Either way, no matter. Now, there’s basically a replica of mine with the axis labeled for those unable to deduce. Good.

            What we are looking at here is that China [the Communist Party] is in noncompliance, and it’s in noncompliance on purpose. China’s simple average tariff rate is three times the US level, and China’s tariff on autos is 10 times the US level. The communist party is also in the car making business itself. So, you have autos being manufactured by an SOE, a tariff on foreign cars 10 times Americas rate, and that again doesn’t speak to the VAT added on top of tariffs.

            Again, anybody talking about Donald J Trump and tariffs and trade wars, as if he’s starting some problems or doing something wrong, well they simply don’t know what they are talking about and they really need to sit down and they need to listen to those of us who know more about it. That’s the real takeaway here. Luckily, Donald has the likes of Lighthizer and Navarro and now Kudlow.

          • StudentZ

            Don’t confuse a well-intended recommendation to minimize ambiguity for a lack of comprehension.

          • StudentZ

            Well, at least you consider it worthwhile to include the year. I was trying to stress the importance of distinguishing between simple and trade-weighted averages, too, but I don’t think I gave you enough credit for the “Total Simple Average” label. You did include the source, also, so maybe I went overboard in my attempt to make a simple point. Anyway, I thought you could appeal to a broader audience and minimize ambiguity by labeling your graphs, but maybe I misunderstood your objectives. Sorry for the unsolicited feedback. I guess it wasn’t entirely welcome.

          • KremlinKryptonite

            Yes, the Navarro-Lighthizer-Kudlow trio is particularly potent because they are each going to make the argument for action, but each from a different angle.
            Lighthizer was intimately involved in the Reagan-era Plaza Accord, and righting some of the wrongs from intentional currency misalignment. At that time it was some Europeans because it was pre-euro, and Japanese. It’s certainly played a role in what seemed to be indomitable Japanese takeovers and real estate grabs coming to a halt.

            Navarro. Don’t really need to describe the man. Just read his bio. He’s a one-man army by himself.

            Kudlow comes from a very different angle, and really complements the other two. He’s made his rounds on TV of course just in the last several days. Predictably, he’s talking more about confronting predatory Chinese practices for what they are – political. To paraphrase him just the other day, he said that it’s clearly not about economics. In fact, Chinese mercantilist tactics have stunted Chinese growth potential, US growth potential, and by extension global growth potential (that’s what Kudlow is interested in).

  • Dale Fayda

    Two more of Trump’s campaign promises kept – getting out of Syria once ISIS has been defeated as a territorial entity and beginning to reverse the patently unfair and unequal trade relationship with China.

    Russia and Iran can have Syria – Obama already handed it to them years ago by studiously ignoring ISIS for over two years and by his assorted other failures in the region. I think Trump still has a tremendous amount of work to do in bringing the Chinese in line with American interests on trade, but it’s a good start.

    • TPAJAX

      OH NO! As trump said on Twitter today, China is technically considered a developing nation for its own WTO benefit lol. Just one more example of contradiction in China. China is Number 2 and going to be Number 1 any day now, yet it’s also perpetually unready to graduate from protected status and have to really compete on a level playing field.

  • Micah718

    What is author’s plan for Syria? Establish a permanent military base? What is the mission now that ISIS is destroyed? It is easy to sit an armchair and pontificate about the folly of others without ever offering your own solution.
    Chinese trade practices are patently unfair. Nobody is arguing otherwise. It seems that everyone in America hates the status quo, but the second it is challenged all of a sudden it is smelling salts time. The author once again complains about Trump without offering any concrete policies that will get China to play more fair.

    • D4x

      04 04 2018 A Syrian shepherd herds his flock, as he passes in front of a newly installed U.S. position between the U.S-backed Syrian Manbij Military Council and the Turkish-backed fighters, in Manbij photo: AP Hussein Malla https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/4d84525749cfdec58d3282185c8cb8455e06430af4c8a0791f73bc4acad59f9f.jpg

      Joffe also failed to mention Turkey’s territorial aggression in NW Syria while threatening their Astana partners, Russia and Iran, in same bit of very important geography (Afrin & Tell Rifaat); while also threatening NATO ‘allies’ USA and France in Manbij. And still having time to host Hamas on April 1! (Not uploading photo 04 01 2018 “RT The terrorist Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal praises Turkey’s control over Afrin,The Kurdish city in Northern Syria” from Ankara with Erdogan handshake)

      What Trump did with his ‘very soon’ is get everyone from Joffe to (a long list) now demanding the USA stay per most of Tillerson’s late January objectives. Brilliant way to get the entrenched obstructionists who continue to hallucinate over POTUS Trump to stop their obstruction and demand he do what he is still doing. That includes being able to resume talking with Putin without Congress and the Joffes screaming NO. I have documented all of this so much, just enjoying Turkey’s new level of confusion today, although they are still invading northern Iraq, and still threatening to shoot at the two new bases north of Manbij:

      12:50 PM – 7 Apr 2018 Turkey criticizes United States
      over mixed messages on Syria ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Turkey on Saturday
      criticized the United States over sending what it said were mixed messages on
      Syria, saying Washington was sowing confusion by equivocating about its future role in the country.

      President Tayyip Erdogan’s spokesman also told reporters
      that Turkey was talking to Russia about the Syrian town of Tel Rifaat and would
      not need to intervene in the area given Moscow’s assurances that the Syrian
      Kurdish YPG militia was not present there.

      “The President of the United States says ‘We’re going to get
      out of Syria very soon’ and then others say, ‘No, we are staying’,” Ibrahim
      Kalin said, referring to recent comments from U.S. President Donald Trump and other officials.
      “Obviously it does create a lot of confusion on the ground,
      as well as for us. We would like to see some clarity, for them to decide what
      is the next step, what is the ultimate goal there.”

      There are still 100,000+ displaced Afrinis in need of safety, shelter, food, blankets. They are under threat by Turkey in Tell Rifaat area just NW of Assad-held Aleppo, with Russia, Syria, and Iran still blocking Turkish aggression there.

      Meanwhile, after freeing $200MIL in reconstruction aid, the UNHCR arrived in Raqqa on April 5, reporting the incredible devastation, and that opens the rebuild project to other international donors, not just the USA.
      There are still tens of thousands displaced Syrians from Aleppo, Raqqa, and Deir-ez-Zour in tent camps in Hasakah, protected by OIR & SDF.

      The Joffes never notice any of this, mostly just screaming ‘USA has no Congressional authorization to be in Syria, and …Trump! Russia!’ Good to finally read them screaming for Trump to do what he has been doing all along.

      Still waiting for the ‘appease Turkey our precious NATO ally’ chant to stop.

  • FriendlyGoat

    The China thing is okay as long as American consumers like paying more and American industries like selling less. The Syria thing is probably an example of why Russia preferred a Trump presidency to a Clinton presidency—–unfettered from talk of freedom and human rights for Syrians or any strategic concerns about the country itself. Assad, Putin and some crank Ayatollah can have it and do as they please..

    • Tom

      That’s true, Clinton would have talked a big line about freedom and human rights for Syrians and then did exactly the same thing Obama did about Assad–precisely nothing of any use.

  • Fat_Man

    Maybe trump does have a Grand Strategy. Here is a rumor of a foreign policy development that could have a dramatic domestic political impact.

    A couple of weeks ago, I had lunch with a neighbor. He is in the military and has just returned from a tour of duty in Korea. His rumor is that the meeting between Trump and NORK dictator Kim will produce a peace treaty between the parties to the Korean War.

    The terms of the treaty will include the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and the withdrawal of American forces from South Korea.

    Yes, it is contrary to established policy, but Trump has no commitment to established policy. Further, it would fit Chinese policy.

    I am sure that Kim does not want to give up his nukes, but, he will do as the Chinese say. Kim has absolutely no leverage in dealing with China. His guns point south and China is to his north. They can turn off the spigot and Kim’s army will have neither food nor fuel. Against us Kim has the population of Seoul as his hostages.

    My concern is that China should pay a price for what would a very big win for them. The price should be backing down on several other issues:

    1. China must give up claims that the South China Sea is its territorial waters. It must confirm the judgment of the court in its case with the Philippines.

    2. China must agree that it will not use force or the threat of force to alter the political status of Taiwan.

    3. China must accept changes in the terms of its trade with the US. Most especially, it must abandon the policy of requiring US companies to give intellectual property rights to Chinese joint venturers as a condition for access to Chinese markets. Other restrictive practices must be stopped as well.

    Here is a reading of some not obviously connected recent events that may be pieces of the puzzle.

    1. Trump fires McMaster and Tillerson. Pompeo is made SoS. The connection? The departed opposed the deal. Pompeo and Mattis have pushed the deal. They may have set the term sheet.

    2. Trump imposes tariffs on US China trade. He may be pushing item 3 of the deal where China had been balky or foot dragging.

    3. Trump makes nice Putin, invites him to White House. The Korean War which will be ended by the deal was fought by the US, but the US was authorized and directed in the matter by the UN. The treaty must be approved by the Security council and Russia has a veto. Putin must be on board.

    I am not enamored of Trump. He is not a naive genius at international affairs. He is very ADD. He never studies issues. And, I doubt that he thought this whole thing up. My guess is that the deal was first floated by Xi Jinping. Then, Pompeo and Mattis carried the ball over the objections of Tillerson and McMaster.

    This is all rank speculation based on very little. But, if it comes to pass it will be a spectacular development in international affairs, and it will force a rest of the political atmosphere in the US. Large numbers of Americans on the isolationist right, and the pro-communist left would be thrilled. The narrative of an unstable sabre rattling Trump would be destroyed. It would boost Trump’s popularity ratings dramatically, and perhaps reverse the anti-Trump electoral trend of the past few months.

    If it does happen, you read it here first.

    • AnonymoussSoldier

      I don’t know who this person is you’re speaking about, or what their rank is or what they are actually privy to, but man does that sound far-fetched. If for no other reason than the plain fact that nukes aren’t what kept the US there 1950-2000s.

      There doesn’t seem to be any sensible way to talk about withdrawl without both denuclearization AND reunification. North Korea’s Kim dictatorship was installed by Stalin during the Russian occupation of the north immediately post WWII. They invaded South Korea with Russian equipment. Obviously the regime was supported during and since the Korean War by the Chinese too.

    • KremlinKryptonite

      Well I am here in Seoul, and I’ve been here for a decade with the service. As Mr. Anonymous Soldier said, I haven’t a clue who this person is you’re speaking of, but rest assured this is another exercise in how the rumor mill grossly exaggerates, and so often even gets it plain wrong. Although, I have not heard any such rumor here.

      The KPA has food and fuel stores to last about 90 days of high intensity combat, and the KPA also regularly trains in a chemical environment and even manufactures decent quality chemical-protective gear. This kind of intelligence lets you know the rough limits of what they are capable of, and for how long, as well as the harsh reality that chemical weapons will almost certainly be used, and used early on when North Korean planners have their best picture of the scenario. In other words, North Korean planners are already planning for a very limited amount of food, fuel, etc., whether Beijing turns off the spigot or that spigot is simply broken by the USAF and USN.

      It’s an interesting list you made up regarding the price that the CCP should pay. It’s very similar to a list made up by Mao and Zhou Enlai themselves on 12 July 1950 – demands, really – for their version of what a “peaceful settlement” would look like. Remember, the North Korean invasion began barely 2 weeks earlier on 25 June 1950.
      Mao and Zhou demanded five things, although I’ll condense them to four because numbers 1 and 2 are very similar. The simple rebuttals follow.

      Chinese demands were:
      1. All foreign forces leave the Korean Peninsula and leave the struggle up to the Koreans.
      2. All US forces leave the Taiwan Strait (obviously leaving Taiwan up for grabs).
      3. The Communist Party takes over Taipei’s China seat at the UN, and Taipei is expelled.
      4. Begin negotiating a peace treaty [between themselves] and Japan.

      They made these demands precisely because the CCP viewed the Korean War as an opportunity for themselves, and they viewed the event in very broad terms.

      Rebuttals were swift and essentially were:
      1. Does that include Chinese forces, and how can one leave it up to the korean people when Stalin installed the Kim family? The North Korean invasion was made possible only with Stalin’s support and with Russian equipment. Hmm.
      2. No. We don’t recognize the Communist Party and we’re aiding the recognized government the GMD (we didn’t officially recognize the CCP until 1979).
      3. Regrettably, they have gotten their wish in this regard. But at that immediate time the proposal was laughably rejected out of hand. The CCP wouldn’t takeover China’s seat until 1971.
      4. That’s their own business.

      • AnonymoussSoldier

        Wow, that’s pretty presumptuous of them! In July, 1950, the Chicoms hadn’t even entered the peninsula yet. They must’ve been planning to all along?

        • KremlinKryptonite

          Yes, Mao had already sent more than 100,000 PLA troops who were ethnic Koreans into North Korea to be at the disposal of Kim well before Kim’s invasion. More importantly, at about the same time Zhou and Mao were crafting these demands, they created the NEBDA (Northeast Border Defense Army). That was 260,000 Han Chinese along the China-Korea border just waiting to move in. Should’ve been named the Northeast Border Offense Army.
          Mao directed this army to be ready to enter Korea by the end of September. They did get ready, and obviously on October 19 a quarter million Chinese entered Korea on Kim’s behalf, and at least partly on Stalin’s behest.

          As I’ve read so much on the topic, I love trailing off into the weeds and reading accounts of how upset Mao was that Stalin did directly asked for Chinese involvement, all the while never really nailing down what Russian assistance would even mean, or if it would even come. Mao had initially thought that Chinese would provide added manpower, while Russians provided air power. This didn’t really play out the way Mao had expected it to. It was certainly a factor in the rapid deterioration of the Sino-Soviet alliance throughout the 50s

  • I am no fan of China, or any trade imbalance between our two nations, but an economic war is the last thing either of us need right now, we will only end up hurting ourselves even more.

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