Monday, June 3, 2019

The US-Chinese Trade War: Why Now? At What Cost?

As a person who attempts to avoid rhetorical excess, except in my personal life, I've hesitated to refer to the US-China trade disputes as a "trade war." But it's gone past being a skirmish, a tussle, or a melee. It's gone beyond a battle, too. For those trying to gain an overall perspective, a useful starting point is Trade War: The Clash of Economic Systems Threatening Global Prosperity, a readable e-book of 11 essays plus and introduction, edited by Meredith Crowley (, CEPR Press, May 2019, available with free registration).

Here, I want to pass along some of the arguments as to why the US-China trade war has erupted, and what the costs are likely to be. For economists looking at trade issues, the Trump presidency is certainly part of what's happening, but it is also operating against a particular economic and institutional backdrop that is worth noticing.  Thus, here are four reasons that have helped lead to teh US-China trade war.

1) The "China shock" of 2001

China entered the World Trade Organization in 2001. As Justin R. Pierce and Peter K. Schott point out in their essay, "The costs of US trade  liberalisation with China have been acute for some workers," the US also adopted "permanent normal trade relations" with China at the tail end of the Clinton administration in October 2000. Before this change, tariffs on imports from China were low, but these low tariffs needed to be explicitly re-approved by the president on an annual basis, and Congress had power to override the president's decision. With these changes, the low tariff rates on imports from China were locked in.

An extraordinary rise in China's exports and trade surplus followed--a rise that was not anticipated by either China (in its official five-year plans) or by the US. Here are a couple of figures based on World Bank data to illustrate. The first one shows that China's exports of goods and services as a share of GDP had been rising in the 1980s and 1990s, but then absolutely took off in the early 2000s, rising from about 20% of China's GDP in 2001 to 34% of China's GDP in 2006. Not coincidentally, China's trade surplus had been about 1.3% of GDP in 2001, but spiked up to 10% of China's GDP by 2006.

As Pierce and Schott emphasize, the China shock hit manufacturing jobs in certain parts of the US specially hard. They write:
The sharp drop in US manufacturing employment after 2000 differs markedly from the more gradual decline in manufacturing employment that occurred during the prior two decades. Indeed, in the 21 years following the peak of US manufacturing employment in 1979 to just before PNTR [permanent normal trade relations], US manufacturing employment fell by 2.3 million (or 12%). In the next four years, from 2000 to 2003, it fell by 2.9 million (or 17%) – a decline that is roughly as large as that experienced in the four years following the onset of the Great Recession.
The figures above also show that the "China shock" dramatically diminished about a decade ago, since the end of the Great Recession. A few years ago, China's exports and trade surplus had already fallen back to where they were around 2001. But the legacy of that shock has lived on in the communities most affected.

2) The Dominance of the US Economy has Declined

The United States, together with the countries of western Europe, have long been at the forefront of the push for reducing global barriers to trade. However, the primary source of economic growth in the world economy in the 21st century, and looking ahead for the next several decades, is happening in the "emerging market" economies. In "Understanding trade wars," Aaditya Mattoo and Robert W. Staiger write that when a single economy dominates the global economy, it can be in the interest of that large single economy to have a rules-based trading system for all countries. But if that large economy loses its dominance, it may prefer to shift to a "power-based" system of negotiating tariffs with specific trading partners. They write:
In 1947, the US was the unquestioned hegemon of the world economy and played a central role in the creation of the GATT (Irwin et al. 2011). Below we describe how it can be in the enlightened self-interest of a sufficiently dominant hegemon to provide support for a rules-based system that limits its ability to exercise power; but as the dominance of the hegemon wanes, this support can erode, precipitating the collapse of the rules-based system until another sufficiently dominant hegemon rises to take its place.
One aspect of this insight is that when China was a much smaller economy, several decades back, it didn't matter all that much to the overall US economy whether China's exports were up or down, or whether some US technology was ending up in the hands of Chinese firms. Having rules to govern the world trading system mattered more. But now that China's economy is close to the that of the United States in size (or larger, depending on which exchange rate is used to do the comparison), the US cares a lot more about these specific issues with China, and the advantages over overall rules matter less.

3) The World Trade Organization Rules Seemed Too Weak 

Part of the reason for tariffs and a trade war is that the dispute resolution procedures in the World Trade Organization seemed so weak. Chad Bown discusses this issue in , "The 2018 trade war and the end of dispute settlement as we knew it": "The idea that WTO dispute settlement was not well-positioned to tackle a suite of Chinese policies whose economic effect was to act against the spirit – if not the legal letter – of WTO rules ..."

For example, the WTO does have rules against countries using clear-cut industrial subsidies to boost their trade surplus. But if a country is providing subsidies through a mixture of cheap credit from state-owned banks and tweaks in its tax code that have the effect of favoring certain industries, it's not clear that the WTO dispute process works well. Luca Rubini digs deeper into the problems of how to measure subsidies and  how to  have rules about them in "The never-ending story: The puzzle of subsidies."

Similarly, the WTO has rule against stealing intellectual property. But if a country has requirements for joint ventures between foreign and domestic firms, and antitrust laws just happen to be enforced more against foreign firms, and the net effect of these changes is a high level of pressure for technology transfer to domestic firms, then it's not clear that an appeal to the WTO will work.

In addition, the US was in the process of arguing that the WTO appeals process was too strong, and that it was handing down unfair decisions against the US. This made it difficult to simultaneously argue that the WTO appeals process should be strengthened to address trade issues with China.

4) The Trump Administration Stops Dancing Around Tariffs, and Starts Dancing With Them

Politicians of both parties have been dancing around with tariffs and protectionism for several decades now. For example, if one goes back to about 2010, or the anti-globalization protests of the late 1990s, or the arguments over NAFTA in the early 1990s, it's easy find politicians of both parties who have been been happy to express very grave reservations about trade, but then would eventually sign on to a compromise and amendment-laden bill reducing barriers to trade.

The Trump administration stopped equivocating about protectionism, and embraced it. President Trump has stated plainly his views that tariffs are good, that trade wars are easy to win, and that if no trade occurs, the US economy wins big. The president's trade advisers have said that countries are unlikely to retaliate against US tariffs, but then have had to support subsidies for industries like agriculture that suffered such retaliation.

What are the costs of US-China trade war? It's obviously hard to evaluate costs when the trade war is still going on, and perhaps still escalating. Ralph Ossa, in his essay "The Costs of Trade War," writes that a fully escalated trade war will reduce GDP by about 2% in the US, China, and the EU, and by considerably more in many smaller economies (like Mexico, Canada, or Switzerland).

Other essays point out that the longer-term disruptions of production and trade can be quite important. After all, even if the US and China signed an agreement next week or next month that settled all their agreements and reduced tariffs back to 2017 levels, companies around the world will now be put on notice that any global supply chains are at risk. For years or decades into the future, they will be less willing to rely on flows of supplies, products, and innovation across international borders. After building up these global supply chains for decades, disrupting and shutting them down will not be a costless process.  Several of the papers in this issue take on the topic of trade barriers in an era of global value chains, including the papers by Emily J. Blanchard and btYi Huang, Chen Lin, Sibo Liu and Heiwai Tang.

The results of the rise US tariffs have been utterly predictable, like higher prices for consumers for products like steel and washing machines, and relatively few jobs saved at high cost.   The imposition of tariffs has been followed by higher US trade deficits.  But ultimately, a full-fledged trade war is about more than some tariff hikes. At this point, we aren't just arguing over details like whether China's rules for technology transfer are unfair (which they are).

Instead, as a society we are grappling with bigger questions about whether the US would be better off if it created considerably more separation for itself from the rest of the global economy. And we are arguing over whether the world economy and political system is better off when international economic linkages are rising or falling. I don't expect that the Trump administration will learn any lessons here, although the costs of its trade policies to US consumers and firms may at some point force them to back down. However, I'm intrigued to see whether anti-Trump forces will respond to future advocates of tariffs and trade wars in the same way they have responded to Trump--or whether they only oppose tariffs and protectionism if they are initiated by the Trump administration.

Here's a full Table of Contents for the book:

Meredith A. Crowley

Part 1: The origins of the trade conflict

1 The costs of US trade liberalisation with China have been acute for some workers
Justin R. Pierce and Peter K. Schott

2 The 2018 trade war and the end of dispute settlement as we knew it
Chad P. Bown

3 Understanding trade wars
Aaditya Mattoo and Robert W. Staiger

Part 2: The costs of trade wars

4 The costs of a trade war
Ralph Ossa

5 How exporters respond to tariff changes
Doireann Fitzgerald

6 Trade wars in the GVC era
Emily J. Blanchard

7 Supply chain linkages and financial markets: Evaluating the costs of the US-China trade war
Yi Huang, Chen Lin, Sibo Liu and Heiwai Tang

Part 3: The challenges for the world trading system

8 Misdirection and the trade war malediction of 2018: Scaling the US-China bilateral tariff hikes
Simon J. Evenett and Johannes Fritz

9 The never-ending story: The puzzle of subsidies
Luca Rubini

10 The policy uncertainty aftershocks of trade wars and trade tensions
Kyle Handley and Nuno Limao

11 China's rise and the growing doubts over trade multilateralism
Mark Wu