A Surplus of Benefits from Trade with China

The Chinese government reported on Monday that China’s trade surplus with the rest of the world hit a new monthly record in June [see story] and is on pace to reach $130 billion to $150 billion for all of 2006. The news will fuel demands that China allow the value of its currency to rise in international foreign exchange markets, making exports from China more expensive and imports to China more attractive. China’s currency, the yuan, has only appreciated about 3 percent since July 21, 2005, when its central bank announced that the currency would no longer be tightly pegged to the U.S. dollar.

Unfortunately, the news may also stoke support in Congress for imposing tariffs on imports from China if its government does not move soon to revalue its currency upward by 15 to 40 percent. As I explain in a Cato Trade Briefing Paper [“Who’s Manipulating Whom? China’s Currency and the U.S. Economy”] released today, imposing trade sanctions on China would be a colossal policy blunder.

Imposing tariffs on Chinese imports would be a direct consumer tax on tens of millions of American families. Of the $243 billion in goods we bought from China in 2005, about 80 percent were the type of products we use everyday in our homes and office—shoes, clothing, toys, sporting goods, bicycles, TVs, consumer electronics, and personal and laptop computers. In fact, shipments from China tend to bump up every fall as retailers stock up for the Christmas shopping season. The Grinch who stole Christmas would be delighted if Congress were to impose punitive tariffs on all those Chinese goods entering our country! 

The study found no support for arguments that China’s currency regime and trade with China in general are somehow hurting the U.S. economy or U.S. manufacturing. Rising imports from China have not primarily replaced domestic U.S. production, but rather they have replaced imports from other low-wage countries or from other East Asian countries that have relocated production to China. With the exception of apparel, few U.S. manufacturers compete head to head with products made in China. Overall U.S. manufacturing output is 50 percent higher today than in 1994 when China first pegged its currency to the dollar.

Focusing on the bilateral trade balance with China obscures the very tangible benefits Americans enjoy from our growing commercial ties with the people of China. 

To explore the issue further on the one-year anniversary of China’s currency reforms, Cato will be hosting a Policy Forum on July 19 titled, “U.S.-China Trade, Exchange Rates, and the U.S. Economy.” You can register for the event here.