In typically bullish style, Donald Trump has told the world he expects a resolution to his trade war with China within four weeks. The U.S. President claims the deal “has a very good chance of happening,” and, when it does, it will be “the Grand Daddy of them all.” But key concerns linger: China has made several concessions to the U.S. over the endless rounds of talks, but there is little sign of Beijing reining in its support for industries such as steel and aluminium – one of the key reasons for the stand-off in the first place. If the Chinese delegation refuses to give way, and to stop dumping cheap products on global markets, even Trump’s staunchest supporters might wonder whether the whole dispute has been worth it.
While the trade war cost the U.S. economy an estimated $7.8 billion in lost GDP last year, the toll has been far greater on China, whose economic growth among other reasons was drastically hit by the steep American tariff walls. Growth has already slowed to its lowest level since 1990, and industrial production has hit a 10-year nadir. Despite Beijing’s best efforts, latest employment figures show a spike in the number of people out of work, pressuring Xi’s government to arrest the slide.
The IMF did at least provide some good news, revising up its 2019 growth forecast for the Chinese economy. However it also warned that, if the trade war escalates and both sides impose 25% tariffs on all each other’s goods, China’s losses will be bigger. U.S. GDP would fall by up to 0.6% in such a scenario, while China’s could plunge by more than double that figure. Around 1% of the U.S. workforce in sectors such as agriculture and transportation could lose their jobs – a major blow to those rural communities Trump has pledged to revive. In China’s manufacturing sectors, around 5% of people could find themselves suddenly out of work.
Signs of progress
This stark reality explains the raft of climbdowns brokered by Xi’s negotiators, which have gone some way to repairing the damage in some of the worst-hit U.S. sectors. China has proposed buying an extra $30 billion worth of U.S. agricultural products a year, including soybeans, as a concession to U.S. farmers facing soaring stockpiles. On top of that, Beijing has cut tariffs on U.S. cars, news which will have been welcomed by the beleaguered American automobile industry.
But what about China’s trade policies, which have long been central to the U.S. grievance, particularly unfair industrial subsidies? On that it’s hard to see what China has really offered. Xi’s team has made a general commitment to stop subsidizing domestic industries and drowning global markets, but it’s been making these promises for the last 10 years without much action on it, so analysts would be forgiven for being cynical. Observers describe the latest pledges as light on detail, particularly as China offers little information about how it would go about implementing subsidy cuts.
All the indications suggest that China will continue pumping out aluminium and steel, two of America’s – and the EU’s – keenest focus areas. Even after Trump slapped huge tariffs on the two metals last year, Chinese manufacturers continued to ramp up production. For example, in the first two months of 2019 unwrought aluminium and aluminium product exports reached multi-year highs as producers responded to slack domestic demand by dumping their product overseas.
The effect this will have on the international market will continue to be serious, particularly in the aluminium sector already decimated by years of Chinese over-production. The resultant price slump has effectively wiped out entire industries in countries such as the U.K. and the Netherlands. Worse, the tide shows little sign of turning, with aluminium prices on the London Metal Exchange hovering near multi-year lows. With experts suggesting that around 40% of the world’s smelters are now losing money, the ripple effect from China’s subsidies extends far beyond the U.S deep into Europe’s industrial heartland.
Of course, this doesn’t mean Trump will necessarily force China to stop dumping in the global, or even national, interest. Considering his desire for simple, easy-to-sell results, he will likely accept a deal if China simply agrees to buy more U.S. goods. In that case, he would likely skirt round the fundamental issues about market distortion – a serious risk that is becoming ever more acute as Trump’s image as a cunning dealmaker is showing cracks in the wake of the failed nuclear summit with North Korea, increasing his desperation to prove himself.
As most recent reports suggest, Washington’s will to hold out for the sake of a “great” trade deal is indeed weakening. Although the thorniest issue, insider sources say U.S. negotiators are backpedalling on the demand that China cut subsidies in a move to push a trade agreement in the next month. This is in line with former White House advisor Gary Cohn’s claim that Trump is mostly interested in closing a deal to boost stock markets and give himself the ideal fillip for his re-election campaign.
Yet, for the long-term health of the global community, Trump must press China on this issue. A quick-fix deal will doubtless cheer the global economy subjected to serious collateral damage from the trans-Pacific spat. But it risks stoking further conflict in the future, and ultimately a renewal of the stand-off. China may have been hurting to secure an agreement, but now it may about to be handed one with terms more beneficial than Beijing had imagined from the outset.
Rather than giving in with the end in sight, Trump needs to go all out for total victory, one that justifies the turmoil his trade war has caused. If he doesn’t, his deal may only be a ceasefire.