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Has Donald Trump really come away with important trade deals with China?

There was very little detail announced. A number of the deals are also non-binding, so could easily collapse. Some would probably have happened anyway

Ben Chu
Economics Editor
Thursday 09 November 2017 15:54
comments
Donald Trump says he doesn't blame China for 'taking advantage of America'

On Thursday Donald Trump and the Chinese President Xi Jinping announced $250bn in deals between the two countries.

The White House has been spinning it as part of the President’s “job-based diplomacy”.

The agreements spanned industries from energy, to technology, to aviation. But what is the substance of them?

There was very little detail announced. A number of them are non-binding, so could easily collapse. Some would probably have happened anyway.

Below we take a look at some of the announcements.

Energy

It was announced that China plans to invest $100bn in US energy projects.

This will include an $84m Chinese state investment in West Virginian shale gas and chemical manufacturing and $43m for Alaskan liquefied natural gas.

But the reality is that China has been eager to invest in Western energy for years. It was famously rebuffed by the US Congress when it attempted to buy a minor American oil company called Unocal way back in 2005.

The problem has been Western reticence to allow Beijing to do so. Trump is simply giving China what it has long wanted.

Aviation

The announced agreement by the Chinese state to buy $37bn of jets from Boeing is potentially more significant and fits with Trump’s big pledge to force other countries with trade surpluses with America to import more.

Yet it’s unclear how many of these plane orders are actually new.

Some have noted that back in 2015, when President Xi visited a Boeing factory in the US, a deal for a remarkably similar size purchase was announced.

Computer chips

It was announced that the US chipmaker Qualcomm has established a $12bn deal over three years to supply components to Chinese smartphone brands Xiaomi, Oppo and Vivo.

Yet the deal is non-binding. Moreover, Qualcomm already collects more than half of its global revenues in China, raising doubts about whether this is anything more than organic growth.

Soybeans

China pledged to import $5bn of soybeans from the US. This follows China’s dropping of a 14-year ban on US beef imports earlier this year. Both should in theory be a boost for American farmers.

Yet the soybean deal is non-binding. And China is already a massive customer of US soybeans.

In 2016 the US supplied 38.2 million tonnes, or 40 per cent of China’s imports of the vegetables.

With China’s consumption of soybeans projected to grow anyway, it is not particularly surprising it will be importing more from the US in the coming years.

What do these deals amount to?

The US Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, admitted to journalists in China that the deals were “pretty small” in the context of the US-China goods trade deficit, which was around $350bn in 2016.

There is nothing novel in all this posturing. It is commonplace for leaders from all countries to announce a shopping list of corporate deals at such meetings.

It happened when Xi Jinping came to the UK in 2015, when £30bn of deals were supposedly “unlocked”.

Some of it is new, a lot of it is re-announced. Some of it never happens.

But what’s notable is that Trump made such a noise about China’s supposed “rape” of the US through currency manipulation when he was campaigning to be President.

He once accused Beijing of perpetrating “the greatest theft in the history of the world”.

Now he is following the same script on commerce as all his predecessors.

And analysts have noted he extracted no commitments from his Chinese hosts to increase domestic market access to US services firms, which now make up the bulk of the American economy.

In a sign of how the Trumpian rhetoric has softened, he even declared on the trip: “I don't blame China. After all, who can blame a country for being able to take advantage of another country for the sake of its citizens? I give China great credit.”

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