Category Archives: Trade

Trump’s 3-D Re-engagement with Asia: Development, Defence and Diplomacy

THE BELT AND Road Initiative and the United States’ vision for the Indo-Pacific have a common end if different means.

Both are critical components of establishing the two powers’ respective influence over a region that is already well on its way to becoming the world’s economic centre. The former uses state-led infrastructure; the latter seeks to unleash the commercial might of private business, primarily US private business.

The Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, one of its earliest acts, cemented regional fears among the United States’ allies that the ‘America First’ rhetoric of the Trump campaign in 2016 presaged US withdrawal from the region, leaving a vacuum that China would need little encouragement to fill.

Whatever the validity of that fear — and US commercial imperatives were always going to mitigate against significant disengagement — Washington has had a struggle to reassure its traditional regional allies, who, after all, still have to live cheek-by-jowl with their huge neighbour, regardless of the tweet-du-jour coming from Washington.

The uncertainty surrounding the outcome of both Trump’s putative trade war with Beijing and his intervention in North Korea through a summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un have kept nerves taught.

While the political scientists hijacked the term Indo-Pacific from the marine biologists and oceanographers slightly more than a decade ago, it has only been over the past five years than it has gained currency with political leaders in the four key Into-Pacific powers, the United States, India, Japan and Australia. In the past year, it has started to take shape as an economic entity.

Today, US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, put some more flesh on those bones by announcing $113 million of investment in technology, energy and infrastructure investments in the region. This was, he said, a ‘down payment’ on a new era of US economic commitment to peace and prosperity in the region.

US officials say that this commitment is not aimed at countering the Belt and Road Initiative, but the underlining of the transparent and commercially led nature of the investments and the choice of phrases such as ‘strategic partnerships, not strategic dependence’ speak for themselves, as does Pompeo’s assertion that the United States would oppose any country that sought to dominate the region.

The money will go to improving partner countries’ digital connectivity and expanding US technology exports to the region ($25 million), helping regional energy production and storage (some $50 million) and creating a US government agency to support infrastructure development ($30 million). Much of the remainder of the money will go to a fund to let regional nations access US private legal and financial advisory services.

There will not be, it seems, a return of the United States to TPP. Pompeo said that the Trump administration would only be doing bilateral trade deals in the region.

He did, though, trail a coming announcement by US President Donald Trump on regional security assistance, reaffirming the administration’s emerging three-D approach to the region: development, diplomacy and defence.

Compared to, say, the $62 billion that China is providing for the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and the estimated $1 trillion of Belt and Road Initiative projects underway, $113 million looks like small beer, and especially as much of the money will end up delivering export sales of goods and services to US firms. An America First foreign policy is still an America First policy.

The question becomes then, can US business leverage that into a credible competitive alternative model for regional development. Washington’s traditional regional allies will still take some convincing as much as they would like to have a strong counterweight in the United States to China’s growing regional power and influence.

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US States Most Hit By Chinese Tariffs May Not Matter Much Electorally

IT FITS WITH US President Donald Trump’s maximalist approach to most things that he has now said he is ready to impose tariffs on everything China sells to the United States — all $500 billion worth.

For those keeping score at home, Washington has currently announced tariffs on $200 billion of China’s exports, to be imposed in September, having started at $3 billion-worth introduced in March, followed by $46 billion announced in April and imposed in July, with $50 million in effect currently.

Beijing, for its part, has retaliated with tariffs on $50-billion of US exports, of which $34 billion have been in place since July 6.

It has been often said that Beijing has targeted US goods for political impact at the state level to apply leverage against the Republican administration. However, our man in Washington points out that those US states that are most affected by the tariffs imposed so far by China are not especially salient to Republicans’s prospects in November’s midterm Congressional elections in the United States, as the table below shows.

State % total exports affected by Chinese tariffs to date Senate House: No of Republicans at risk
Alaska 16.1 No election 0
Alabama 11.2 No election 0
Louisiana 10.0 No election 0
South Carolina 8.0 No election 0
Washington 6.9 Safe Dem 1
Illinois 3.2 No election 2
Kentucky 3.0 No election 1
Virginia 2.6 Safe Dem 4
California 2.3 Leans Dem 0
Maine 2.2 Safe Ind/Dem 0

Such is the scale of US-China trade that there is, of course, much scope for that pressure point to be intensified, and it may be that the impact of US tariffs on US multinationals’ supply chains will prove more politically impactful in Washington.

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China’s Western March Into The Middle East

President Xi Jinping (C, front) poses for group photos with Kuwaiti Emir Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah (6th L, front) and heads of delegations to the eighth ministerial meeting of the China-Arab States Cooperation Forum in Beijing, July 10, 2018. Photo credit: Xinhua.

CHINA’S INTERESTS IN the Middle East are quietly expanding, driven by the region’s growing role as a source of energy and as a recipient of Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) investment.

The eighth meeting of the China Arab States Cooperation Forum, (pictured above) held with some fanfare in Beijing this month, brought that into focus, with Beijing promising $23 billion of funding to its guests.

Such large-headline-number funding packages (not that $23 billion is that large by the standards of these things) tend to comprise money already spent or committed and money that will never materialise. But $150 million that will likely be shelled out is the sum allocated to ‘social stability’. As in Africa, Chinese investments in the Middle East are at risk from social and political developments in the region. (See Libya, Zambia and Angola for precedents.)

That $150 million promise will probably manifest itself as sales of Chinese security equipment and the training to use it. Afghanistan provides a rudimentary model.

And, as in Afghanistan, China is recognizing it has to play a more active diplomatic and security role in the Middle East, and has been doing so — incrementally — since at least 2012-16, part of the ‘March West’ to counter the ‘Pivot East’ of the then US administration of Barak Obama. This was outlined in a policy paper published at the start of 2016.

The bulk of the latest tranche of offerings, $20 billion, is earmarked for loans for reconstruction and development, though that is a relatively modest sum in overall BRI investment. What the money also does is help Beijing straddle the historical rift in the region between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

China is unlikely to break its ties with Tehran and will continue to be a market for Iranian oil as restored and new US sanctions cut off sales to the West. The Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, which Beijing played an instrumental role in setting up, is likely to leave Chinese firms better positioned commercially than they were on the ‘last man standing’ principle as Western firms are driven to retreat from Iranian business by Trump’s reversal of policy.

But equally, China needs good working relations with Riyadh and its allies, whose influence in northern and eastern Africa touches directly on China’s greater economic interests in those regions, too (from oil fields and copper mines to China’s first overseas military base in Djibouti and anti-piracy operations off the Horn of Africa).

Outreach to the Gulf States also balances within the Arab world China’s long-standing relationship with Egypt. The $65 billion memorandum of understanding for investment cooperation that Saudi King Salman signed during a visit to Beijing in March last year had already underlined this.

China sells Saudi Arabia the weapons and military kit that the United States will not out of deference to Israeli objections. One of only thee Chinese armed-drones manufacturing plants outside of China is in Saudi Arabia.

One complication for the countries of the Middle East is Beijing’s repressive treatment of its Muslim minority, and particularly the Uighers. However, few Middle Eastern leaders have spoken out publicly on this — a sign of the importance of the growing ties in other areas and China’s ability to use its economic clout to dampen international criticism of its domestic policies.

The more significant issue for Beijing in the region will be the one that has confronted the other outside powers that came before it: it is difficult to maintain a neutral position in a part of the world where there are so many overlapping and longstanding rivalries and conflicts while stepping up diplomatic and security engagement beyond the purely mercantilist.

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No Endgame In Sight As China-US Trade Tension Escalates

THE SLIDE IN commodity prices over the recent day or so portends investor concern about the prospects for and impacts of a US-China trade war that has yet entirely to materialise in currency and equities markets.

Energy markets, in particular, are skittish. Between them, China and the United States account for one-third of world oil demand, which will fall if the spillover from the trade measures taken so far slows global economic growth. Traders are also starting to speculate about the possibility of a seismic realignment of global energy markets should China price US energy out of its market.

Metals markets were also hit, as China is the biggest consumer of most metals, used as raw materials for its exports. Similarly, agricultural commodities, such as soybeans.

The White House announced on Wednesday an additional $200 billion-worth of tariffs to be introduced in September at 10% on for the most part Chinese consumer-goods exports, but also components and semi-manufactures.

Beijing’s reaction was predictably along the lines that Washington’s trade actions would hurt everyone; seventy of the top 100 exporters from China are foreign companies, Zhu Haibin, chief China economist at JPMorgan, told the Financial Times.

The commerce ministry said that it would have no choice but to respond to the latest US move. It also said that it would take the matter to the World Trade Organization, a jibe at US President Donald Trump’s reported wish to remove the United States from the world trade body but not one that veers too far from the generally measured tone taken so far (to the point of sanctimoniousness).

A question for this Bystander is, what is the Trump administration’s real endgame?

It says the tariffs are to get China to end its ‘unfair’ trade practices and open its markets. But the president in his public comments has fixated on the size of the US merchandise trade deficit with China. That would imply a grand trade deal between the two nations that would reduce the headline number of that deficit.

That would give the US president a trade war win that would be straightforward to promote to his electoral base. However, there is no sign at this point of such a deal being in the making.

But it would not solve the other complaint that the United States has against China, over technology transfer, both as a quid pro quo required by China for foreign firms for market access or through straightforward theft of intellectual property.

Washington has a legitimate case on both fronts. It might be able to use its trade war as leverage to get concessions on the first, under the rubric of a deal over market opening.

However, tariffs do little to remedy the second. With technology development so fundamental to China’s economic future, Beijing will hold out to the last over striking any deal that would be effective in curtailing something that it anyway denies doing.

In 2015, President Xi Jinping reached a ‘common understanding’ with Trump’s predecessor President Barack Obama that their governments would hold back on cybertheft of intellectual property for commercial gain.

The formulation was always vague — Xi’s definition of its scope was much narrower than Obama’s — and there was no formal mechanism of verification or enforcement. Both that and its provenance would prevent its embrace by the current US president.

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Not-So-Easy Trade Wars

TRADE WARS MIGHT, as US President Donald Trump says, be easy to win (although this Bystander, for one, doubts it), but some of the terrain that has to be to yomped across is complicated and treacherous. Take the example of semiconductor equipment manufacturers.

The direct costs that result from the tariffs the United States is imposing on China and the ones that China is imposing on US firms in retaliation would be unwelcome but manageable for the three leading listed US semiconductor equipment manufacturers, Applied Materials, Lam Research and KLA-Tenco.

The trio’s China business earned them $5.4 billion in the year to end-March, 2018, according to calculations by the rating agency Moody’s. That was equivalent to 18% of their total revenue. Although that was 41% up on a year earlier, their business overall seems to have been growing at a similar rate.

These are good times to be making the equipment that makes chips, as it should be given global chip sales have increased by one-third since 2016, and are forecast to be a $460 billion market this year.

This is where things start to get complicated for trade hawks. Only about one-third of the three US firms’ China revenue comes from indigenous Chinese chipmakers, Moody’s reckons; the balance comes from multinationals that manufacture semiconductors in China, such as Intel and Samsung. (That is in line with the overall rule of thumb that holds that about two-thirds of world trade is accounted for by value and supply chains.)

US-based multinational chipmakers manufacturing in China could apply for US exemptions from US tariffs for the components they export back to the United States, though that would do nothing for reducing the headline trade deficit figure by which the US president sets so much score.

China could even ban such export sales. There is no indication Beijing is considering doing so should it come to it, but who knows what symbolic gestures will be made?

Absent a trade war, US semiconductor equipment manufacturers could expect steadily growing sales in China both to indigenous and multinational companies. Prospects would be particularly bright for the next several years among Chinese companies as Beijing is pushing the development of an indigenous chipmaking industry under Made in China 2025 to wean the country off its dependence on the United States for this critical technology. China will make its own chips first, then later the equipment to make them.

In the event of a trade war, Moody’s estimates, the three would lose $660 million of business from Chinese companies this year and $775 million in 2019.

At the end of this month, the Trump administration is set to announce new rules to curb Chinese access to critical US technology. While investments in the United States by any company with at least 25% Chinese ownership will be at the forefront, restrictions on exports of technology by US firms are also likely.

Limits to the three US firms’ freedom to sell their chipmaking equipment to Chinese companies would be a significantly more serious threat to them than tariffs. That might be appealing to the Trump administration as a way of delaying China’s drive to self-sufficiency in chip-making. There are no ready alternatives to the three US companies to which Chinese firms can turn.

But that, in turn, could force China to speed up the development of its own manufacture of semiconductor-making equipment.

So who wins? There is no uncomplicated answer.

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China’s Measured Sanctions Squeeze On North Korea

LATEST CUSTOM’S DATA for trade with North Korea in the first five months of this year provide a snapshot of how China has used sanctions to regulate its trade with North Korea and thus Beijing to calibrate the economic pressure it exerted on North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to dial down his nuclear and missile testing programmes. (The darker blue columns in the chart show the 2017 figures; the light blue ones the data for 2018.)

Chart of China-North Korea trade, Jan-May, 2017 v Jan-May, 2018. Source: Chinese Customs data, China Bystander.

Between January and May, total trade, at $887.4 million, was 56.8% lower than in the same period of 2017, indicating the application of sanctions, which China began to enforce serious last November. However, the impact on imports and exports shows a telling contrast. China’s purchases from North Korea were down 87% to $94.3 million but what China sold to North Korea, decreased by less than half that, by only 40% to $793.1 million.

Given that China is North Korea’s main supplier of energy and food, that suggests that while Beijing was comfortable with choking off North Korea’s export earnings, it was less so in imposing sanctions that might put social stability in North Korea at risk.

The Singapore summit between Kim and US President Donald Trump has prompted discussions, particularly among South Korean firms, about the prospects of restarting business operations in North Korea, especially improving transport and infrastructure links as political leaders have suggested. However, sanctions remain a high barrier.

North Korea remains littered with the remains of joint ventures that had hoped to prosper on the back of the 2006 round of promises by North Korea that would suspend its nuclear programme. The US intelligence agency, the CIA, has listed 350 joint ventures involving foreign companies (three-quarters Chinese) established in North Korea between 2004 and 2011 and notes that most had shut down even before last September when the U.N. Security Council banned joint ventures following Kim’s sixth nuclear test that month.

There is also the joint industrial park in Kaesong, North Korea’s third-largest city, just north of the border with South Korea, where 120 South Korean companies used to operate before it was closed by Seoul in 2016 after a long-range North Korean rocket launch.

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When Declaring Victory Is Not The Same As Wining A Trade War

Made in China label. Photo credit: Martin Abegglen, 2010. Licenced under Creative Commons.

CHINA HAS IMMEDIATELY retaliated against the first tranche of the 25% tariffs on $50 billion a year of Chinese exports to the United States announced by the Trump administration.

China will impose an matching tariff on 659 categories of US imports worth $50 billion a year, effective July 6. Vehicle and aircraft parts and vegetables account for the bulk of the targeted imports.

The Trump administration on Friday said its tariffs would come into effect on July 6 and cover more than 800 types of Chinese exports worth $34 billion a year. The largest category of goods affected are machinery, mechanical appliances and electrical equipment (full list). The White House says the remaining $16 billion of exports to be targeted will be announced later.

It is imposing the tariffs for what it deems unacceptable and unfair intellectual property and technology transfer practices by China that it has said cost the US economy $225 billion-600 billion a year.

There is, however, careful calibration on the United States part of these actions. It has reduced its original list of 1,300 targeted categories to focus on those sectors Beijing is promoting as part of its ‘Made In China 2025’ plan to develop advanced industries and to minimize the impact through international supply chains on domestic US industries. Some of the 500 categories removed from the list were done so following lobbying by US importers.

Beijing, for its part, has taken aim at the most politically sensitive US industries. where it believes it can have most impact on US President Donald Trump’s electoral support in rural areas and the Rustbelt.

US restrictions on Chinese firms’ investment in the United States are expected to be announced at the end of the month.

The president’s advisor on trade and manufacturing policy, Peter Navarro, says that the ‘era of American complacency’ on trade is over. But there is an old adage about how generals always fight the last war. The Trump administration’s tariffs seem to be doing the same thing.

International supply chains mean much of the value of the goods China exports is not added in China, so they hurt the non-Chinese part of the supply chain as much or more as the Chinese part.

Furthermore, policymakers may not care too much if the United States tries to choke off the sales of its cheap products; they want Chinese companies to export the higher value-added goods the US actions will push them towards making (and they have plenty of alternative markets in which to sell both cheap and more expensive products; the US accounts for only one-quarter of China’s exports).

Meanwhile, China’s industry has developed to the point that in sectors such as artificial intelligence and autonomous vehicles it is already internationally competitive. Intellectual property protection is now more important to its companies than intellectual property theft.

Trump may end up declaring victory in this particular trade war by being able to show he is being ‘tough on China’ and cutting the headline number of the bilateral goods trade deficit, but it will be China that actually wins the war.

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