A s consumers walk through the Detroit auto show, some may be shocked by the presence of Chinese cars. The message is clear: China does not want to sell only television sets or other low-cost products to Wal-mart or Best Buy. It wants a piece of the world’s high-end market, too.

The quality of Chinese cars remains behind that of other low-budget models from the United States, Japan or South Korea, but their manufacturers are learning fast. Chrysler already announced a partnership deal with the Shanghai-based Chery Automobile to develop subcompact cars for the U.S. and other foreign markets. The cars initially will be marked with a Chrysler logo, but it is only a matter of time before China wants its own national champion automaker.

The emergence of Chinese cars in the U.S. market provides an obnoxious reminder of the growing impact of China’s rapid economic development — or, some would say, the “China threat.”

To protect against this growing threat, industries and policymakers are likely to push for tougher legislation in the new Congress to protect U.S. industries. As they have reasoned, China is unlikely to catch up so quickly if it has to play fair by the international trade rules and respect intellectual property rights.

While their position is understandable, an “act tough” China policy, unfortunately, has never been effective or sustainable. History tells us that our trade policy with China has always begun with the John Wayne approach — only to change course changing in the middle of an administration. It does not matter whether the Democrats or the Republicans control the House, Senate or presidency.

When Bill Clinton challenged President George H.W. Bush in 1992, he accused Bush of “coddling dictators.” By the mid-1990s, Clinton was developing a “constructive strategic partnership” with China. Similarly, George W. Bush declared China a “strategic competitor” in 2000, but since has softened his stand to the point that his administration is criticized as being soft on China.

There is simply no easy way out for the many problems China has created. Consider the oft-criticized lack of intellectual property protection in the country. There is no doubt that stronger protection will benefit America’s creative industries. Such protection may even help consumers by ensuring product safety and compliance with stricter environmental standards.

However, these benefits are offset by losses in other areas. Studies have shown that an increase in intellectual property protection often helps countries attract foreign direct investments, especially when the relevant countries have large markets and strong imitative capacities.

As China offers stronger intellectual property protection, more American and multinational firms will relocate to China to take advantage of its lower production costs and considerable market potential. More technology will be transferred, and more domestic jobs will be “outsourced.”

The problems in China are far too complex and difficult for a piecemeal policy that responds only to the needs of selected industries. Policymakers need to think carefully and holistically about what we need to achieve through that policy, rather than what we want in the abstract.

It is easy to demand free trade or stronger intellectual property protection, but it is the underlying policy implications that count. Do we want to make our industries more competitive? Do we want to reduce the loss of American jobs? Do we want China to be politically stable to advance our interests in the Pacific Rim? Do we want China to grow into a more desirable trading partner that respects democracy and the rule of law?

Answering these questions will be more helpful than asking whether China is a friend or a foe or whether China will rise to power peacefully. After all, history has not seen the emergence of a relatively poor global economic power before.

Be Sociable, Share!