U.S.-China economic ties have expanded substantially since China began reforming its economy and liberalizing its trade regime in the late 1970s. Total U.S.-China merchandise trade rose from $2 billion in 1979 (when China’s economic reforms began) to $636 billion in 2017. China is currently the United States’ largest merchandise trading partner, its third-largest export market, and its biggest source of imports. In 2015, sales by U.S. foreign affiliates in China totaled $482 billion. Many U.S. firms view participation in China’s market as critical to their global competitiveness. U.S. imports of lower-cost goods from China greatly benefit U.S. consumers. U.S. firms that use China as the final point of assembly for their products, or use Chinese-made inputs for production in the United States, are able to lower costs. China is also the largest foreign holder of U.S. Treasury securities (at $1.2 trillion as of April 2018). China’s purchases of U.S. debt securities help keep U.S. interest rates low.
Despite growing commercial ties, the bilateral economic relationship has become increasingly complex and often fraught with tension. From the U.S. perspective, many trade tensions stem from China’s incomplete transition to a free market economy. While China has significantly liberalized its economic and trade regimes over the past three decades, it continues to maintain (or has recently imposed) a number of state-directed policies that appear to distort trade and investment flows. Major areas of concern expressed by U.S. policymakers and stakeholders include China’s alleged widespread cyber economic espionage against U.S. firms; relatively ineffective record of enforcing intellectual property rights (IPR); discriminatory innovation policies; mixed record on implementing its World Trade Organization (WTO) obligations; extensive use of industrial policies (such as subsidies and trade and investment barriers) to promote and protect industries favored by the government; and interventionist policies to influence the value of its currency. Many U.S. policymakers argue that such policies adversely impact U.S. economic interests and have contributed to U.S. job losses in some sectors.
The Trump Administration has pledged to take a more aggressive stance to reduce U.S. bilateral trade deficits, enforce U.S. trade laws and agreements, and promote “free and fair trade,” including in regard to China. On March 8, 2018, President Trump announced a proclamation imposing additional tariffs on steel (25%) and aluminum (10%), based on Section 232 national security justifications (China is the world’s largest producer of both of these commodities). On April 1, China announced that it had retaliated against the U.S. action by raising tariffs (from 15% to 25%) on various U.S. products, which together totaled $3 billion in 2017. On March 22, President Trump announced that action would be taken against China under Section 301 over its IPR policies deemed harmful to U.S. stakeholders. In addition, he stated that he would seek commitments from China to reduce the bilateral trade imbalance and to achieve “reciprocity” on tariff levels. On June 15, the United States Trade Representative (USTR) announced a two-stage plan to impose 25% ad valorem tariffs on $50 billion worth of Chinese imports. Under the first stage, U.S. tariffs would be increased on $34 billion worth of Chinese products and effective July 6. For the second stage, the USTR proposed increasing tariffs on $16 billion worth of Chinese imports, mainly targeting China’s industrial policies. China released its own two-stage list of counter-retaliation of equal magnitude. President Trump then threatened 10% ad valorem tariffs on another $400 billion worth of Chinese products. On July 6, the Trump Administration implemented the first round of tariff increases and China retaliated in kind. These tit-for-tat actions threaten to sharply reduce U.S.-China commercial ties, disrupt global supply chains, raise import prices for U.S. consumers and importers of Chinese inputs, and diminish economic growth in the United States and abroad.