What Exactly Does Washington Want From Its Trade War With Beijing?
Image Source : Shutterstock
Image Source : Shutterstock
First Published in: Apr.11,2023
With relations at an all-time low, punitive actions targeting China have become politically popular, even if they have no analytical basis.
Five years ago, then president Donald Trump launched a tariff-fueled trade war with China designed to reduce the bilateral trade deficit. His successor, President Joe Biden, then added a decoupling focus by restricting high-tech exports and curtailing professional and financial links. Both wanted to reduce imports of manufactured goods and bring home more jobs.
How should one judge the effectiveness of their policies? Back then, and even more so today, the logic of Trump’s fixation on trade deficits made little sense. But security concerns have now become the rationale for reducing America’s trade relations with China and undercutting China’s growth potential. Against these yardsticks, the results are mixed but on balance unconvincing, given the costs in the form of inflationary pressures, repressed export growth, and a projected decline in global output. But U.S. politicians from both parties strongly support these restrictive measures because the costs are not obvious to their constituents, while the benefits from appearing to be tough on China resonate well with voters.
RISING TRADE DEFICITS
The recent U.S. Census Bureau data indicate that the politically sensitive U.S. merchandise trade deficit with China was larger in 2022 than when Trump became president, while America’s overall trade deficit hit an all-time high of $1.18 trillion. This reinforces the views of nearly all the economists surveyed at the launching of Trump’s trade war: that the tariffs would not reduce U.S. trade deficits and the costs would be paid largely by Americans.
For the Trump administration, the wild card was the “phase one” purchase agreement, which called for an increase of $200 billion in China’s imports from the United States. But state-to-state purchase agreements have no logical basis when global trade is largely shaped by the market-driven decisions of firms and consumers and subject to unpredictable events such as the coronavirus pandemic. Economic principles tell us that how much a country saves and spends determines its trade balance. The combination of Trump’s large tax cuts and Biden’s huge expenditure initiatives has led to soaring budget deficits, which are mirrored in record trade deficits. All this has little to do with China.
Yet the Biden administration still insists that China honor the purchase agreement and links the removal of tariffs to its fulfillment. Asking China to honor an agreement that made no sense to begin with as a condition for dropping another equally ineffective policy defies logic.
TRADE DIVERSIFICATION BUT INCREASING IMPORT DEPENDENCE ON OTHER COUNTRIES
But this focus on bilateral trade numbers overlooks the sharp decline in China’s share of trade with the United States. Whereas China accounted for 47 percent of the U.S. trade deficit in 2017, it accounted for only 32 percent last year, with most of this decline offset by the increasing shares of other East Asian economies. Europe’s share of America’s overall trade deficit also declined from 21 percent to 18 percent. Only Canada and Mexico, via the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), were able to increase their share from 11 to 18 percent.
More insights can be gleaned from looking at the components of trade. Although the value of U.S. imports from China was essentially the same in 2022 as it was in 2017, total U.S. imports increased by about $900 billion during this period. As a result, China’s share of the total, made up largely of manufactured goods, fell from 22 to 17 percent. This decline, however, did not reduce America’s dependency on imports of manufactured goods. The share of imports relative to overall expenditures on manufactured goods rose steadily to 34 percent in 2022 from 23 percent two decades ago.
The decline in China’s share of U.S. imports of manufactured goods was more than offset by imports from other countries, notably Mexico and Vietnam. These two developing countries, more than others, were able to import heavily from the United States based on their locational advantages and free trade agreements. Vietnam and China share a border and are linked by the ASEAN-China trade agreement, while Mexico and the United States also share a border and are linked by the USMCA trade agreement.
Less noticed, however, is the behind-the-scenes role that China plays in supplying the components and materials for these other countries’ exports to the United States. Most of Vietnam’s increased exports were in product lines where U.S. imports from China fell, such as computer accessories and telecommunication equipment. China’s exports to Vietnam have more than doubled since 2017, and its trade surplus nearly tripled by 2022. China’s exports to Mexico increased by nearly 30 percent last year, on top of a 50 percent increase in 2021. China may be exporting less to the United States directly, but it is now indirectly exporting more. This explains why China’s share of global manufacturing production has continued to increase from 26 percent in 2017 to 31 percent in 2021.
As for U.S. exports, the total averaged about $1.5 trillion from 2017 to 2020 but then jumped to $1.9 trillion in 2022. But this increase was not in manufactured goods but in exports of energy products and chemicals to Europe, spurred by the Ukraine crisis. The trade war did little to expand U.S. exports to China, the share of which fell from 8.4 percent in 2017 to 7.5 percent in 2022.
COSTS AND BENEFITS OF DECOUPLING
According to one study, U.S. firms were handicapped by tariff-related higher costs of their imported inputs, and coupled with China’s retaliatory tariffs, this resulted in U.S. exports to China being 23 percent lower than they would have been in the absence of the trade war. The consequence is that America’s trade war policies generated very little growth in exports of manufactured products, despite the priority given to those policies by both the Trump and Biden administrations.
If the purpose of the U.S. punitive actions toward China was to weaken China economically, there is no clear evidence of that happening. By developing alternative export markets and tapping pandemic-driven demand in the West for manufactured goods, China pushed its share of global exports to record levels in recent years. Meanwhile, China’s imports as a share of its GDP have been declining steadily, from a high of 28 percent in the early 2000s to 17 percent in 2022. One could argue that the world has become more dependent on China in trade while China has become less dependent on the world.
The benefits of decoupling—if any—should be weighed against the costs imposed on U.S. consumers and producers and damage done to the export competitiveness of U.S. firms. To counter such tendencies, the Biden administration is promoting domestic manufacturing with subsidies in the Inflation Reduction Act. Such actions can be justified for strategic reasons, but the rationale is weakened by protectionist Buy America conditions. U.S. policymakers often counter by pointing to China’s use of subsidies to promote strategic industries, but Chinese firms were keen to import key technologies and components to ensure that their products were globally competitive on cost and performance grounds.
The recent semiconductor and other U.S. restrictions on China’s access to high-tech products are also problematic because these products are “dual use,” with a much larger commercial market relative to military applications. Such restrictions hurt the many U.S. firms that derive significant revenues from selling to China and may contravene World Trade Organization guidelines.
The costs of trade-related distortionary policies can be substantial. One oft-cited study estimates that taxpayers end up paying about $250,000 for each job saved in typical Buy America programs. At a broader level, a recent International Monetary Fund study estimates that a combination of U.S. trade and technological decoupling measures could reduce global GDP by some 7 to 12 percent.
Ultimately, the problem lies in the lack of clarity on U.S. policy objectives. What does it mean to undercut China, and how will the United States know if it has succeeded? With U.S.-China relations at an all-time low, punitive actions targeting China have become politically popular, even if they have no analytical basis. The reality is that the United States and China have no choice but to continue trading with each other. But with security overriding commercial considerations, the economic interdependence built up over decades is now being reversed, leaving everyone worse off.
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Yukon Huang is a senior fellow with the Asia Program. He was formerly the World Bank’s country director for China and earlier director for Russia and the Former Soviet Union Republics. He is an adviser to the World Bank, Asian Development Bank, Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, and various governments and corporations. His research focuses on China’s economy and its regional and global impact.
He has a PhD in economics from Princeton University and a BA from Yale University.
Genevieve Slosberg is a James C. Gaither Junior Fellow in the Carnegie Asia Program.
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