The centerpiece of Trump’s trade deal with China ‘failed spectacularly’

February 9, 2021, 7:46 AM UTC

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The landmark trade deal that the U.S. and China signed last year was in large part “a failure,” and the disruptive economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic was only partially to blame, according to a new report from the Peterson Institute for International Economics (PIIE).

The U.S. and China signed the “phase one” trade agreement in January 2020, and its “centerpiece” was China’s pledge to purchase $200 billion more in U.S. goods and services in 2020 and 2021, according to the PIIE report.

By that measure, the deal flopped: The U.S. trade-deal–related exports to China last year fell more than 40% short of the target amount.

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“U.S. exports of phase one products to China in 2020 failed spectacularly,” the PIIE report said. Even without accounting for the COVID-19 pandemic’s hit to the global economy, “China was never on pace to meet that commitment.”

The U.S. exported more goods to China in 2020 than it had in 2019, but one reason for the increase was that in 2019 China exports were “extraordinarily low,” thanks to retaliatory trade war tariffs. The export target outlined in the phase one deal set 2017’s trade flows as the baseline for the proposed $200 billion increase.

U.S. exports to China missed the mark for a number of reasons. For instance, China’s crude oil exports reached only 45% of the trade deal commitment. That shortfall was likely the result of 2020’s unprecedentedly low oil prices and the U.S. oil industry’s inadequate production capacity. China’s imports of U.S.-made goods such as autos and trucks, agricultural goods, and coal and crude oil missed their targets too. But not every sector came up short: The pandemic pushed U.S. medical product sales to China to 111% of the trade deal goal.

Another reason Chinese imports didn’t reach the levels set out in the trade deal? Most of the high tariffs imposed during the trade war remained in place, as did the lower tariffs China implemented for other countries to make up for the U.S. tariff hikes.

China maintained its tariffs on American lobster after the trade deal and wound up importing 18% less lobster in 2020 than in 2017. Meanwhile, China’s lobster imports from Canada and other non-U.S. countries increased almost 250% in 2020 compared with 2017.

The economic slowdown caused by the coronavirus did play a part in the shortfall—in April 2020, China’s imports fell 14.2% year on year—but China’s economy recovered relatively quickly, with imports returning to pre-pandemic levels by June.

When the phase one agreement was signed, experts heralded it as the first big step in ending a two-year trade war between the world’s largest economies that had sown uncertainty in global markets, disrupted supply chains, and caused steep tariffs that upended century-old export industries and threatened livelihoods. Markets rallied after the deal was finalized; analysts told Fortune at the time that the deal was “a very good start” and “allow[ed] companies to breathe a sigh of relief.”

Parts of the phase one trade deal are worth preserving and enhancing, the PIIE report said, like China’s pledge to strengthen enforcement against intellectual property law violations and its vow to expand opportunities for foreign investment in markets like financial services.

In response to a question about the trade deal, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said on Jan. 29 that the Biden administration is reviewing “everything that the past administration has put in place,” without going into more detail about the current administration’s plans for the trade deal.

But the report encouraged the Biden administration to scrap the previous administration’s goal of reducing the bilateral trade deficit with China, which it said was the “heart of Trump’s phase one deal.” The report described that objective as “self-defeating from the start.”

“Trump’s approach of starting a trade war and then settling it with a demand for purchase commitments backfired,” the report said.

PIIE estimates that U.S. exports to China in 2020 would have been around 19% higher than the actual figure if the U.S.-China trade war had never taken place; the U.S. wouldn’t have seen the export losses it did, and U.S. taxpayers wouldn’t have had to fund tens of billions of dollars’ worth of farm subsidies.

“A handful of sectors and workers may have benefited [from the trade war], but the overall damage to the U.S. economy was inarguable,” the report said.

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