Also last week, the US finally signed trade deals with Mexico and Canada to replace the 25-year-old North American Free Trade Agreement. The US, Mexico and Canada Agreement is essentially just a modernised version of NAFTA, with a new name and, thanks to the Democrats, some labour market protections that Mexico now believes go beyond what it had agreed to.
The spate of bi-lateral deals agreed or, in the case of Brexit, that will need to be agreed represent the triumph of nationalism and protectionism over the globalisation of trade and finance that has been an increasing feature of the global economy for nearly three quarters of a century.
Donald Trump made it clear from the outset of his presidency that he distrusted multilateral institutions and multilateralist trade deals.
One of the first acts of his presidency was to pull the US out of the negotiations for the Trans-Pacific Partnership pursued by Barack Obama, a trade bloc that would have been a more sophisticated and effective way of encouraging China to reform its economy and trade practices than the crude and aggressive trade wars the administration embarked under its “America First” flag.
The US stance seems to have spawned a rise in populist and nationalistic sentiments elsewhere, in economies that don’t have the negotiating leverage of the world’s largest and most dynamic economy.
Whether the US-initiated trade wars and the displacement of multilateral agreements with bi-lateral deals is a successful strategy for the US economy and others, like the UK, remains to be seen.
Certainly, the 18-month effort to force China into re-making its state-owned and directed economic model and reforming its trade practices has proven to be neither as good nor as easy as Trump proclaimed at the outset.
Assuming the deal is signed, the “concessions” the US has wrung from China amount to it buying, perhaps $US40 billion of agricultural products from the US, or about twice what it was buying before the trade war started.
There are lot of caveats in that agreement, given the question marks over the US ability to supply that volume of product and China’s demand for the products that the US can supply.
If the US were able to increase its production significantly to meet the volumes envisaged by the agreement, the global market would be flooded with agricultural products as Brazil and Europe were forced to redirect their exports to the US elsewhere. Prices would fall.
There are some other minor aspects of the deal – intellectual property protections, assurances that China will end forced technology transfers, improved market access and greater transparency for China’s currency market interventions – but, in the circumstances, China has had the better of the negotiations.
The $US160 billion of tariffs on primarily consumer products that were to have been imposed at the weekend have gone; the 15 per cent tariff on $US120 billion of China’s exports that was imposed in September has been halved. The 25 per cent tariff on the remaining $US250 billion will remain but could be lowered.
While the agreement could still fall apart China has succeeded in getting a significant rollback of the tariffs without conceding anything it would regard as central to its economic policies.
Those issues have been left to a “Phase Two” negotiation that, with the US elections next year, may never be held. Trump’s desire to strike a deal that he could present as a victory heading into the election year encouraged China to demand the rollback of some of the tariffs as its price for agreeing a deal.
The Chinese didn’t blink during the trade conflict, accepting the damage done to their economy rather than concede to US demands that radically altered the way that economy is structured and managed.
In the UK Johnson has to negotiate an entirely new economic relationship with Europe as well as a series of bi-laterals with other economies to help offset the damage that the UK economy will suffer as it exits the common market. Nearly half the UK’s exports are to Europe.
Europe itself, apart from the disruption of Brexit, also knows that it is probably going to be the next target for Trump’s America First policies. Trump has threatened to put tariffs on Europe’s auto exports to the US and on Europe’s food and luxury goods exports unless European markets, including agriculture, are opened to US companies.
Europe has warned it would retaliate if the US follows through on those threats.
With a truce with China that doesn’t deal with the core US agenda, the prospect of conflict between the US and Europe, the UK and EU splitting up and the WTO sidelined, the pre-Trump era of globalisation and multi-lateral trade agreements is over.
Stephen is one of Australia’s most respected business journalists. He was most recently co-founder and associate editor of the Business Spectator website and an associate editor and senior columnist at The Australian.