Trade tariff battle will not lead to any long-term damage

President Trump’s views on trade have never been a secret. Trump finally delivered on his campaign promises by announcing unilateral tariffs on steel and aluminum imports coupled with the imposition of about $60 billion in new tariffs on China. The moves generated frightening headlines, with experts predicting they will have dire consequences for the global trading system, but such claims are exaggerated.

Trade is a competitive game and every country plays hardball. The Trump policy is supposedly designed to counter a series of unfair Chinese trade practices, such as its longstanding restrictions on American companies, the forced transfer of American intellectual property, and many cases of patent and trademark infringement. The administration has demanded that China shave $100 billion off its record $375 billion trade surplus with the United States.

U.S. firms have been unable to sell advanced goods and services to China’s rapidly expanding middle class. It is widely acknowledged that in many market segments China requires foreign firms to share proprietary technology as a  condition of market access. The firms provide innovation and their Chinese counterparts imitate foreign design.

Many of the president’s media antagonists say these actions threaten to unleash a trade war; that the  moves appease the resident’s Rust Belt constituency but are unlikely to end America’s trade deficits or bring back manufacturing jobs. They also warn of rising consumer prices and are convinced that the U.S. would lose a trade war with the emerging market giant.

Yet it is unclear whether the president and the economic  nationalists in his administration will govern as tough as they talk. It is quite possible that actual tariffs will fall short of  the threats. For example, the tensions with American allies generated by the steel and aluminum tariffs are likely to be resolved through cometic concessions.

Following the president’s tariff announcement, China initially targeted tit-for-tat tariffs to put pressure on politically sensitive states that voted for Trump, hitting him where it hurts the most ahead of mid-term elections later this year. China’s Ministry of Commerce quickly said that it would impose a 15 percent tariff on $3 billion worth of American fruit, pork, wine, seamless steel pipes and more than 100 other products that represent about 2 percent of total American exports to China.

But soon after all this huffing and puffing, China’s Premier Li Keqiang, at a conference that included global chief executive officers at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, pledged to open markets to avert a trade war with the United States and to ease access for American businesses. Also, China offered to buy more American made semiconductors and allow foreign financial firms to take majority stakes in Chinese securities firms.

Then on April 1, the Chinese Finance Ministry said the previously announced tariffs will take effect immediately.

China is reliant on foreign trade for growth and job creation and needs to retain access to the U.S. market. The country certainly doesn’t want to engage in a trade  war with its best customer. China’s exports to the U.S. are equal to about 4.5 percent of its GDP. In contrast, U.S. exports to China are equal to about two-thirds of 1 percent of GDP. Although less important to the economy than it was, trade accounts for almost 40 percent of Chinese GDP versus less than 30 percent in the U.S.

America’s decline relative to other countries is an old story. First the Russians were going to leave the U.S. in the dust, then the Japanese. But consider the strong and intrinsic advantages America enjoys. They include being functionally energy and agriculturally independent, having more favorable demographics and a consensual society. Drug dealers still prefer suitcases full of dollars, not yuan, and global investors still seek Treasury bonds as a safe haven in times of crisis.

President Trump’s trade moves may temporarily roil U.S. markets, but there is no need to panic or bet against the United States.

Originally Published: Apr 7, 2018

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