Volume 51

The U.S.-China Trade Negotiation: A Contract Theory Perspective

by Angela Huyue Zhang

International trade negotiations have traditionally been viewed as a two-level political bargain between trading nations and among domestic interest groups. While this bargaining model is helpful for predicting the political dynamics in trade negotiations, its focus on politics tends to obscure the economic consequences of trade agreements. Drawing upon insights from contract theory in economics, this Article analyzes three ingredients of transaction costs that lead to the incompleteness of a trade agreement—the unforeseen contingencies, the cost of enforcing the contract, and the cost of writing the agreement. Using the Sino-U.S. trade negotiation between 2018 to 2019 as a comprehensive case study, this Article illustrates the circumstances when a trade agreement is difficult to write, unlikely to succeed, and impossible to enforce. As an alternative to a trade agreement, this Article advocates instead for greater economic integration as a commitment device. By allowing each country to hold the other’s assets hostage, economic integration can facilitate cooperation between nations when trust is lacking. This Article contributes to the existing literature by proposing an economic framework to analyze the promise and perils of trade negotiations. It also offers a cautionary tale of using economic sanction to force other countries to make legal concessions.

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