businesses are sure the tariffs will continue for many years, they will neither invest nor hire new workers to compete with China.
Assuming that well-informed Chinese businesses know this, they will not cut their export prices to absorb the cost of US tariffs. That will leave US importers to pay the tariffs and pass on the cost to US consumers (further fueling inflation) or to US shareholders through lower profits. Thus, the tariffs will not be “punitive” for China, as Trump seems to believe. Instead, the main effect will be to hurt US consumers and businesses, just like an increase in sales tax.
But let us concede that the tariffs may price some Chinese goods out of the US market. Where will the competitively priced imports that undercut China come from?
In most cases, the answer will be other emerging economies. Some low-end goods such as shoes and toys will be sourced from Vietnam or India. Final assembly of some electronic and industrial machinery may relocate to South Korea or Mexico. A few Japanese and European suppliers may displace high-end Chinese suppliers. Thus, to the very limited extent that tariffs do prove “punitive” for China, the effect on other emerging markets and the global economy will not be damaging “contagion” but a modest boost to demand that results from displacing Chinese exports to the US.
True, Chinese exporters may experience modest losses as other producers take advantage of the US tariffs to undercut them. But this should have no effect on Chinese growth, employment, or corporate profits if demand management is used to offset the loss of exports. The Chinese government has already started to boost domestic consumption and investment by easing monetary policy and cutting taxes.
But China’s stimulus measures have so far been cautious, as they should be considering the negligible impact that US tariffs have had on Chinese exports. If, however, evidence starts to emerge of export weakness, China can and should compensate with additional steps to boost domestic demand. In principle, China can avoid any damage at all from US tariffs simply by responding with a full-scale Keynesian stimulus. But would the Chinese government be willing do this?
This is where bipartisan US support for a “containment policy” toward China paradoxically works against Trump. China’s rulers have so far been reluctant to use overt demand stimulus as a weapon in the trade war because of strong commitments made by President Xi Jinping to limit the growth of China’s debt and to reform the banking sector.
But such financial policy arguments against Keynesian policy are surely irrelevant now that the US has presented the battle over Trump’s tariffs as the opening skirmish in a geopolitical Cold War. It is simply inconceivable that Xi would attach higher priority to credit management than to winning the tariff war and thereby demonstrating the futility of a US containment strategy against China.
This raises the question of how Trump will react when his tariffs start to hurt US businesses and voters, while China and the rest of the world shrug them off. The probable answer is that Trump will follow the precedent of his conflicts with North Korea, the European Union, and Mexico. He will “make a deal” that fails to achieve his stated objectives but allows him to boast of a “win” and justify the verbal belligerence that inspires his supporters.
Trump’s surprisingly successful rhetorical technique of “shout loudly and carry a white flag” helps to explain the consistent inconsistency of his foreign policy. The US-China trade war is likely to provide the next example.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2018.