Category Archives: Trade

OECD Raises China Growth Forecast And Risks To It

THE OECD HAS edged up its growth forecast for China this year to 6.7% from the 6.6% it projected in November but holds its 2019 forecast unchanged at 6.4%. The revised numbers are contained in the newly published interim Economic Outlook from the rich countries’ think tank.

Overall, the OECD sees a steady or improving expansion across most G20 economies thanks to the bounce back of trade and private investment, with fiscal stimulus in the United States and Germany providing a boost to short-term growth, while inflationary pressures are subdued. Specifically, on China it says

Growth surprised on the upside in China in 2017, helped by a strong rebound in exports, but is set to soften to just below 6½ per cent by 2019. Macroeconomic and regulatory policies are gradually becoming more restrictive, the working age population is now declining and credit conditions are less expansionary. Regulatory efforts are continuing to reduce financial risks, deal with overcapacity in some sectors and improve environmental quality. Fiscal policy is now broadly neutral, but additional measures could be implemented if output growth were to slow more sharply.

However, the risks to its general forecast all threaten particular vulnerabilities of the Chinese economy: tightening monetary policy in the advanced economies, high debt and asset valuations, and a potentially damaging escalation of trade tensions.

The importance of tackling high debt levels is illustrated in this chart.

Chart of G20 total debt, public and private non-financial sector, as % of GDP, 2001-2017. Source: OECD

The OECD calls on Beijing for policy initiatives to reduce the high level of corporate debt, in particular.

The OECD also makes a point of the importance of safeguarding the rules-based international trading system. China has repeatedly been saying the same thing, if somewhat self-servingly and with itself as the guarantor, since long before the Trump administration announced import tariffs on steel and aluminium. It is likely to echo the call again as the United States readies a Section 301 action on intellectual property rights and technology transfer practices aimed at what the US president has flatly called China’s theft of US technology.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration has reportedly told Beijing that it has to come up with a plan to reduce China’s $375 billion trade surplus with the United States by $100 billion within a year.


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China Tries To Mend US Relations While Preparing For Trade War 

TRADE WARS ARE good, and easy to win, tweets US President Donald Trump.

This Bystander would contend that trade wars are bad, and no one wins.

The United States’ plan to impose across-the-board tariffs of 25% on imports of steel and 10% on those of aluminium following a Section 232 investigation will have less effect on Chinese exporters than those from many other countries, despite the fact that Beijing bears the brunt of Trump’s rhetoric about ‘unfair trade’.

China now ranks tenth in the list of sources of US steel imports, at 2.9% of the total — one place below Taiwan (3.2%) and far below table-topping Canada (16.7%). The United States is the world’s biggest steel import market at 35.6 million tonnes (2017), but China’s exports had already fallen by 30% from the previous year following Obama-era anti-dumping duties imposed two years ago. In only one category of steel imports, long products (rebars, drawn wire and the like), is China a top-five supplier.

The US import market for aluminium is smaller, at 6.8 million tonnes a year. China ranks fourth in the foreign suppliers list, with an 8.8% share of imports. Canada, again, tops the list, followed by Russia and the UAE.

Beijing’s public response to the Trump administration’s announcement has been the expected call for restraint, urging the United States to abide by multilateral trade rules and do nothing to damage the fragile global economic recovery. It is also quite content for the EU to take up the running as the belligerent critic in this case.

Behind the scenes, there is a growing sense of urgency about the probability of further such measures to come from Washington and the countermeasures that might have to be taken.

Chart of US exports to China by category, 2016. Source: MIT's Observatory of Economic Complexity.

The Ministry of Commerce is already investigating imports from the United States of sorghum, a cereal grain used to feed livestock, in response to previous tariffs from the White House on solar panels and washing machines.

Agricultural products are a fat target for Beijing to retaliate against. The scale of farm trade between the two countries is large, and US farmers have a heavy reliance on the Chinese market. The US runs a nearly $17 billion trade surplus with China in agricultural products.

US soya beans would be the bullseye, as the chart below of US vegetable product exports to China shows (the chart, like the one above is drawn from MIT’s Observatory of Economic Complexity data). They account for $14.2 billion of the $21.4 billion of annual US agricultural products exports to China (2016 figures) — or 12% of total US exports to China. The second biggest export category, ‘coarse grains’, essentially sorghum in this context, is only a $1 billion export market for US farmers.

Chart of US vegetable products exports to China, 2016

An alternative target for Beijing could be in aerospace. China is one of the largest export markets for US aerospace products, with sales of $13.2 billion in 2016, accounting for 58% of China’s total imports in the aviation sector. This would be a political target in that it would hit the high-skilled industrial jobs in the United States at companies like Boeing that Trump has said his America First trade policies are intended to restore.

The word doing the rounds (admittedly with no firm evidence) is that if tariffs start to cost Chinese exporters $10 billion a year that will be the trigger point for retaliation.

More tariffs are likely to be forthcoming from the Trump administration. As we have noted before, the president is ‘itching’ to impose tariffs on China. Trade is the one issue on which he appears to have long-standing, consistent and deep beliefs that foreign competitors and large trade deficits ‘cheat’ the United States. Also, ahead of November’s midterm Congressional elections, he needs to motivate his voting base, which holds China to the root of all the ill that has befallen it since the global financial crisis.

The steel and aluminium tariffs would follow a series of duties already announced on a range of goods including the solar panels washing machines mentioned above.

The particular concern in Beijing now is a Section 301 investigation into China’s practices in technology transfer, intellectual property and innovation. The Trump administration has already moved to constrain inward direct investment that would give Chinese companies access to US technology. The number of Chinese acquisitions of US tech firms in 2017 was 12% down from its 2015 peak.

While some of that can be attributed to tighter Chinese capital controls, on the US side, this has been achieved both formally through regulatory intervention and informally by, for example, Congress leaning on US telecoms firms AT&T and Verizon not to buy equipment from Huawei and ZTE — and the administration pressing allies to follow suit (though how imposing trade tariffs against allies like Canada, Japan and South Korea engenders the necessary goodwill is difficult to see).

Beijing’s efforts to re-engage the diplomatic and back-channels through which the economic relationship with Washington has been more or less successfully managed for many years are proving less fruitful, despite an assiduous courting of Trump from the outset of his presidency. In many cases, long-standing working points of contact between US and Chinese officials have halted.

Liu He, the Harvard educated economist who is close to President Xi Jinping and the architect of much of China’s economic policymaking since Xi came to power, was in Washington this week. He met senior administration officials, including US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, White House economic adviser Gary Cohn and US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, but not, notably, Trump, in what looks like a calculated snub on the president’s part.

There is no doubt to this Bystander’s mind that Trump’s realization of America First through measures such as tariffs moves the global economy into more dangerous territory because the risk of a tit-for-tat trade war is escalated.

Redefining protectionism as a matter of US national security rather than as a matter of economic fairness, as the steel and aluminium tariffs will do, allows all countries to claim the same.

This is the new world of hard-power realism, and it will have its costs, perhaps very heavy ones.

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China And The United States: Reverse Merger

US President Donald Trump and China's President Xi Jinping walk in the grounds of Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, April 2017.

SINCE AT LEAST World War 2, the lodestar of US foreign policy has been to steer authoritarian regimes towards norms of free-market democracy on the American model through engagement backed by the United States’ economic and military supremacy.

On basic empirical measures, the policy has been successful. In 1946, there were 21 democracies; today there are more than 80. The number of people living in democracies has risen to more than 4 billion from 385 million over that time, and the biggest authoritarian empire of the second half of the 20th century, the Soviet Union, has collapsed.

US President Donald Trump has thrown out that notion. He has declared that engagement with authoritarian regimes, including China, and perhaps particularly China, to bring them into convergence with the international system does not work for the United States, but diminishes it.

He has thus reverted to the late 19th century-early 20th-century view of international relations as a contest between great-power nation-states in the pursuit of national interests, with hard power being the final arbiter. This is what students of international relations call realism. They contrast its competitive and conflictual nature to the cooperation and shared values emphasised by liberalism.

The America First agenda on which Trump campaigned for office was a clear exposition of realism. The Trump presidency has now enshrined that as policy. Three newly published documents, the National Security Strategy (NSS), the Pentagon’s National Defense Strategy (NDS) and the US Trade Representatives annual report on China’s WTO compliance, lay out that sea-change in America’s stance in the world.

As far a China goes, it is now declared a revisionist power and a geostrategic rival along with Russia, Iran and North Korea.

It has been a policy switch in the making since the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington. The United States then started to act unilaterally to overthrow regimes perceived to be hostile through military intervention or the encouragement of local uprisings in Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

That was followed by the challenge that the global financial crisis of 2008 posed to both the Western model of free-market capitalism and the underlying assumption that the US was the nonpareil of economic strength.

The decade since 2008 has opened space for China to demonstrate that it has an alternative economic model — and one that is appealing to many regimes in as much as it came without the accompanying baggage of political liberalism. In place of untrammelled free trade, free capital flows and large-scale cross-border migration, China offered a model that uses markets to allocate some resources but in which the state continues to run the economy (and in China’s case the Party also runs the state).

The United States’s new NSS suggests this model of state-run capitalism has cost the United States hundreds of billions of dollars a year of commercial technology conveyed to China as a result of either the openness of the economic relationship on the US side or, as the Trump administration prefers to emphasise, through plain theft.

Trump has declared that that will stop. He repeated his intention in his first State of the Union address last month and has already made it evident by tariffs imposed on solar panels and refrigerators and stricter screening of inbound foreign investment on security grounds. (China has already countered with an investigation into alleged US subsidies of sorghum grain.)

Trump has said he has held off on more punitive trade actions against China only because he needs its help on pressing North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un to halt his nuclearisation programme.

This year is likely to test Trump’s patience in this regard, especially as this is a Congressional election year in the United States. The political support base that Trump needs to mobilise in the Republican cause, and particularly deindustrialised blue-collar workers, believe China to be the cause of everything ill that has befallen them. He will need to rile them up to vote.

The critical question about the trade measures that Trump takes against China — and it seems a matter of when not if — is their scope; whether they are narrow and targeted, say, anti-dumping duties on specific products such as types of steel and aluminum, as recommended by the US Commerce Department last week, or broad and sweeping, such as high duties on virtually anything shipped from China and a blanket ban on inward Chinese investment to the US.

If it is the former, the damage to the global economy (and US multinationals’ supply chains) would be containable; if it is the latter, the damage could be considerable.

The latter might satisfy Trump’s appetite for ’fair trade’ but at a massive cost to both the US and global economies.

As national security is the other pillar of Trump foreign policy, the proposed build up the US military and the expansion of the US nuclear weapon arsenal is also aimed at China. It has elicited the expected denunciation by Beijing, which accused Washington of reverting to a ‘Cold War mentality’.

It would be a mistake to regard the shift in US policy towards China as being particular to Trump. The latest issue of Foreign Affairs, the house journal of the blue-chip US foreign affairs think tank, the Council on Foreign Relations, carries an article entitled the The China Reckoning. The authors, Kurt Campbell, a former senior Obama-era official the State Department, and Ely Ratner, a former deputy National Security Advisor to the same administration, and who thus would both have been involved in President Barack Obama’s ‘Asian pivot’, write:

Neither carrots nor sticks have swayed China as predicted. Diplomatic and commercial engagement have not brought political and economic openness. Neither U.S. military power nor regional balancing has stopped Beijing from seeking to displace core components of the U.S.-led system. And the liberal international order has failed to lure or bind China as powerfully as expected. China has instead pursued its own course, belying a range of American expectations in the process.

This shift of position is also endorsed increasingly by US business, which has hitherto has been a strong advocate of engagement to open China’s vast and growing market to foreign trade and investment.

One of the intangible dangers in the new policy is the possibilities of missteps and missignalling resulting from a weakening of working relationships between officials at all levels. Many agency-to-agency channels built up over the past decades are on hiatus, and relatively few US officials are visiting China (or anywhere else). Of the high-level government-to-government economic dialogues only the military-to-military one appears still to be open, mostly on account of the need for channels on North Korea.

More broadly, the new policy will also likely reverse the long-standing practice by the United States of making unlimited provision of visas to Chinese journalists, researchers and students to visit, work and study in the United States while China strictly regulates the flow of their American counterparts in the opposite direction.

FBI director Christopher Wray told a US Senate Intelligence Committee hearing last week that Chinese students could be a threat since they could be gathering intelligence for China while studying in the United States.

A cutback in the number of foreign graduate students studying or researching in science and technology disciplines is under consideration by the White House as the FBI now considers them an intelligence risk. Wray told the Senate committee:

One of the things we’re trying to do is to view the Chinese threat as not just a whole of government threat, but a whole-of-society threat, on their end. And I think it’s going to take a whole-of-society response by us. It’s not just the Intelligence Community, but it’s raising awareness within our academic sector, within our private sector, as part of defense.

Wray also said that his agency was monitoring ‘warily’ the Confucius Institutes. The risk to the bilateral relationship is that such investigations stoke xenophobia public sentiment against Chinese activities in the United States.

Beijing’s soft power campaigns to influence politics and civil society abroad are also likely to fall under greater US suspicion, especially in light of the Mueller investigation into Russian attempts to interfere with US elections.

For its part, Beijing no longer describes its policy objectives in terms of convergence with international norms. Instead, it emphasises the differences brought by doing everything ‘with Chinese characteristics’. It has been building an alternative architecture, such as new multilateral mechanisms like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the Belt and Road Initiative, even as it continues to seek more influence in existing institutions such as the IMF, WTO and United Nations.

Beijing has been taking a more aggressive foreign-policy posture since 2008 when it believed it saw a United States entering into a period of accelerating relative decline which created an opportunity for it to act more assertively on the global stage. This posture has intensified since Xi Jinping’s rise to power in 2013. In particular, it has become more transparent about its desire to displace the United States as the preponderant regional power.

Two examples that are cases in point: island building and increasing military deployment in the South China Sea to reinforce China’s claims over the waters and resources off its eastern coasts; and its disruption of trade and tourism with South Korea following Seoul’s decision to permit deployment of the US THAAD missile defence system.

That goes hand in hand with the modernisation of the People’s Liberation Army, and particularly the PLA-Navy, which, eventually, will challenge US naval control of the Western Pacific.

There is a certain irony in two powers pursuing their national interest using not dissimilar mercantilist and military-minded means. China and the United States are following a similar model, though perhaps in not the way round that Washington had for so long imagined.


Filed under China-U.S., Defence, Trade

China Reaffirms Its Arctic Ambition

Drift ice in the Arctic Ocean seen from the deck of the Chinese icebreaker Xue Long, 2010. Photo credit: Timo Palo. Licenced under Creative Commons

THIS BYSTANDER NOTED China’s Arctic ambition as long ago as 2010. Since then global warming has made northern shipping routes from Asia to Europe through the Arctic only more feasible as summer sea ice has further diminished.

In 2013, China acquired observer status at the Arctic Council, which comprises nations with an Arctic littoral (full members) or an interest in the region (observers). The previous year, the Ukraine-built diesel-powered Xue Long (Snow Dragon; seen above in 2010) then the world’s largest non-nuclear icebreaker, had made the first passage from China to Iceland through the far north.

It has been participating in Arctic research trips since 1999; China has had a research station on the Spitzbergen Archipelago since 2004. A larger and stronger indigenously designed version, the Xue Long 2, is due to come into service next year. It will be a hybrid research vessel-ice breaker that can carry up to 90 scientists and crew. Nuclear-powered icebreakers will follow. Development contracts were signed between the National Nuclear Corporation and State Shipbuilding Corporation in 2016.

Not only would a northern route through the Arctic lessen the costs and dangers of shipping Chinese goods to Europe via the traditional and lengthier sea routes through the Moluccan Straits, the Indian Ocean and the Horn of Africa, it would also make drilling for oil and gas a practical possibility. The region may hold up to a quarter of the world’s untapped fossil energy reserves.

On Friday, the State Council Information Office, the government information office directed towards foreign audiences, released an English-language white paper, China’s Arctic Policy, that sets out Beijing’s intentions towards the development (and conservation) of Arctic resources over the coming decades, in particular, shipping routes.

It manages to slip in the presumably intentionally eye-catching phrase, Polar Silk Road, there times but the document is mainly an affirmation of the long-standing position that China sees itself as having interests in the Arctic and intends to be active in the region’s economic development and governance.

Chinese mariners, fishermen, scientists, petroleum engineers and even tourists plying the increasingly less icy waters of the Arctic in ever more significant number, will concern Russia, for one. The United States will see yet more evidence of China’s asserting itself globally, notably when the white paper says responsibility for the region now goes beyond the eight nations, including Russia and the United States, with territorial sovereignty in the Arctic.

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China’s Economy: Normal Slowing Will Resume in 2018

THE ECONOMY STORMED along in the second half of last year, taking growth for the year to 6.9%, comfortably outstripping the official target of ‘around 6.5%’.

It was riding the coattails of the fiscal stimulus introduced in the first half of the year and also the pick-up in global trade, partly helped by the robust growth in the United States and some recovery in Europe, which boosted China’s exports. At 8.7% of China’s GDP growth, net export volumes made their largest contribution to growth since 2008.

Policymakers have been managing a slowdown from the giddy decades of double-digit growth. The overall lesson from last week’s figures is that economy is fitfully rebalancing and that there was some slowdown in credit growth as official efforts to cool the property market, deleverage and upgrade industrial capacity gained some traction.

That last year turned out to be the first acceleration since 2010 should prove to be an anomaly. Normal slowing will resume this year. And especially if policymakers push ahead with measures to control financial risks.

The most recent forecast from the World Bank, which recently upped its estimate of GDP growth in 2017 to 6.8% (a 0.3 percentage point increase from its forecast a year ago and reiterated in June) says it expects 6.4% growth this year (a 0.1 percentage point increase from its previous number).

Beijing has plenty of headroom in meeting its 2010 target of doubling aggregate and per capita growth by 2020. The economy needs to average no more than 6.3% growth to achieve that.

That headroom will also let Beijing tackle its most pressing economic-related problems: curbing escalating debt; cutting excess heavy industrial capacity; becoming environmentally cleaner; and dealing with the risk of unemployment as the economy is rebalanced towards domestic consumption and higher-value-added manufacturing.

Where the margins of safety are considerably thinner is if there is a trade war with the United States.

As we noted recently, US President Donald Trump is itching to impose tariffs on Chinese steel and aluminium imports into the United States. More recently Washington has said that an investigation into intellectual property transfers to China has been launched, with Trump warning that China is in for “a very big intellectual property fine”.

His self-restraint because he needs Beijing’s help with North Korea is wearing thin. Nor will it have been helped by the revelation that an ex-CIA officer arrested in New York this week may have been the mole responsible for passing information to Chinese intelligence that led to the dismantling and death of the CIA’s intelligence network in China between 2010 and 2012.

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China Trade Does America A Service

US PRESIDENT DONALD Trump lambasted cheap Chinese imports for destroying American jobs when he was on the campaign trail last year.

A National Bureau of Economic Research working paper by Robert Feenstra of the University of California, Davis and Akira Sasahara of the University of Idaho, which  recently came across our desk though published in August, suggests the damage may not have been as extensive as previously thought once the gain in jobs from US exports to China are taken into account.

Looking at the impact of trade on employment in the United States from 1995 to 2011, the authors say:

For merchandise exports and imports from China, we have found added demand of 3.7 million jobs and reduced demand of 2.0 million jobs, respectively, giving a net gain of 1.7 million jobs.

Including services trade, Feenstra and Sasahara count a much larger net gain of 4 million jobs.

Different modelling approaches give some variation of results, showing that in merchandise trade the net job gain from the China trade could have been as low as 730,000 jobs or as high as 2.7 million and for trade in all sectors from 4 million to 5.1 million jobs. But all show a net gain in jobs.

At least some of that growth will have been as a result of China’s growth stimulating global growth and thus world trade.

Previous studies have estimated that since China’s accession to the World Trade Organization in 2001, unleashing the ‘China shock’ on world trade, Chinese imports accounted for one-quarter of the decline in U.S. manufacturing employment and have contributed to the unusually slow employment growth following the 2008 financial crisis.

Imports from China — or anywhere — else have twin effects. They create import competition and labour-market dislocation, but also benefit domestic consumers through lower prices. Trump concentrated on the former.

But what Feenstra and Sasahara highlight is the importance of services in the United States’ global trade. Thus Trump’s emphasis on restoring manufacturing jobs, if politically salient, is economically misplaced.

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One Belt, One Road To Rule Them All

Belt and Road International Forum, Beijing, May 2017. Photo credit: The Russian Presidential Press and Information Office. Licensed under Creative Commons.IT IS NOT just General Secretary Xi Jinping’s ‘Thought’ that has been inscribed in the Party’s constitution. So, too, has his grand vision and signature policy, the Belt and Road Initiative, or OBOR for its original designation, One Belt One Road.

This will give political longevity to the ambitious scheme Xi announced in 2013 to transverse the Eurasia landmass and beyond with a network of roads, railways, ports, pipelines and other infrastructure projects carrying China’s surplus industrial and services capacity westwards and food and energy resources in the opposite direction. Opposing or obstructing it, just as with opposing or obstructing Xi, will henceforth equate with betraying the Party itself.

Few, if any infrastructure projects can boast either such prestige or protection. As Xi indicated at the Party Congress just concluded, OBOR will be central to China’s development until at least 2050, the date Xi has set by which China is to be a leading global power (neatly coinciding with the 100th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic on October 1, 1949).

So great is the ambition of this combination of commerce, construction and capital that it is impossible to put an accurate cost or timetable on it.

Bloomberg counts more than $500 million the China has so far spent or committed to OBOR. There is a $40 billion Silk Road Fund and much of the $100 billion Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) will be directed towards it. No doubt some of the $300 billion National Pension Fund will find its way to OBOR projects as will investment from state-owned banks and enterprises and dutifully patriotic private companies.

The US investment bank Morgan Stanley has suggested that $1.2 trillion will be spent on OBOR-related infrastructure over the next decade. However, so loosely is it defined and so ambitious its scope that you can just about put any price tag on it, as long as it is in the many trillions.

Beijing lists 68 countries as OBOR partners spanning Asia, Africa, the Middle East, Europe and Oceania. They already account for one-third of global GDP and trade, two-thirds of the population and one-quarter of global foreign direct investment. The management consultancy McKinsey & Co.reckons they will contribute 80% of global economic growth and add 3 billion to the global middle class by 2050. Any number is going to be large.

For all the trillions of dollars of hard infrastructure that will be built — and as we have noted before, if even only a fraction of what is being talked about gets completed, it will still be huge — OBOR is also a geopolitical project. Whether you see that as 21st-century merchant hegemony writ large or the world’s largest platform for regional collaboration and future engine of trade and investment growth, there can be little argument that it will potentially give Beijing vast sway over a large part of the world.

It is a part of the world with lots of risks, however, both geopolitical and financial. One measure of both is that state-owned insurer China Export & Credit Insurance Corp. said it has paid out $1.7 billion in claims since 2013 on $480 billion of exports and investments it has insured in OBOR countries. The sort of risks the insurer covers are things like government seizures, nationalisation and political violence.

More than half of China’s outward OBOR investment since 2013 has been in countries whose sovereign credit rating is below investment grade — ‘junk’ in the jargon. Of the 68 OBOR countries, only 27 of them are not rated as junk.

It is easy to assume that the Chinese state and its own and private (and dutifully patriotic) companies will be pouring a lot of good money after bad. However, many of the OBOR countries have trade and growth potential that can be released by infrastructure development, especially on the scale and interconnectedness envisaged. That would generate some of the growth necessary to provide some return on the investment.

It will also give China a huge sphere of influence far beyond its near abroad, in which today’s superpowers will be marginalised.

The ‘America First’ economic and political nationalism of the Trump administration, which has caused the stalling of the TransPacific Partnership (TPP) and disengaged the ‘Asian pivot’ of its predecessor Obama administration, has given Beijing an unexpected window of opportunity to advance OBOR and its alternative arrangements to those that have governed the international order in the era since World War II.


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