The consumer safety implications of a globalized economy are under renewed scrutiny following recent widespread recalls of a variety of goods manufactured in China. While the issue has charged an already protectionist atmosphere on Capitol Hill, the United States should use the attention on the quality of Chinese products as a mechanism to improve global consumer safety standards — as well as U.S. competitiveness.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are rightly concerned over the differing quality standards between the United States and its trading partners, and the consequential risks posed to American consumers and domestic U.S. manufacturing. Labor rights in Chinese manufacturing have long been accused of triggering a global “race to the bottom” regarding wage levels and worker protections. Now, inconsistent product quality controls in Chinese factories have triggered a political backlash on quality standards that should serve as an ideal opportunity for the United States and Europe to vigorously enforce modern production standards throughout China’s “factory to the world.”
Rigorous standards have three benefits for China’s key partners. First, they protect consumers from the dangers typified by China’s toxic toys and tainted foods. Second, high standards aren’t cheap — holding China to such standards erodes some of the significant price advantages associated with Chinese manufacturing. Third, high standards within China will only increase pressure from Chinese consumers for their government to continue pressing forward with a modernizing agenda.
The recent import safety agreement reached between China and the U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission, which aims to narrow the gap between Chinese and U.S. product standards, is a step in the right direction. But the United States can hardly afford a unilateral approach to hold China’s feet to the fire. Washington should seek increased cooperation with Europe, Japan and other countries dependent upon Chinese imports for many of the economic benefits of free trade. The WTO, the G-8 and the regional APEC and ASEAN forums all offer important venues for the deployment of smart, sustained economic diplomacy to turn the tide of China’s toxic toys into long-term benefits for economies on both sides of the China trade.