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The Trade Numerologist: Superpower Spat Could Reshape Global Trade

27 March 2018 John Miller

After almost twenty years, the global economy is moving into a new trading order, and the emerging rules governing how corporations and companies buy, sell and ship goods are going to be shaped in large part by what happens next in the relationship between the world’s two supereconomies. 

Just as the U.S. agreed to exempt allies like the European Union and Canada from new steel tariffs, it announced it would impose a raft of new duties against an estimated $60 billion worth of imports from China.

President Trump said he aimed to eventually reduce the U.S.’s $375 billion trade deficit with China by $100 billion, numbers that do not include trade in services. In practice, the U.S. is planning 25% tariffs on selected Chinese imports, and it will target 1,300 categories of goods.

China threatened to retaliate with tariffs impacting roughly $3 billion in imports from the U.S., on over a hundred products, including wine, fruit, pork and selected high-tech steel products. China “doesn’t hope to be in a trade war, but is not afraid of engaging in one,” the Chinese commerce ministry said. “China hopes the United States will pull back from the brink, make prudent decisions, and avoid dragging bilateral trade relations to a dangerous place.”

This is a big deal: Trade tension between the world’s two biggest economies could have massive consequences for major corporate manufacturers, shipping lines and economies in Europe, Latin America, Asia and Africa. And whatever the fate of the Trump presidency, it seems clear that the U.S. is entering a phase where protectionism is part of public policy, and import duties promised to Americans, and enacted, by leaders of both parties.

Since the end of World War Two, the U.S. has been the world’s most open market, and biggest advocate of free trade. The U.S. has an average tariff of 3.4%, compared to 10% for China, according to the WTO.

It was thanks to U.S. support that China joined the WTO in December, 2001. The Clinton and George W. Bush administrations were led by free-traders, and their corporate backers were excited about building plants in China, and gaining access to the world’s biggest consumer market.

And for China, accessing to the world’s governing trade body meant that the world’s most populous country, ambitious and aggressive about subsidizing domestic industries and eager to welcome major European and U.S. corporations hungry for higher profit margins on manufactured goods, suddenly had full access to the world’s richest markets.

Before joining the treaty, China was the world’s sixth biggest exporter, thanks to a slow and steady build-up of the country’s manufacturing capability after the death of Chairman Mao in 1976.

World top 10 exporters, 2001
U.S. $729.1 billion
Germany $571.3 billion
Japan $403.2 billion
France $323.1 billion
UK $272.6 billion
China $272 billion
Canada $266.4 billion
Italy $244.2 billion
Netherlands $230.9 billion
Hong Kong $191.2 billion

Sixteen years later, China is the greatest commercial power the world has ever seen. Its manufacturing and export dominance boosted the global container industry and created markets for manufacturing zones, especially on China’s east coast, lifted hundreds of million out of poverty, and gave people in Europe and the U.S. an unparalleled abundance of televisions, shoes, smart phones and toys.

World top 10 exporters, 2017
China $2.3 trillion
U.S. $1.54 trillion
Germany $1.45 trillion
Japan $698.3 billion
Netherlands $652.4 billion
Hong Kong $550.3 billion
France $535.4 billion
South Korea $537.7 billion
Italy $506.5 billion
UK $447 billion

The U.S. market was, and still is, key to China, offering Chinese factories the economies of scale they need to cut costs and win markets around the world. It also helped wipe out factories across the U.S., fueling the protectionism now being enacted by Trump.

China exports to U.S., 2001-2017
2017: $431.8 billion
2015: $396.1 billion
2013: $368.3 billion
2011: $324.3 billion
2009: $220.7 billion
2007: $232.8 billion
2005: $162.9 billion
2003: $92.5 billion
2001: $54.3 billion

When China joined the WTO, the consensus among Western trade officials and politicians was that its manufacturing zones would focus on producing low-tech goods that wouldn’t threaten key U.S. and European exports. In the year China joined, for example, shoes were its third biggest export to the U.S.

Top Chinese exports to U.S., 2001
Electric machinery, sound, TV equipment $10.6 billion
Nuclear reactors, boilers, machinery $7.3 billion
Shoes $5 billion
Toys, games $4.2 billion
Furniture, bedding, lamps $3.4 billion

Now the game has shifted. Chinese companies dominate production of basic consumer goods like shoes, toys and phones, but under a program known as “Made in China 2025,” they’re also competing in areas like artificial intelligence, self-driving cars, robotics and latest-generation microchips. Shoes have fallen out of the top five categories of Chinese exports to the U.S.

Top Chinese exports to U.S., 2017
Electric machinery, sound, TV equipment $107.1 billion
Nuclear reactors, boilers, machinery $91.4 billion
Furniture, bedding, lamps $29.7 billion
Toys, games $19 billion
Apparel, clothes $16 billion

The tariffs the U.S. is preparing against China are the result of an eight-month inquiry that concluded that Beijing cheats on trade by making U.S. companies investing in China turn over important technology to Chinese companies.

Now that Chinese and U.S. companies, and their governments, are on a more equal footing than in 2001, and the U.S. is becoming more protectionist, the leaders of the world’s two superpower economies have almost no choice but to rewrite the rules of global trade. 

What topic would you like the Trade Numerologist to cover? Email tradenumerologist@gmail.com  with comments and questions.

The Trade Numerologist is IHS Markit’s unique weekly look at global trade by award-winning journalist John W. Miller, formerly of the Wall Street Journal, using proprietary numbers from IHS Markit’s Global Trade Atlas database, the world’s most complete and accurate set of trade numbers.

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