The trade war between the United States and China has become one of the main events in the global economy this year. What could be its consequences for the US and China, and how might it affect other countries – for example, Russia?
Chronology of the trade war
Donald Trump started the war, raising import tariffs on solar panels in January 2018, of which the main supplier is China. In response, on April 2nd, China raised import duties on 128 commodities originating from the United States. On July 6th, the US increased tariffs on Chinese goods by 25 pp., imports worth $34 billion. China responded symmetrically. In August, the United States increased the tariffs on another $16 billion of imported goods from China, to which a symmetrical response again followed. In September, the United States again applied higher tariffs for $200 billion of Chinese exports, and China for $60 billion of US exports. At each stage of the conflict escalation, China appealed to the WTO with complaints about the actions of the United States, pointing to the inconsistency of their actions with the obligations and principles of the WTO. There were several meetings of official representatives from the United States and China – without any significant results.
What are the main reasons for this unprecedented escalation?
Imbalance and intellectual property
The economies of the US and China today are by far the largest in the world, and the trade turnover between the two countries is one of the most important. A remarkable feature of these trade flows over last decades is their imbalance. In 2017, the United States imported $526 billion worth of goods from China, while China’s imports from the United States amounted to $154 billion. Part of this imbalance is offset by trade in services, but it is not enough to even it out: in the same the year the United States delivered $57 billion worth of services to China while importing services of $17 billion from China.
Experts have different views on this imbalance. On the one hand, there is a perception that it is a source of world economy vulnerability, a source of potential crisis. Therefore, it is necessary to reduce the trade deficit. Another point of view is that this imbalance merely reflects the fact that the US economy and its assets are very attractive to investors from all over the world, including Chinese – and that, in turn, requires that the surplus of capital flows biased to US side, was compensated by the corresponding deficit of trade in goods and services. One such investor is the Chinese state itself, which for many years has been pursuing a policy of exchange rate undervaluation in order to promote foreign trade. It led to an enormous accumulation of foreign exchange reserves and as of January 2018, China held $1.17 trillion of US bonds and was the largest creditor of US government.
US President Donald Trump referred to this trade imbalance as one of the reasons for the outbreak of this trade war against China. Trump aims at reducing the deficit by $100 billion from the current $375 billion. The unilateral increase in import tariffs applied to Chinese goods was the first action of the US administration in this direction.
The second, no less important, formal reason for the trade war is the inadequate protection of intellectual property rights in China. China’s production of counterfeit products, the lack of adequate practices and laws to protect foreign technologies from illegal dissemination in the country, is not news to anyone. And although the almost two decades since China’s WTO accession have meant a largely modernized legal framework in this regard, a number of important provisions are still inconsistent with international practices, and the implementation of existing intellectual property rights leaves much to be desired. Established in 2012, The Commission on the Theft of American Intellectual Property identifies China as the most malicious violator of US rights. The exact damage is not known, but the commission assessment of the losses to the American economy due to the forced transfer of technology to Chinese partners – which is an unspoken condition of foreign manufacturers access to the Chinese market – industrial espionage, contradictions in legislation, requirements for the storage of sensitive data in China are in the range from $225 to $600 billion per year (Office of US Trade Representative, 2018).
While both the trade deficit and the intellectual property rights issue were recognized for many years, it was in 2018 that Trump started acting on them. Therefore, in order to discuss the potential impact of the conflict between the world’s largest economies on themselves and other economies, such as Russia, it is important to understand what drives the actions undertaken by Trump’s administration.
Trump won the elections in 2016 with a minimum margin against the Democratic rival. To provide support for his decisions and to increase the chances of being reelected for the next term in 2020, it is crucial to maximize the pool of his supporters. Trade policy measures aimed at import substitution are very effective populist policies in any country. One of the first steps made by the US toward trade war was the increase in import tariffs on steel and aluminum – for all countries. Metallurgy and coal industries are among the most organized and strong lobbyists in any country. The European Union as an economic organization started with the European Coal and Steel Association. By aligning interests with these sectors much can be achieved in relation to trade liberalization, and vice versa – by increasing the level of protectionism, a significant popularity increase can be among voters whose incomes depend on the success of companies in these industries.
China works hard raising the technological level of its economy. In recent years the Chinese government and Communist party launched a number of ambitious programs aimed at achieving a technological breakthrough, lessening the dependence on imported technologies by substituting them with ones produced by domestic innovation centers. These programs specify the priority sectors, in which state subsidies are provided for the acquisition of foreign technologies by Chinese companies and their adaptation. One of the common arguments was that the United States believes that powerful state support for technology sectors in China, along with the existing problems in protecting intellectual property rights, increases the risks and potential losses of American companies.
However, while these concerns seem reasonable at first, they should not be taken at the face value.
China’s ability to push out American companies in the high-tech sector on the world market seems rather limited. So far, China has only succeeded in increasing its share in the middle and low technology segments. Instead, in recent years, China is rapidly increasing its defense spending, which in 2017, for the first time, reached a level of 1 trillion yuan (about $150 billion). China’s defense spending is the second highest in the world after the United States. Moreover, it’s growing very fast. While in 2005 the Chinese nominal defense expenses were only 10% of American expenses, in 2018 they are already around 40%. The dominance of state enterprises in the defense industry in China implies that the real purchasing value of these expenditures is quite comparable. New and existing Chinese industrial policy programs target military and dual-use industries among others. Therefore whilst addressing the intellectual property rights problem in China now, Trump’s administration also aims at preserving US leadership position in the military sector, which finds widespread support in Trump’s main voter groups among Republicans.
Historically, trade wars implied tariff escalations to protect domestic industries from foreign competition. Today, the Trump administration behaves in a similar manner. However, the circumstances now are fundamentally different from those in the first half of 20th century and earlier. Firms not only trade in final goods, but more and more they trade in intermediate products and within firms themselves (Baldwin, 2012). The distribution of the production process to many companies across different countries of the world leads to two important effects, which were not observed in previous trade wars.
First, it is the effect of the escalation of tariff protection in the framework of the value chains. The import tariff is applied to the gross value of the product crossing the customs border. However, the exporting firm’s contribution to the gross value might be quite small. So the effective level of the tariff will be higher than the nominal level of the tariff, known as a so called amplification effect (World Bank, 2017, page 98). It means that the effective growth of the tariff by 25 percentage points in relation to Chinese imports will significantly exceed 25 % and in some cases can even become prohibitive. So, the tariff warfare will result in significantly greater losses for the sectors involved in the value chains, compared to the sectors less exposed to them. It means that foreign investors and multinational companies in China will suffer bigger losses compared to purely domestic Chinese companies. The Peterson Institute for International Economics made an assessment and confirmed these observations (Lovely and Yang, 2018).
Second, China’s participation in international multinational companies most often occurs in the assembly segments, while developed countries’ companies contribute at other stages, such as with innovation, design, financial and consulting services, marketing, and after-sales services. Then, the protectionist measures against goods produced in China by multinational companies will hit an American economy, generating losses in the service segments. A similar episode happened, for example, in 2006, when the European Union introduced anti-dumping duties on imported footwear from China and Vietnam, which in turn lead to a decline in the services sector in Europe – imported footwear contained a significant share of the value added created by European designers and distributors (World Bank, 2017). Obviously, we will observe the same consequences in the United States now, since the role of the American services sector in creating and promoting Chinese goods on the American market is significant and according to World Bank estimates in 2011, the contribution of value added generated by foreign services in China’s gross exports amounted to about 15% (World Bank, 2017).
Thus, not only the economy of China, but also the US economy itself will suffer from the growth of import tariffs in the USA. The USA is not an exception here – the governments of most countries continue to live in the paradigm of trade policy, which suits the structure of the world trade as at the beginning of the 20th century, while trade has gone far ahead and requires much more elaborate effective regulatory tools than tariffs on imported goods.
Consequences for Russia
The consequences of the US trade war with China for the Russian economy depend on what the main goals of the war are. If the motive is primarily electoral – to secure enough support in 2020, one can expect that the protective measures will be short-lived, and the geographical distribution of investment flows will remain almost intact and that China will remain an important location for global value chains transactions. The trade war will in this case lead to some economic slowdown in the short term. The main effects will be related to the redistribution of income within economies, where protected sectors will benefit on the expense of all other sectors. In these circumstances, Russia would suffer direct losses from the growth of tariffs on their exports to US (now it is predominantly steel and aluminum), but for the economy as a whole, the losses will not be significant, especially relative to the losses Russia bears because of sanctions.
However, if the main reason for the trade war has a long-term perspective, the investors will be forced to adjust the geography of their investment plans and China will face a significant outflow of foreign investments, which will significantly affect Chinese – and global – economic growth. In this case, both for Russia and for the whole world, the indirect effect of the US-Chinese trade conflict will be quite noticeable and it will take years to create new trade links and restore world trade and global value chains.
- Baldwin, Richard, 2012. “Global supply chains: why they emerged, why they matter, and where they are going”, CTEI Working papers 2012-13, The Graduate Institute, Geneve
- Lovely, Mary E., and Liang Yang, 2018. “Revised Tariffs Against China Hit Chinese Non-Supply Chains Even Harder.” PIIE Policy brief, Peterson Institute
- Office of the US Trade Representative. March 22, 2018. “Executive office of the President findings of the investigation into China’s acts, policies, and practices related to technology transfer, intellectual property, and innovation under section 301 of the trade act of 1974.” https://ustr.gov/sites/default/files/Section%20301%20FINAL.PDF
- World Bank, 2017. “Measuring and analyzing the impact of GVCs on economic development”. World Bank, Washington DC.
A longer version of this brief has been published in Russian by Republic: https://republic.ru/posts/92217
Disclaimer: Opinions expressed in policy briefs and other publications are those of the authors; they do not necessarily reflect those of the FREE Network and its research institutes.
Eighteen years after the start of the accession process, Russia is closer than ever to joining the World Trade Organization (WTO). The negotiations have been long and hard as Russia had to agree the accession terms with 57 out of the 153 WTO member countries which formed the working group. Moreover, the number of goods for which the extent and timeframe of the change of Russian tariffs were agreed exceeded 10,000. The negotiation team led by Maxim Medvedkov has done an immense amount of work and found compromises on sensitive issues such as pay for the flights of foreign planes over Siberia, compensating European producers for the discriminatory law on industrial assembly, the amount of support for the agricultural sector, access to the market of banking services, etc. Now, all these differences have been ironed out and the WTO has agreed with all the participants, and put on the table the final terms of Russia’s accession.
Terms of Accession
It has to be noted that the change of tariffs after Russia’s accession to the WTO will be insignificant. Average tariffs on goods after all the agreements have come into force will decrease to 7.8% from 10% in 2011.
The tariffs on agricultural goods will drop to 10.8% compared with the current level of 13.2%, and for manufactured goods from 9.5% to 7.3%. The duties on some goods will, however, drop significantly. For example, the tariff on new cars will be cut by half from 30% today to 15%. On the other hand, one has to bear in mind that the agreed decrease of all tariffs will not happen overnight after the Russian accession. It will rather take place gradually at a rate which has also been agreed on with the WTO members. The tariff for new cars will drop to 25% immediately after accession and will remain at that level for the next three years before the cuts resume at an annual rate of 2.5% over the following four years to reach the targeted level of 15%. Russia has no commitments to reduce tariffs any further. The tariffs on used cars up to 7 years old will be fixed at 25% at accession and will not change over the next five years before being cut to 20% over the following two years. Duties on cars older than 7 years will not change at all. On the whole, tariffs will be changed completely immediately upon accession only on one-third of the goods. For many goods the process will extend over three years, and for some over 8 years after accession.
Not only trade in goods, but also service and foreign direct investment spheres will be liberalized. One of the most difficult negotiation items was the banking sector, where some WTO member countries (notably the USA) demanded a total opening up of the Russian market of banking services to foreign financial and lending institutions. Moscow, for its part, insisted on preserving the current situation where only the subsidiaries and not branches of foreign banks operate in the Russian market. The difference between the former and the latter is that the activities of subsidiaries on Russian territory are regulated by the Russian Central Bank, while branches are regulated by the laws of the country of origin. The Russian position prevailed, which means that the situation for foreign banks will not change and the cost of entering the Russian market will remain at the current level. Accordingly, the cost of banking services for Russian clients will not change. This is not good news for Russian small and medium-sized enterprises which had hoped that a massive entry of foreign banks could help bring down the interest rates on loans.
Major changes may take place in the insurance market when Russia allows branches of foreign insurance companies. However, a nine-year transitional period appears to be enough for all the stakeholders to prepare themselves.
Assessment of the Consequences of Russia’s Accession to the WTO for the Economy
The question that is uppermost in the minds of all Russians is whether the economy stands to gain or lose as a result of WTO accession. On the one hand, opponents of accession point to the not very successful experience of accession to the WTO of some former Soviet republics. These opponents paint lurid pictures of the social consequences of the closure of a large number of Russian enterprises. By contrast, the advocates of accession cite the success of China whose export-led growth accelerated significantly after the country joined the WTO. Time will tell what the results of a WTO accession will be for Russia. The result will in many ways depend on well-thought-out and coordinated actions of the Russian federal and regional authorities. In the meantime, we can only talk about what we expect from accession and what its potential consequences may be. The Russian government and the World Bank have conducted several major studies, seeking to determine the economic consequences of a WTO accession. While there are some discrepancies in evaluating the quantitative changes in specific sectors and at the economy-wide level, researchers more or less agree in qualitative terms. The general consensus is that the changes in outputs, consumption, prices and welfare due to the new tariff agreements are likely to be fairly small. Because the overall reduction of import tariffs in Russia will be insignificant, one may expect that changes in specific sectors, too, will not be dramatic (within plus-minus 1-3% of the base level).
CEFIR jointly with the Belgian TML Centre and the German ZEW with the support of the European Union Seventh Framework Programme, recently build a general equilibrium model of the Russian economy SUST-RUS (CEFIR 2011) which makes it possible to assess the effect of a Russian WTO accession on specific sectors. Several scenario calculations have been made to model the short term (one or two years after the reduction of all the tariffs) and long-term (five or six years after the reduction of all the tariffs) effects of a Russian WTO accession. The results of the scenario modeling should be seen as an indication of the direction of market processes caused solely by a WTO accession without taking into account any other possible changes in the economic environment (for example, a change of energy prices, the strengthening or weakening of the ruble against the leading world currencies, changes in the domestic market, etc.).
The short-term scenario assumes only a change of the tariff timetable. The long-term scenario has a further assumption concerning the return on foreign direct investments for the business service sector. Business services include banking insurance, financial services, transport services, wholesale trade, etc. Some terms of Russia’s WTO accession pertain to the business service sphere and envisage considerable liberalization of foreign companies’ access to these sectors. One can expect that lower barriers to entry would push down prices in these sectors and make them more accessible for Russian enterprises, which in turn would reduce their costs, boost production and create more jobs. The general equilibrium modeling of this mechanism assumes a conservative reduction of barriers for foreign investments of about 10% of the current level.
According to CEFIR’s results, the potential growth of welfare in the economy caused by a WTO accession in the short term will be 0.4% per year, and in the long term 1% per year. Budget revenues will fall due to diminished tariffs, and there may be a dip in the rate of GDP growth in the short term. Model calculations show a significant change of the trade balance, possibly a reduction of the trade surplus to 10%. At the sectorial level, a WTO accession will reduce domestic prices of timber and articles made from wood, foodstuffs, transport means, as well as equipment, clothes, chemicals and petrochemical products by 1.5-2.5% in the short term and by up to 3% in the long term. This will increase consumption by between 0.2% and 0.4% in the short term and up to 1.5% in the long term. It has to be noted that the liberalization of the service sphere is a very important assumption of these calculations as it accounts for half of the long-term gains for consumers.
The World Bank has also carried out a study of the consequences of a Russian accession to the WTO in 2004 (Jensen et al, 2004). That study put the net positive gain from liberalization of tariffs at 3.4% of the GDP. That analysis was based above all on the economic effect from a change in import tariffs. Trade liberalization is historically associated with lower tariffs. Most sectors stand to gain from accession. Because the authors identify two main causes of the gains from liberalization – easier access to foreign markets and cheapening of the ruble in proportion to the change of tariffs – the sectors that will benefit are those which has a high share of exports, and which have not been heavily protected by tariffs to begin with.
The biggest beneficiary will be metallurgy, with a 25% increase in output and employment in ferrous metallurgy and 15% in non-ferrous metallurgy. The growth in the chemical and petrochemical industries can be up to 10% and in coal mining up to 6%. The significant gains predicted by the World Bank study owe something to the optimistic view of the possible terms of Russia’s accession to the WTO. For example, it assumed that all the import tariffs would be cut by 50% and all (100%) of the administrative barriers to investment in business services would be removed. More modest assessments of the potential gains for Russia in other studies reflect the smaller Russian commitments to liberalization of import tariffs and the services sphere. For example, CEFIR’s results show that steel-making enterprises will not experience difficulties after a WTO accession and may grow by about 2% in the long term.
Along with the cut of import duties, Russian producers will face tougher competition on the part of foreign goods for which prices will be cut. Accordingly, Russian producers will also have to cut their prices to be competitive. This is good news for consumers. Not all domestic producers will be able to cut their prices. The enterprises whose production costs turn out to be higher than the new prices, and which fail to cut their costs, will be pushed out of the market. The sectors where one can expect a drop in production are above all those which have long been protected against international competition by high import duties. CEFIR’s study has shown that in the short term, negative consequences may ensue for the food industry, pharmaceutical companies and textile enterprises which may see their output drop by between 0.5% and 2%.
According to the World Bank study, the biggest decline in output and employment may occur in the machine-building sector (12%) and in the food and light industries as well as in the construction-material industry (up to 7%). The above figures of decrease or increase refer to the summary effect from liberalization accumulated over a period of 7-10 years after a Russian accession to the WTO. Several studies have been devoted to the consequences of a WTO accession for regional economies. For example, World Bank experts (Rutherford and Tarr, 2006) point to positive, but uneven consequences of a WTO accession for Russian regions. The biggest beneficiaries from lower tariffs are likely to be the Tyumen region, the North Western District as a whole, and in particular, St. Petersburg, where welfare may increase by 1%. Low growth or no growth may be expected in the Central District and in the Urals. These results tally with the assessments of the consequences of WTO accession for the Russian regions made by the Independent Social Policy Institute (ISPI 2004) which also included some regions of the Volga Federal District among the high-risk regions.
Results of studies of changes in the labor market in the wake of WTO accession, generally accord with the other findings. The International Labor Organization (ILO 2003) predicts an average loss of 6000 jobs in industry in the year following accession and up to 1000 jobs in seven or eight years’ time. The biggest number of jobs will be lost in the light-industry sector (up to 15,000 during the transitional period). Such a drop in employment will hardly make any difference to the unemployment situation in the country as whole, but may differ from one region to another.
Most studies agree that Russia may gain from easier access for Russian enterprises to foreign markets after a WTO accession, but that the gain will not be great compared to the potential gain from the liberalization of the service sphere. There are not many export-oriented enterprises in the country, but they exist. There are about 6,000 export-oriented enterprises in the processing industry. These enterprises include chemical, metallurgical and high-tech enterprises, and are the most efficient and competitive producers in the country. These enterprises may be expected to pick up the slack in the labor market due to redundancies in sectors that will be affected by a WTO accession. The coordinating role of the state is very important in creating conditions for movement of labor. The gradual reduction of tariffs may dampen the social consequences of Russia’s WTO accession. In the regions where some production facilities are “doomed”, programs for retraining of labor must be launched without delay, especially in information technologies, and the services and skills required for starting a new business. The aim of such retraining should be to enable those who lose their jobs to be employed in other spheres of the economy. It is equally important to develop new forms of financing migration of the population within the country. The solution of this task may become one more – and very important – result of the WTO accession for Russia.
- CEFIR. 2011. SUST-RUS project. www.sust-rus.org
- ILO. 2003. “Social consequences of Russia accession to WTO.” Moscow office of ILO (in Russian)
- ISPI. 2004. “Russia’s accession to WTO: real and imaginary social consequences.” (In Russian)
- Jensen, Rutherford, Tarr. 2004. “Economy-Wide and Sector Effects of Russia’s Accession to the WTO.” World Bank
- Rutherford, Tarr. 2006. “Regional Impacts of Russia’s Accession to the WTO.” The World Bank