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Escalating trade rhetoric likely to expand US-China disputes

Businesses should think about long-term strategies to reduce the negative impacts of political and economic conflict with China.

Over the past six months, the Trump administration has engaged in increasingly aggressive rhetoric and trade practice, particularly with respect to China. These actions include tariffs, a recent speech by Vice President Pence, a White House (WH) report on military supply chains and provisions directed at China in United States-Mexico-Canada Trade Agreement (USMCA).

These developments in the Trump administration’s China policy are likely to extend the trade dispute with China well past the foreseeable future and expand the discord significantly beyond trade. Other policies have extended trade disputes well beyond China. For example, the steel and aluminum tariffs affect imports from nearly all countries. Should the Trump administration’s policies lead to a broad trade war between the US and the rest of the world, US GDP could decline by 1 to 2 percentage points.

In response to these developments, businesses should think about long-term strategies to reduce the negative impacts of this political and economic conflict.

These strategies could include at a minimum sorting out the extent to which they are likely to be subject to tariffs or other trade restrictions (e.g., mapping out their supply chain), and taking short-term steps to try to minimize the effect of the tariffs on their profits. Because it seems likely that US-China tensions will continue for some time, it also may be worthwhile for businesses to give serious consideration to revamping their supply chains.

Summary of events to date


Since March, the Trump administration has imposed tariffs on approximately $250 billion of merchandise imports from China. This represents about half of total US imports from China. A wide range of goods, more than 7,000 to date, are subject to these tariffs. Tariffs rates range between 10% and 25%, and all are scheduled to be set at 25% at the beginning of 2019.

Separate from this list, imports of steel and aluminum from China are subject to more general tariffs, at rates of 25% and 10%, respectively, imposed by the Trump administration in the name of national security. China is a major exporter of steel and aluminum, although not one of the largest exporters directly to the US.

Unsurprisingly, China has reacted by placing tariffs at similar rates on imports from the US. In addition, China announced it would reduce tariffs for other trading partners for a wide variety of goods, effective 01 November.

Vice President Pence’s speech on the US’s issues with China

Vice President Pence recently gave a speech at the Hudson Institute in which he called out China for a number of alleged issues. Details included:

  • What he described as a “whole government” approach by China to rivalry with the US that uses political, economic and military tools to advance its interests in the US
  • A tightening of administration over certain ethnic groups and various other domestic aspects
  • “Made in China 2025” plans for tech dominance
  • “Belt and Road” initiative to fund infrastructure projects in South Asia and along the old silk road trade route between China and Europe
  • Militarily and economically moving to counter the US in the Western Pacific

In his speech Pence also presented a list of trade and economic mistreatments of which he viewed China as culpable, including currency manipulation, obligatory technology transfers, intellectual property transgressions and industrial subsidies.

China has objected to Pence’s characterizations and has requested the US soften its stance on China’s interests and US-China relations. China also has restated its willingness to work with the US to achieve mutually beneficial outcomes through cooperation.

NAFTA 2.0 (USMCA) — inclusion of provisions directed at China

The revised trilateral NAFTA agreement (among the US, Mexico and Canada) contains provisions seemingly designed to counter China. Any of the USMCA signatories could be dropped from USMCA should it enter into a trade agreement with a “non-market economy,” of which the US deems China to be one. The USMCA would then become a bilateral agreement (or it could be terminated entirely, should more than one signatory enter into a trade agreement with countries such as China).

WH report on risks to military supply chains

The WH recently released a study summarizing problems with the US manufacturing base and supply chains that are critical to the production of key military equipment for US defense purposes. The study is motivated by Peter Navarro’s  view that the US needs a strong and resilient domestic manufacturing sector to maintain a strong military. The study argues that uncertainty about military budget funding has created serious and growing challenges for the US defense manufacturing base.

China’s trade practices

Among the main challenges for the US the study identifies are the industrial policies of competitor nations. Here its focus is almost exclusively on China. Four of the six topics covered in the “industrial policy” chapter of the report on China are: China’s military expansion and modernization, China’s strategies of economic aggression, China’s soft power projection and China’s research and development spending strategy. A fifth section, Strategic material and printed circuit boards, does not mention China in the title, but the subject nonetheless is China. In short, the study sees China as a large, growing and apparently unique threat to manufacturing and technology that is critical to US military security.

Possible future actions

Additional tariffs

President Trump has threatened tariffs on the remaining imports from China. Moreover, in his recent speech, Vice President Pence suggested that even higher tariffs on the existing set of affected imports may be on the way. China is likely to respond by imposing restrictions on US exports to China.

It also is worth mentioning that China is not the only target of US tariffs. The US tariffs on steel and aluminum imports apply to all countries, including Canada and members of the EU. (The USMCA did not lift the steel and aluminum tariffs for Canada or Mexico.)

Non-tariff trade-related responses

China is limited in its ability to respond directly to additional US tariffs, as it imports much less from the US ($130 billion) than it exports to the US ($500 billion). As a result, it cannot impose equal tariffs on imports from the US that would match the cumulative effects of US tariffs on imports from China. It could, of course, consider higher tariff rates than the US applies.

China: non-tariff reaction

China could further consider measures beyond tariffs:

  • Raising non-tariff barriers to trade (e.g., quotas, licensing fees, regulations), increasing the direct cost of doing business in China for American companies
  • Restricting Chinese investment in the US
  • Imposing restrictions on Chinese travel to the US
  • Flooding the foreign exchange market with US dollars
  • Flooding the international debt market with discounted US treasuries
  • Obstructing US policy outside the area of trade, e.g., in the US negotiations with North Korea over nuclear weapons

US non-tariff measures

The US could impose or increase non-tariff barriers to trade:

  • Import quotas, which have effects similar to tariffs
  • Restrictions on foreign investment. The US already has restrictions on foreign investment in key US assets, enforced by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the US (CFIUS). Recently, the Trump administration announced that it would step up enforcement to make certain that China and other foreign powers do not gain control of sensitive US technology by investing in US companies

Policies to support militarily important activities in the US

The WH study recommends a national industrial policy to support national security efforts and inform acquisition practices. Presumably the policy would act to support key “fragile industries,” reduce reliance on sole- and single-source suppliers, and reduce dependency on foreign suppliers by encouraging a steady and reliable source of domestic supply. The study also recommends expanded direct investment in the “lower tier” of the industrial base (things like parts) to address bottlenecks, support fragile suppliers and mitigate single points of supply failure.

Implications for business

Threats — supply chain disruption, higher import prices, reduced market for US exports: one obvious threat is to businesses that have supply chains going through China. Those chains could be disrupted by both US and Chinese actions. Businesses buying any imports from China, as well as those buying US-produced goods that are manufactured in part using imports from China, may see price increases or supply disruptions. Other US interests, such as agriculture, that sell to China also may be hurt by a continuing trade dispute, e.g., because of Chinese tariffs on imports of agricultural goods from the US.

Should the tariffs on steel and aluminum stay in place for a long period of time and should the Trump administration step up its trade war with other nations, then the costs of price increases, sales decreases and general trade disruption would be more severe and more expansive.

Interruption of business transactions and alliances — US businesses potentially looking to merge with Chinese partners also may be at risk, because of expanded CFIUS enforcement or new restrictions.


Import competing industries: not all US businesses would be losers from a trade dispute or other protracted conflicts with China. Businesses that compete with imports subject to tariffs (e.g., US steel and aluminum producers) stand to gain from the higher profits they can earn as a result of tariff-induced prices or sales increases.

Defense-related industries: businesses in industries deemed worthy of or requiring direct support as part of an explicit industrial policy also may benefit. These industries seem likely to be defense-related, because that is the justification for the industrial policy. However, it is possible that the defense connection would not need to be all that close.

Business strategies

Companies threatened by growing trade and other tensions

  • Modeling the impact of tariffs: any company impacted by the tariffs as an importer or an exporter should model the impact of the existing tariffs, as well as any potential expansion of the scope or escalation of the rate.
  • Supply chain mapping: businesses will want to carefully review the list of imports subject to US tariffs, as well as those items subject to tariffs in China or other countries. Those who may be negatively impacted by the additional duties, including manufacturers, distributors, importers and consumers, should map their complete, end-to-end supply chain to fully understand the extent of products impacted, potential costs and alternative sourcing options and to assess any opportunities to mitigate the impact.
  • Advocacy for exemptions: in some cases, businesses may consider providing comments as part of the administrative procedures or legislative hearings related to the imposition of tariffs or other trade restrictions. This may include hearings or procedures related to the imposition of tariffs on US exports, e.g., Chinese tariffs on soybeans for the US.
  • Custom and duties planning: affected companies may want to identify approaches to defer, eliminate or recover duties. For instance, US importers may be able to appeal the application of a tariff to their import, e.g., if there are not domestic sources of supply. Exporters may want to review alternative paths to market if they produce a good subject to retaliatory tariffs.

US importers should evaluate options to accelerate imports of targeted products in the US prior to implementation of tariffs, or consider benefits available through the use of a bonded warehouse, US Foreign Trade Zones, or substitution drawback. Likewise, manufacturers of targeted products may want to evaluate whether it is feasible to re-engineer their supply chains to relocate origin-conferring operations to countries not targeted by tariffs, e.g. out of China and into other countries. Importers should also explore approaches to minimize the customs value of imported products subject to the additional duties -- re-evaluating current transfer pricing approaches, and considering US customs approaches such as First Sale for Export.

US exporters to China (or other relevant countries) will want to undertake a similar exercise both with respect to goods on the list announced by China and with respect to any other current or planned exports to China. US exporters should recognize that the China list is unlikely to remain static and contingency planning may well prove beneficial for items that have not been listed by China to date, but could become subject to excess Chinese duties in the future.

Rethinking supply chains

To the extent that the trade dispute and other tensions between the US and China and possibly the US and other countries seems likely to be protracted, companies should give serious thought to fundamentally altering their supply chains. They may wish to consider moving operations into or out of the US or other countries to mitigate the effects of tariffs, quotas and other barriers to the free flow of commerce. In a protracted trade dispute, for example, it may make sense to produce in the US for US sales, in the EU for EU sales and in China for China sales.

Companies potentially benefiting from trade and other tensions

  • Import competing businesses: companies that produce import competing goods (e.g., steel and aluminum) should perform analyses that show the beneficial effects of tariffs or the harmful effects of imports.
  • Defense-related businesses: companies with a plausible connection to defense should read the recent WH report. They should evaluate whether it is possible for them to be included as part of the industrial policy that the Trump administration is formulating.

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