With the Trump administration locked in an escalating trade war with China, much of the media focus is on the immediate impact of decisions by leaders on both sides to impose sharp tariffs on goods flowing between the two countries. But while consumers and exporters in both countries will suffer in the near-term, an even more disruptive possibility looms in the long term: a “decoupling” of two massive economic systems that have become deeply interdependent over the past several decades.
At the root of the dispute is a U.S. effort to force China to bring its trade policies in line with other major industrialized countries.
Specifically, the U.S. wants to see China stop subsidizing domestic firms to help them compete on the world stage, eliminate the widespread theft of intellectual property by Chinese businesses, and open its markets to foreign competition.
The U.S. is also putting pressure on specific Chinese telecommunications firms, out of concern that they could be used by the Chinese government to spy on global rivals.
In recent days, the two countries have both ratcheted up economic pressures. As negotiations over a major trade deal stalled last week, President Trump announced that he would direct his administration to hike tariffs to 25% on Chinese goods that accounted for $200 billion in imports last year.
He indicated that he would eventually move to place that same levy on all $540 billion of annual Chinese imports. The Chinese government retaliated Monday with the imposition of tariffs on $60 billion worth of U.S. goods that flow into its country, and indicated that it will take more drastic steps if necessary.
While many experts believe that the two countries will strike a deal before the new tariffs really start to bite, there is increasing concern that strife between the world’s two largest economic powers could persist, forcing a disruptive overhaul of global supply chains that would echo around the world.
In fact, there is evidence that companies are already taking the first steps in a significant reorientation of global supply chains.
According to Paul Triolo, practice head for Geo-Technology at the Eurasia Group, there already has been a significant amount of decoupling by companies in the information and communications technology industries, as well as furniture, apparel, and agricultural products.
“US technology companies are already withholding new investment in manufacturing facilities based in China, and shifting parts of supply chains as feasible to southeast Asia and beyond,” he said in an interview. “There is a spectrum of potential options here, and so far most of the ‘easy’ stuff has been moved. The equation becomes much more complicated for things like advanced electronics.”
Understanding why this would be so disruptive requires digging below the surface of most discussions of US-China trade.
Political rhetoric about trade, much of it originating in President Trump’s Twitter feed, tends to oversimplify — and frequently misrepresent — the reality of global trade flows. The exchange of goods between the two countries is portrayed as a zero-sum game, in which U.S. consumers face a simple choice between buying widgets manufactured in China and buying competing products manufactured in the U.S.
Bilateral trade, intermediate goods
The truth is far more complex. Combined exports and imports between the two countries totaled $650 billion in 2018, according to U.S. government figures. Goods moving from China to the U.S. make up just under two-thirds of that total, and they are not limited to the cheap clothes and toys that made up a large portion of Chinese exports a generation ago. Smartphones, appliances, computers and other goods travel in a constant stream across the Pacific to U.S. markets.
Importantly, though, those finished goods often contain key elements, like microchips, that were originally manufactured in the U.S. and exported to China. These “intermediate goods” represent a huge market for U.S. technology firms.
Similarly, intermediate goods made in China find their way into finished products that bear the “Made in the U.S.A.” stamp. As a whole, intermediate goods make up between 60% and 65% of all global trade flows, which further illustrates the complexity of worldwide supply chains.
Restructuring supply chains
These complex manufacturing relationships have grown up over decades, and are very much baked into the way companies in both countries do business. Now, as the trade war escalates, they are facing the real possibility that ongoing conflict between Washington and Beijing could require companies to restructure global supply chains in a way that will provide more certainty and stability in the future.
But doing so would be a long and difficult process, experts warn.
“These value chains, or supply networks are both highly specialized and quite idiosyncratic,” said Scott Miller, a senior adviser to the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Abshire-Inamori Leadership Academy said in an interview. “Company A and Company B might be in the same business, but the way they organize their supply network could be quite different.”
“The idea of ‘decoupling,’ well, if you’re in a business that requires assembly at scale, you’re going to find it hard replacing China,” Miller said. “It can be done, but it’s real work.” The problem is even worse if a company has developed a network of qualified suppliers in China. Replacing them is not like flipping a switch, he said. “It takes time, energy and capital to develop suppliers,” Miller said.
Should it come to that, economists warn, the effects on both countries, at both the macro- and microeconomic levels, could be immense.
Cost of tariffs
Within the U.S. alone, the potential damage from the proposed tariffs would be huge, warned Ian Shepherdson, chief economist at Pantheon Macroeconomics.
Writing in a note to investors on Wednesday, he said, “The hit from 25% tariffs on all imports would be at least 0.6% of GDP, and probably much more as companies would have to rebuild entire supply chains. The hit to earnings growth would be of the order of 10%.”
It is also apparent that many of the supposed benefits of decoupling won't necessarily accrue to the United States. President Trump has suggested that his trade policies will bring manufacturing jobs back to the U.S., but by all indications, the manufacturers who are already starting to move away from China are relocating to other low-wage countries, like Vietnam and Mexico.
As grim as some of these predictions are, there is a school of thought in which the divisions between the U.S. and China, and their global impacts, become much, much worse.
In an appearance on the television program Face the Nation on Sunday, former U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson warned that if China and the U.S. successfully isolate themselves from one another — particularly in the realm of technology — the result could be a bifurcated global system that will devastate economic relationships.
“The real risk is that both countries through their actions will throw up or create an economic iron wall which means we'll be decoupling global supply chains, right?” said Paulson, who also served as CEO of the investment bank Goldman Sachs.
“We'll be having two systems with incompatible standards and rules," he added. "And so as I look at it the defining strength of America is innovation and we need to protect our technology, need to protect our innovation. But if we close ourselves off from other, you know, other innovative economies and entrepreneurs, we jeopardize our leadership position in the world and we're much less attractive as a destination for foreign investment.”
Triolo, of the Eurasia Group, gave voice to a concern that fewer commentators are willing to discuss out loud, but which must lurk in the back of many business leaders’ minds.
“Many companies are now for the first time factoring in the potential for the trade and tech conflict to morph into a real shooting conflict, either by accident or miscalculation or deliberately,” he said. “The potential for actual conflict has now gone way up for the period 3-5 years out, and this has to be taken into account when multinationals are looking at global supply chain risk.
“The best case scenario, a trade truce with China making some limited concessions, will not necessarily improve this dynamic,” he said. “U.S. focus on the nature of China’s political system, the control of the Party over information, [Chinese President] Xi’s unwillingness to cede more state control of the economy, etc. are all contributing to the ‘clash of civilizations’ meme which is gaining traction among the extreme factions on each side, diminishing the room for rebuilding trust, which is now arguably at an all time low.”