Does Trump-Alibaba powwow signal de-escalation in trade wars?

The e-commerce wars just entered surreal territory, with Alibaba founder Jack Ma, a champion of global free trade, meeting the protectionist-leaning President-elect Donald Trump in New York this week to discuss how online retail can create up to 1 million new jobs over the next five years. “Jack and I are going to do great things for small business,” Trump said on Monday, as he and Ma stood in the lobby of Trump Tower.

The meeting is the latest sign that e-commerce has moved to the forefront of both international relations and domestic politics, and is expected to be a major point of contention in the Trump administration. One takeaway is that Ma, known for his pragmatism and easy demeanor, might have just earned the adulation of the collective airfreight business if he has figured out a way of toning down the President-elect’s anti-trade rhetoric.

During his presidential campaign, Trump accused Chinese companies, including Alibaba’s Taobao platform, of “outrageous theft” of American-made goods and the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative has labeled China “a haven for counterfeits.” Aside from Trump himself, most of his cabinet choices are recent converts to the protectionist platform, and most have only recently embraced his conservative, anti-trade stand.

Ma said the two shared “ideas about how we can improve trade.” Specifically, the two discussed Ma’s ambitions of using Alibaba as a platform to sell U.S.-made goods in China, where products bearing the stars-and-stripes command a premium. China’s middle class is growing, and it would benefit the U.S. to embrace such enthusiastic consumption.

Providing Chinese consumers with access to goods made outside of China has long been a key strategy for Alibaba. Ma has said he envisions 40 percent of the company’s business coming from outside China in the next decade. In 20 years, Alizila, Alibaba’s public relations arm, reported that Ma expects his platform will serve “2 billion consumers globally and support 10 million profitable businesses.”

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce estimated that trade with China currently supports more than 40 million jobs in the United States. The the U.S. Department of Commerce estimated that American manufacturers. have exported over US$500 billion of goods to China in the past five years alone.

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