_ Yuri Kofner, junior economist, MIWI Institute. Munich, 19 March 2020.
Significant trade diversions expected
After a 1.5-year trade dispute between the United States and China in which both have raised mutual import tariffs from 3.8 percent and 8.3 percent to 21 percent each, and as a result of which the US-Chinese merchandise trade has dropped by almost USD 90 billion, US President Donald Trump and Chinese Vice Premier Liu He on January 15, 2020 signed the first phase of a highly controversial and fiercely negotiated trade agreement. On February 14, 2020 this so called “Economic and Trade Agreement” (ETA) entered into force and marked a new phase in the protracted geopolitical rivalry between Washington and Beijing.
In this highly asymmetrical contract, the Chinese commit to open their market and to buy significantly more goods from the United States than before, which is in line with Trump’s wish for a lower trade deficit. This means a doubling of merchandise imports from the United States, because within two years Beijing is expected to increase spending on selected US goods by around USD 200 billion (compared to the base year 2017).
In return for the Chinese concessions, Trump has only committed to waiving new tariffs and to halving the most punitive tariffs for a subset of products from the current 15 to 7.5 percent. In the usual American manner, this has so far only been promised as an oral understanding.
According to the latest calculations by the Kiel Institute for the World Economy (IfW Kiel), the purchase commitments can result in significant trade diversion effects and market share shifts for China’s trading partners. As a result, Brazil (-19 percent), the EU (-17 percent) – including above all Germany (-7 percent), and Russia (-10 percent) would have to expect the greatest export losses.
Accordingly, Russian exports to China could be 10 percent lower by 2021, which is equivalent to a loss of USD 3.1 billion.
Russian energy exports hit hardest
US presidents have always tried to ensure American energy dominance. The “Nord-Stream 2” pipeline, which is to bring 55 billion cubic meters of Russian natural gas to the German and Western European markets annually, remains a thorn in Washington’s side, but the Phase-One-Deal gives the USA better access China’s energy market – the world’s most desirable.
A recent study by the Institute of the German Economy (IW Köln) shows that due to the agreed energy imports, the US would move from eleventh place in 2017 (USD 6.8 billion) to first place (USD 41 billion) in 2021 in China’s supplier list of energy carriers. In absolute terms, Russian crude oil exports to China would be the most affected : by 2021 they could be 12 percent lower, corresponding to a loss of USD 2.5 billion.
On a relative scale the artificial trade changes would also significantly affect other important Russian export sectors to China. Exports of soybeans could decrease by 25 percent or USD 10 million, of sunflower oil by 29 percent or USD 40 million, of coal by 10 percent or USD 180 million, of seafood by 9 percent or USD 100 million, of aircraft parts by as much as a third (USD 40 million).
Furthermore, the agreement may jeopardize Moscow’s intention to become an important natural gas supplier for China. In December 2019, the “Power of Siberia” gas pipeline was put into operation, under which a supply contract of over 38 billion cubic meters per year was concluded with China for a period of 30 years. Additional quantities are expected to be sold through an LNG terminal in Vladivostok in the Asia-Pacific region. Accordingly, China is to become the second most important gas sales market to Russia after the EU. However, the trade diversions in the ETA agreement could result in China’s imports of liquefied natural gas from Russia dropping by 25 percent by 2021, representing a loss of USD 10 million.
According to Dr. Sonja Beer, economist at IW Cologne, it is too early to say exactly which group of Russian energy exports to China will be affected most.
“The problem is that the energy section of the agreement only says that China will buy liquefied natural gas, crude oil, coal, etc. from the United States, but does not indicate which of these product groups is to be given priority and to what extent. More precise calculations are therefore not yet possible. However, due to the high Chinese import tariffs for American LNG (25 percent), we can assume that China will concentrate more on buying crude oil in the USA. Especially since China announced earlier this month that it would halve the existing 5 percent tariff for crude oil. It is impossible to predict exactly how trade flows will change in this case, but this could adversely affect Russia and Saudi Arabia, the largest suppliers of crude oil to China”, Beer explains, adding: “If Chinese LNG tariffs are significantly reduced, Beijing could buy more gas from the United States. This, in turn, could adversely affect Australia and Qatar and the prospects of increasing the supply of Russian gas to the Chinese market”.
Phase-One-Deal violates WTO criteria
Dr. Gabriel Felbermayr, President of IfW Kiel, also criticizes the new trade deal between China and the USA.
“The deal leverages free market principles in favor of the USA and to the detriment of third parties. “Managed trade”, i.e. explicit agreements on trade volumes for certain product groups, also clearly violates the WTO guidelines and thus undermines the multilateral trading system”, argues Felbermayr.
After the likely re-election of Donald Trump as President of the United States, protectionism and “managed trade” trends are expected to further intensify in the global economy, which is still dominated by the United States. In any case, such a “managed trade” agreement with China is not the first of its kind under Trump’s presidential administration. Already on September 25, 2019, the United States and Japan announced a trade agreement that hardly fulfills the criterion of “essentially complete trade” under Article XXIV of the GATT (WTO), since the scope of customs liberalization is very limited and asymmetrical in favor of the United States.