Despite Growing Tensions, There Is Still Scope to Avert a U.S-China Trade War

If 2017 was the year of fiery trade talk, 2018 has been the year of provocative trade actions. During the first four months, President Trump imposed or announced intentions to impose tariffs on thousands of products stemming from five investigations conducted under three different, seldom-used laws. Talk of trade war is rampant and, as May begins, the troops are in formation—a circular formation, but a formation nonetheless! By Memorial Day, it should become much clearer whether their orders will be to shoot, hold fire, or demobilize.

What follows is a brief recap of the relevant trade policy actions of 2018 that have taken us to the present situation.

In January, the president imposed “safeguard” restrictions following two separate investigations of imports of large washers and solar cells, under Section 201 of the Trade Act of 1974.  Tariffs and tariff rate quotas, respectively, were imposed for a period of four years in both cases against imports from most countries. These safeguard measures are absolutely stupid as a matter of economics, but relatively trivial as far as the impact on U.S.-China relations and the prospects for trade war are concerned.

In March, under the guise of acting to protect national security, Trump invoked Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act of 1962 to impose tariffs on imported steel and aluminum from all countries. Soon after the announcement and before the tariffs took effect, Trump offered temporary exemptions to several trading partners to “encourage” them to play nice: buy more U.S. stuff; sell Americans less foreign stuff; increase NATO spending (EU countries); agree to U.S. terms on various aspects of the NAFTA renegotiations (Canada, Mexico); agree to export quotas (South Korea) and the temporary exemptions will be made permanent. Well, as the temporary exemption period was about to expire on May 1, the president extended the deadline to June 1. Presumably, if the NAFTA negotiations wrap up this month (apparently, a real possibility) and Trump gets what he wants, Canada and Mexico will be permanently exempted from the steel and aluminum tariffs. Congrats!  It’s much less clear that the Europeans are willing to submit to these tactics. They’ve crafted a retaliation list and seem likely to go that route.  The Chinese, whose steel and aluminum exports have been subject to the tariff since March 23, have already retaliated against a list of 128 U.S. products (amounting to about $3 billion in U.S. exports), including ethanol, wine, nuts, fruit, and a few other commodities. 

Although the “national security” restrictions on steel and aluminum are a more significant irritant than the safeguard restrictions on washers and solar cells, they still only amount to a flea bite on an elephant’s hide relative to Trump’s most recent, most provocative, and—some would argue—most justifiable action so far. At the beginning of April, Trump announced his intention to impose tariffs on 1,300 Chinese products accounting for about $50 billion of exports to the United States, as a result of an investigation into Chinese intellectual property and forced technology transfer policies, under Section 301 of the Trade Act of 1974. The “remedy” also includes instructions for the Treasury Department to publish new investment rules that will make it harder for Chinese companies to purchase U.S. technology and U.S. tech companies.  Within a few hours of the U.S. announcement, China published a list of U.S. products, amounting to about $50 billion of exports to China (farm products, airplanes, autos, etc.), that it would subject to retaliatory duties of 25 percent should the U.S. measures take effect.

As of that point, between the 232 and the 301 cases, $106 billion of U.S.-China trade was in the crosshairs (about 15% of two-way trade). Then in reaction to China’s retaliation threat, Trump raised the stakes by instructing the USTR to identify another $100 billion of Chinese products to assess with tariffs.  That list has not yet been published, but if it is and China responds commensurately (by targeting another $100 billion of U.S. exports), its list would have to include ALL U.S. exports to China because total U.S. goods exports to China in 2017 amounted to $130 billion. (Services exports add another $50 billion, but they’re not easy to hit with tariffs). The next likely target would be U.S. companies operating in China—discriminatory taxes, regulations, restrictions, etc.  In any event, the amount of trade subject to tariffs ($306 billion) would begin to approach half the value of the two-way trade—a decidedly cataclysmic outcome.

President Trump seems to be aware of the stakes.  Last month he tweeted that trade wars can be good and are winnable. He cites the bilateral U.S. trade deficit as evidence that China needs us more than we need them.  Hopefully, he’s rational enough to realize that his avoidable actions would trigger a massive global economic contraction which, even if the United States is less hurt than others, history would not look kindly upon.

The month of May offers some opportunities to ratchet down the tensions and, even, find some solutions. The Trump administration’s trade policy team—USTR Robert Lighthizer, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow, and National Trade Council Director Peter Navarro—is in Beijing this week, presumably to get China to commit to certain actions that would enable tensions to be dialed down.  Mid-month, the USTR is holding a hearing for the public airing of views about the Section 301 remedies, where it will be impressed upon the administration how costly a trade war would be.  And, presumably, toward the end of the month is the momentous Korean Summit.  If the president gets the results he’s looking for (whatever they may be) and Beijing is perceived as having played an important role in reaching that outcome, that could give Trump the cover he probably needs to put his pistols back in their holsters and focus on an effective, comprehensive U.S.-China free trade agreement. That should be the primary goal of U.S. trade policy during the Trump administration.