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Whether or not a trade truce is reached, the two countries have been pushed further apart, the former Treasury secretary said.



The United States and China will eventually settle their differences over tariffs — maybe even reach a deal that allows both sides to say they won.


But don’t be fooled. Even if the world’s two biggest economies reach a truce, their relationship is likely to get worse.


“It should concern every one of us who cares about the state of the global economy that the positive-sum metaphors of healthy economic competition are giving way to the zero-sum metaphors of military competition,” he is planning to say.


Over the summer, President Trump declared on Twitter: “We don’t need China and, frankly, would be far better off without them.” He sent shock through industry when he added: “Our great American companies are hereby ordered to immediately start looking for an alternative to China, including bringing your companies HOME and making your products in the USA.”



Mr. Paulson never mentions Mr. Trump by name in his speech. He is hopeful that the two sides will reach the first stage of an agreement, but he suggested that inflammatory language and the use of tariffs by both sides had been deeply damaging.


“Even when this is done, it won’t be the end of the story,” he said. “The very idea of tariffs has been relegitimated after taking a wallop from the dismal failures of the 1930s.” He added, “We are now living in a world where tariffs have become normalized and even applauded.”


Mr. Paulson raised a worst-case scenario that is often dismissed by policymakers but that he believes deserves a lot more attention.


“Let’s not forget that China is a very large purchaser and holder of U.S. Treasuries,” he said, referring to China ownership of over $1 trillion in United States debt. “This helps support U.S. monetary policy, enabling lower interest rates and supporting our spending and lack of saving.”


Then, he addressed what virtually no United States policymaker has been willing to acknowledge aloud: If the relationship between the countries deteriorates further, China could decide to sell — or at least not buy — as many Treasury bonds, potentially sending their value down and pushing interest rates much higher. That would undoubtedly hurt China, but it could be tremendously damaging to us, an idea this column raised last year.


“That’s why the unilateral, reciprocal and retaliatory steps on both sides concern me so much,” Mr. Paulson said.


Even if the United States isn’t able to accomplish all it wants in leveling the playing field with China, Mr. Paulson said, the very idea of walking away from the country is a worse outcome.


“The delusion,” he said, “is that it will be easy or beneficial.”