When Donald Trump delivered his big economic speech in Detroit earlier this month, free trade — and the harm it has allegedly done to U.S. workers — was at the center of his agenda. And one country in particular drew his ire: China.
“China is responsible for nearly half of our entire trade deficit,” Trump said. “They break the rules in every way imaginable.”
Trump’s tone is harsh, but he’s hardly the only one challenging free trade in general, and China in particular, on the campaign trail this year. In her own economics speech just days after Trump’s, Hillary Clinton promised to “stand up to China and anyone else who tries to take advantage of American workers and companies.” Bernie Sanders, during his failed bid for the Democratic nomination, said trade with China has “cost us millions of jobs.” And it isn’t just presidential candidates: Republican Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, for example, has made the trade deficit with China one of the central issues of his re-election campaign.
The focus on China is particularly striking because for more than 20 years it has been Mexico, not China, that has been the focus of protectionists’ ire. But now the politics of trade are shifting, reflecting in part the growing belief among many economists that trade with China could have larger consequences than they previously acknowledged.
For many years, the trade debate was really just a debate about the North American Free Trade Agreement. The 1993 trade deal has long been a lightening rod for political criticism: From Ross Perot’s warning in 1992 that NAFTA would create a “giant sucking sound” of U.S. jobs fleeing south of the border, …