Although the recently signed Phase One agreement between the US and China has put a halt to the ongoing trade war between the two global economic superpowers, it cannot be viewed as a long-term solution. At its best, it is a temporary truce. The language of the eighty-six page document, including its ambiguities and the unrealistic promises upon which the entire agreement is based, suggests that it is based on two unreconcilable compromises between the two parties.
Some of the main highlights of the deal include: China must give an action plan on “strengthening intellectual property protection” and it must reduce the pressure on international companies for “technology transfer.” China has promised to increase the purchase of goods and services from US by $200 Billion over two years. Other key points include easy access to Chinese markets. The 15th December tariffs of $160 Billion have been delayed in December 2019. Tariff rates on $120 bn of goods (imposed on September 01, 2019) have been reduced from 15 to 7 percent although tariffs of $250 Billion at a rate of 25 percent will remain.
The 86 page document, when analyzed, displays an ambiguity in its language, as well as the absence of any enforcement plan and dispute settlement process. Therefore, whenever an issue might arise (and it will) there is a likelihood the deal may implode. For instance, whilst mentioning enforcement of payment of penalties and other fines, the word “expeditious” remains unclear. What is the time period and how will enforcement be accomplished? At another point, while referring to China to send a case for criminal enforcement the word “reasonable suspicion” which can be based on “articulable facts” makes it very abstract. Chad Brown, a trade expert in an article for Business Insider, says that there is no specific way mentioned in the document to penalize the party who violates any provision. Moreover, there is no body (like WTO) that will take decisions but is rather left to the USTR and discussions with Chinese counterparts – a recipe for confusion.
Then there are the promises. But we have to consider different variables. But if it turns out that China carries out its promise to buy crude oil, LNG and coal, the global commodity markets will feel the heat – in a negative way. Under the agreement China will buy an additional $52 bn of energy products in the span of coming two years- 418.5 Billion in 2018 and $33.9 in 2021. This year China will have to buy about $27 Billion energy purchases from U.S. To put this in context, China imported 14 million barrels of oil in November 2018 which is its highest ever. Assuming that China buys the same amount for 12 months it would yield only $9 to $10 billion in revenue! In a similar calculation for coal and LNG, Clyde Russell, in an article for Reuters, concludes that in order to fulfill the above target (of $27 Billion) China would have to double the amount of these imports from US!
Moreover, the Phase One agreement has a snapback clause which implies that upon quarterly reviews if the Chinese side isn’t holding true to their promises the agreement can become null and void.
Even if China fulfills its promise, the purpose wouldn’t be served: the US. deficit won’t reduce significantly. The US trade deficit with China for the first 10 months of 2019 was $294 Billion – in other words, roughly 40 percent of the country’s total trade gap. However, for the same period, Chinese sold goods more than four times that amount (or about $382 bn). China will need to half its exports to the U.S. for a “meaningful” drop in the deficit – something that seems highly unlikely.
Also, the US might even end up more dependent on China. Increased demand for US oil will spike its prices and might trigger other suppliers of China to increase their output in order to fight for the market share. The global energy and commodity markets could face disruption. Similarly, Brazil and other countries, beneficiaries of this trade war, can decrease soy bean prices in order to retain their market share, giving farmers in the US a tough time.
As the U.S. Treasury Secretary, Steven Mnuchin, said that tariffs can remain in place even after a Phase Two agreement, we, therefore, have to be patient and observe the trajectory of Phase One trade agreement carefully. Chinese promise of $200 bn purchases, the lack of a proper dispute resolution mechanism and technical loopholes in language puts the future of the agreement in doubt.
Both sides are keeping some cards in their deck; we have yet to witness the end of this trade-war saga.