We probably didn’t need a major academic study to convince most people that China’s epic air pollution problem has consequences beyond its borders, but now we have one. The National Academy of Sciences has published a study by researchers at the University of California indicating that Pacific wind currents are dragging vast amounts of airborne pollutants from the Middle Kingdom to America. One eye-popping statistic in the study suggests that up to 24% of the sulfates contaminating air in the western United States may be generated by Chinese industries producing goods for exports. So that smart phone you’re so proud of arrived here with a hidden cost of increased cancer and asthma rates in places like California.
That’s pretty ironic, when you consider that one reason so much manufacturing moved from America to China was to escape regulations inspired by environmental concerns. Apparently we have managed to export the jobs without getting rid of the pollution. But there is a much bigger issue emerging in U.S.-Chinese relations. In its headlong rush to establish global industrial dominance over the last dozen years, China has damaged U.S. interests to such a degree that it may now be the leading threat to the well-being of the average American. It continuously steals huge amounts of U.S. intellectual property. It subsidizes favored industries so they can compete unfairly with their U.S. counterparts. It restricts access to its markets. It manipulates its currency. And it causes vast environmental damage to the world’s oceans and air.
China is the missing piece of the puzzle in explaining the slow pace of U.S. recovery from the recent recession. When you import a billion dollars more of goods per day from a country than you export to it, that is bound to have a dampening effect on job creation and economic growth — and that’s before we even talk about the Chinese impact on U.S. trade with other nations. If these patterns were due purely to U.S. policies (like our ridiculously high corporate income tax), then Washington could just look in a mirror to identify the source of its economic problems. But in the case of China, it is obvious that a sizable part of the imbalance is due to Beijing’s mercantilist mentality. If Washington doesn’t do more to reshape that mindset, then pivoting its military posture to the Pacific isn’t going to make much of a difference.
Like President Bush before him, President Obama has chosen to avoid confrontation with China. The administration has pursued a series of narrow-gauge measures to punish especially egregious violations of trade norms, but it hasn’t done much to curb the cyber attacks, or the currency manipulation, or the export subsidies. Republicans in Congress are part of the problem too, because their approach to economic policy seems to imply that nothing of consequence happens beyond America’s shores. Everything is Obama’s fault. That kind of myopia helps Beijing to keep victimizing U.S. companies and workers. The two parties need to call a time out from their constant struggles to focus on what China has done to America’s well-being, and start imposing some serious sanctions.
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