Alarmist news reports and panicky stock sell-offs. A threat to impose tariffs on US goods in retaliation for President Trump’s threatened levies. You’d think that Beijing had just ruthlessly shut down a major engine of American growth. But the truth is that tariff fear-mongering reveals the gulf between America’s financial markets and its real economy that provides everyday goods and services.
The Chinese economy has grown spectacularly since Beijing turned away from Maoism in the 1980s. It’s true that major American industries from aircraft to agriculture have profited handsomely from supplying Chinese demand. The offshoring model supercharged by China’s admission to the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2002 has been especially lucrative. When Beijing’s wide-ranging predatory economic practices received international legal protection from unilateral American counter-moves, American multinational manufacturers rushed to set up factories in the People’s Republic. Their main aim was not, as they claimed, to sell more easily to the Chinese, however richer so many in that country were becoming. The big draw for American companies was supplying the higher-priced and much larger American market from low-cost Chinese factories. This strategy also enabled American companies to exploit currency manipulation and other predatory subsidies offered to all producers in the People’s Republic, and with full WTO protection.
What was good for America’s multinationals was far from good for America’s producers and workers. After 2002, the trade and investment boom grew already immense trade deficits, further depressing American economic growth, employment, and wages. These shortfalls also undercut the quality of American economic growth, by increasing our reliance on borrowing and spending, and reducing reliance on investing and producing.
As the increasingly frequent and bitter complaints voiced during Xi Jinping’s rule show, betting on China has backfired on the multinationals too. The China earnings of American corporate giants are reduced by intellectual property theft, forced technology transfer, and government procurement and subsidization policies that discriminate against foreign-owned companies. These brazen violations of commercial norms undermine the global competitiveness of American companies while creating powerful Chinese rivals. Unsurprisingly, the WTO merely shrugs. But then, the WTO is dominated by economies enjoying big trade surpluses with the United States, and largely via similar tactics.
The financial and political tremors caused by trade tensions with Beijing and the prospect of tit-for-tat tariffs suggest that President Trump’s China policy critics want to continue pre-2016 policies towards China. They seem to believe that Americans’ wellbeing urgently requires the kind of access to Chinese markets available before the Trump era.
Of course, Trump prizes the Chinese market. He also wants to level the playing field both inside China for US exporters to China, and for companies seeking to supply China from outside. When it comes to understanding American leverage with the People’s Republic of China, we should look at the numbers — because they tell the opposite story to the American economy.
As a share of the total American economy, American goods exported to China jumped from 0.18 percent in 2001, right before WTO admission, to 0.61 percent by 2010, the first full year of the current American economic recovery. By 2016,(the last year of the Obama administration, this share had only inched up to 0.62 percent. Since then, however, this figure has actually dropped, to 0.59 percent. Even better, in 2017 and 2018, the economy grew at a faster pace than over the previous six years, 4.77 percent annually in 2017 and 2018 versus 4.13 percent between 2010 and 2016.
Between 2001 and 2010, manufacture exports to China more than tripled as a share of American manufacturing output, to a far from trivial 3.24 percent, according to the value-added gauge. By 2016, this figure had risen to 3.74 percent. But since then, and through 2018, it’s risen only to 3.76 percent. And even though the growth rate of manufactures exports to China slowed dramatically during 2017 and 2018, domestic American manufacturing output grew more than twice as fast, from 2.67 percent to 5.98 percent annually.
Even these manufacturing numbers, however, exaggerate China’s importance to domestic US industry. A major share of American manufacturers’ exports to China consist not of finished goods like airplanes, autos, and computers, but of ‘intermediate exports’: the parts, components, and materials used in finished goods. A large share of these intermediate exports aren’t consumed in China. They’re assembled into finished goods in Chinese factories and then re-exported. When these re-exports are sold back to the United States, their American-made intermediate components aren’t counted as net additions to America’s domestic manufacturing output, and hence as additions to overall economic growth. Instead, these re-exports are supplying factories in China that used to be located in the United States, and whose presence abroad represents a shrinkage of domestic industrial output and overall output.
President Trump has bragged repeatedly about record Wall Street highs during his administration. If he really was the president of the stock market, he would respond to investors’ China jitters, and pressure from firms and industries burned by overreliance on China. But Trump knows that the rest of the economy, which is a net loser from trade expansion with China, is much bigger than the stock market, and much more important to his reelection chances. The trade conflict with China is about both good policy and good politics. And a trade war won’t change that.
Alan Tonelson is Founder of RealityChek, a public policy blog focusing on economics and national security, and the author of The Race to the Bottom.