1. US-China: The biggest story is likely to remain the ongoing battle between the United States and China. The most immediate deadline is March 1, when the US has promised to impose 25% tariffs on $200 billion in Chinese imports that are currently subjected to 10% tariffs, if the two sides cannot successfully negotiate their way out of the complaints lodged in the Section 301 case. Chinese officials are meant to travel to the US later in January to continue discussions, followed by more talks in mid-February. Given the rapidly closing timeline, however, getting a satisfactory conclusion to the long list of US objectives is unlikely. Three scenarios are possible: 1) US President Donald Trump accepts an outcome that does not really address the systemic complaints at the heart of the Section 301, but goes for a package that includes more Chinese purchases of US agricultural and energy goods plus some limited commitments on Chinese reforms; 2) the timeline is extended, as talks are making headway with a resolution closer to filling most of the Section 301 demands possible by mid-year; or 3) talks collapse and tariffs are imposed on the $200 billion in goods, ramping up to include all Chinese imports to the US before the end of the year.
The United States, of course, is not Australia and has a customer base that is hard to ignore. Marketplaces will likely continue to deliver, despite higher costs, but will pass along these higher postal rates to customers who will pay more. In the meantime, firms will search for alternative markets outside the US to continue to grow their businesses. Governments outside the United States may follow suit and withdraw from the UPU as well, leaving US exporters, including many of the most vibrant global e-commerce vendors, at risk of failing to reach their own customers in fast-growing overseas markets where last mile delivery is always the most challenging part of e-commerce for firms. Withdrawing the United States from the UPU may seem like a small victory for Trump, but the implications and collateral damage it could cause to American consumers and companies alike may be significantly more than the relatively minor amount Trump claims the US Postal service is currently forgoing.
The implications, as the Singaporean trade minister noted, can be hard to calculate. For instance, American importing companies will need to increase the amount of the continuous bond they hold with US Customs. In some cases, bond levels may be 20-100 times higher than prior to Trump’s tariff wars began. Shipping volumes have fallen off dramatically. This has left firms paying more for transportation as well. So it is not just 25% tariff rate increases that affect firms. The second- and third-order implications are just starting to appear. In the short run, exporting firms have several options to limit risk and exposure to higher tariffs. They can do nothing and bear higher costs, hoping to ride out a short conflict. They can work with their importing partners to effectively “share” the costs of higher tariffs. Firms should be reexamining their options to ensure that they understand their current supply chains, tariff classifications and possible sourcing alternatives. It may be prudent to tweak existing processes to move products into new tariff classifications by, for example, adding or subtracting manufacturing steps in the supply chain from one location to another.
Hence, writes Lighthizer, the need for another $200 billion in products on today’s list. Why? Because China cannot respond in the same measured way to a trade escalation of this magnitude. China does not import $250 billion in goods trade from the United States and cannot match US tariff escalation dollar-for-dollar. Therefore, it seems clear that Lighthizer believes that China will now respond “appropriately” to the original set of American complaints under the Section 301 report and stop counter-retaliating. This line of argument, however, remains deeply flawed for at least four reasons. First, simply because the Chinese cannot retaliate using tariffs to match the US escalation does not mean that the Chinese cannot retaliate. They have myriad tools at their disposal to respond, as we have pointed out in previous Talking Trade posts. These include targeting US services, US companies on the ground in China, US investments and so forth.
Now that tariffs have been imposed, negotiations have not started. Instead, Trump seems determined to continue to escalate. Rather than make movements towards resolving issues, he has now threatened to impose tariffs on every product imported from China—all $500 billion. Since China does not import an equivalent amount of goods from the United States, it cannot simply match tariff rate hikes to tariff rate hikes. It will end up getting creative instead, assuming President Trump follows through on his threats and keeps ratcheting up tariffs on Chinese made goods. China could respond in many ways. It can scrupulously enforce myriad domestic laws against American companies in China that are currently only weakly followed now. It could much more rigorously check for compliance with every regulation, type of paperwork and so forth.