Workers stand at the port of Qingdao, Shandong province, China. June 10, 2019.

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Five years into the trade war, China continues its slow decoupling from US exports

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Photo Credit: REUTERS/Stringer

Nia Kitchin, Melina Kolb, and Oliver Ward assisted with graphics.

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The war of words between the United States and China has escalated this year, especially since the Chinese spy balloon episode that forced Secretary of State Antony Blinken to cancel a much-anticipated trip to Beijing in February. But the US-China trading relationship was recently reported to have hit “record levels” in 2022, suggesting that the supposed economic “decoupling” of the world’s two biggest economies has not yet arrived.

That widely reported data point was misleading, however. US exports to China, which cratered during President Donald Trump’s trade war of 2018–19, are continuing to suffer. China is now shifting some purchases of foreign goods away from the United States. Both have the same fear: that the other side will suddenly weaponize trade flows—cut off imports or exports—in the name of security. Trying to get ahead of that, each is now attempting to diversify.

China’s turn away from US exports began alongside its imposition of tariffs in response to Trump’s trade confrontation, starting in 2018. Trump and President Xi Jinping announced a truce in January 2020, at which point China pledged to increase its imports from the United States by $200 billion over two years. For varied reasons, China did not come close to meeting its pledged target. US exports to China barely reached pre-trade war levels even by 2021.

Newly released data from 2022 show that US exports are falling farther and farther behind foreign peers also selling into the Chinese market. Once major US manufacturing exports—like automobiles and Boeing jets—have all but disappeared. Semiconductor sector sales tailed off in 2022 and also may not return, due to new US export control policy. US services exports plunged during the pandemic and have not yet come back.

Even where US exports appear to be doing alright—US farm sales to China in 2022 hit record highs—worrying signs have emerged. Much of the agriculture gains were not the result of increased shipments but simply higher prices and concerns over global food insecurity associated with the Russia-Ukraine war. Furthermore, Chinese buyers are diversifying toward other suppliers, while the US agricultural sector remains highly dependent on the Chinese market for its exports.

While there were challenges, of course, China-US trade was also once mutually dependent and beneficial. The real news is that US exports to China are one more channel through which the bilateral relationship continues to deteriorate.

US exports of goods and services to China lagged in 2022

The US-China trade war of 2018–19 devastated US exports to China (figure 1). US exports fell for a number of reasons. One was China’s imposition of retaliatory tariffs in response to President Trump putting duties on over $300 billion of Chinese exports. A second was decreasing American competitiveness associated with higher input costs due to Trump’s tariffs, which especially targeted parts and components needed by businesses.

FIGURE 1. US EXPORTS TO CHINA CONTINUE TO STRUGGLE

In January 2020, President Trump signed his famed “phase one” agreement with China that called a truce to the trade war but that left almost all of the two sides’ tariffs in place. One part of that agreement committed China to purchase an additional $200 billion of US goods and services—over 2017 baseline levels—in prescribed amounts over 2020–21. In the end, China bought none of the extra $200 billion of US exports in Trump's trade deal.

In 2022, US exports to China improved only slightly. They were technically the “largest ever recorded”—because they were bigger than pre-trade war levels of 2017 (figure 1) and had grown modestly from 2021.[1] But that is an empty statement. Even if export volumes are unchanged from year to year, with even a tiny amount of inflation, the nominal value of exports would reach new heights every year.

A more useful comparison is to examine US exports to China relative to their projected levels had they grown at the same rate as China’s imports from the world each year over 2018–22.[2] This compares actual US exports to the performance of international peers exporting into China—not only during the period of the trade war but also alongside the extraordinary nature of the COVID-19 pandemic shock (and China’s zero-COVID restrictions), which had a sharply negative impact on Chinese economic growth as well as import demand over 2020–22. (China’s GDP growth was only 2.2 percent in 2020, 8.4 percent in 2021, and only 3.0 percent in 2022.) This comparison also takes inflation into account.

US exports to China in 2022 are now 23 percent lower than that trend. That comparison reveals a potential second problem—the gap may be widening over time. US exports were underperforming by only 16 percent in 2020—the first year of the phase one agreement—but that has gotten worse as the gap expanded to 22 percent in 2021.

Note one final comparison—the exports that President Trump promised China would buy under his phase one agreement: Even though the purchase commitments expired at the end of 2021, US exports to China in 2022 reached only 58 percent of the second year’s (2021) commitments—only a slight improvement over the 2021 US export performance of 57 percent.

There is no sign that US exports of manufactured products will go back to their pre-trade war trajectory

US exports to China of manufactured goods not only failed to recover after the trade war, but they now show signs of getting worse (figure 2). This is important, because prior to the trade war, manufacturing was 44 percent of total US goods and services exports to China—the largest component of pre-trade war commerce.[3] By 2022, that had fallen to 41 percent.

FIGURE 2. US EXPORTS TO CHINA OF MANUFACTURED PRODUCTS HAVE GOTTEN WORSE

In 2022, US sales of manufacturing goods to China dropped by 3 percent from 2021 and are now, once again, below pre-trade war levels. (Admittedly, China’s manufactured goods imports from the world also fell by 8 percent in 2022.) US exports to China in 2022 of manufactured goods were thus 23 percent lower than the projected growth at the same rate as Chinese imports of those products from the world.

The semiconductor industry was a big source of declining US exports of manufactured goods in 2022 (figure 2, panel b). Both semiconductors and semiconductor manufacturing equipment had been one of the few bright spots for manufacturing over 2020–21, even exceeding expectations under the phase one agreement. There were a number of reasons. First was the high demand for electronics driven by COVID-19 and the shift toward remote work, school, and leisure environments. In 2022, global demand for semiconductor-using products like PCs and smartphones contracted from those pandemic highs. Another was the fear of US export controls on semiconductors and equipment kicking in, which contributed to hoarding behavior over 2020–21. Note that US semiconductor and semiconductor equipment sales to China may continue to decline, given the severe new US export controls announced in October 2022.

US exports of COVID-19 related medical supplies also declined by 40 percent in 2022. This sector had higher than expected sales in recent years, in part due to demand increases stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Autos and aircraft are additional sectors showing little signs of recovery in 2022, even from their low base. These were the two largest manufacturing export sectors prior to the trade war. When confronted with the costs associated with tariffs in 2018, automakers like Tesla moved their production out of the United States in order to maintain access to Chinese consumers. US auto exports to China have never recovered.

Following two crashes of Boeing’s 737 MAX model, US exports of aircraft to China plummeted in 2019. They too have not yet come back. (In January 2023, Chinese airlines began flying their 737 MAX aircraft again.) While Chinese state-owned airlines have historically divided their aircraft purchases between Boeing and Europe’s Airbus, China announced roughly $40 billion of combined Airbus jet purchases in July and September 2022. Boeing’s announcements have been more limited, stating last year, "geopolitical differences continue to constrain US aircraft exports." China even sanctioned an executive at Boeing’s defense division in September over arms sales to Taiwan. Out of dependency concerns, China may be especially hesitant to buy Boeing products, after observing how Western countries imposed sanctions on exports of aircraft parts and services to Russian commercial airline fleets, following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

US energy exports to China plunged, as trade routes realigned with Russia’s war on Ukraine

The value of US energy exports to China dropped 13 percent in 2022 from peak levels in 2021, despite skyrocketing world energy prices (figure 3). While US exports to China had not reached their purchase commitments in 2020–21 under the phase one agreement, they had expanded considerably from pre-trade war levels. The 2022 decline reflects, in part, the two countries’ reorientation in energy trade flows in response to the Russia-Ukraine war.

FIGURE 3. US EXPORTS TO CHINA OF ENERGY PRODUCTS REVERSED IN 2022

In 2022, western European countries faced shortages stemming from the combination of Russia’s weaponizing its energy supplies—restricting natural gas pipeline sales to Europe as punishment for its support of Ukraine—as well as Western restrictions on imports of Russian coal and oil as part of sanctions packages. In parallel, the United States increasingly shifted its export capacity to supplying its allies in Europe instead of China. US export volumes of crude oil, coal, and liquefied natural gas (LNG) to the European Union and the United Kingdom combined increased by 46, 64, and 145 percent, respectively, from a year earlier. US export volumes to China of crude oil, coal, and LNG to China in 2022 declined by 13, 77, and 77 percent, respectively (see appendix table).

Thus, the value of US exports of LNG and coal to China fell sharply (figure 3, panel b), with exports of crude oil up only slightly, despite much higher prices for all three commodities (appendix table). In 2022, China shifted its energy sourcing toward Russia—which had export capacity freed up, due to reduced sales to the European market—as well as countries like Malaysia (oil), Qatar (LNG), and Mongolia (coal). In 2022, China also mined 11 percent more coal than the year before, its largest annual increase since 2005.

US services exports to China continue to underperform

US exports of services to China fell dramatically in 2020–21, largely due to the pandemic, and continued to struggle in 2022 (figure 4). Travel made up more than half of US services exports to China in the years before 2019. In 2020–21, both tourism and business travel fell to less than 10 percent of 2019 levels, as China remained largely closed off from the world. US exports of educational services—Chinese students studying at American colleges and universities—also fell in 2020–21. US exports of financial services and charges for intellectual property were lower than 2019 levels as well, despite being two areas addressed by the legal commitments in other parts of the phase one agreement, and thus where export growth was expected.

FIGURE 4. PANDEMIC-BATTERED US EXPORTS OF SERVICES TO CHINA HAVE NOT RECOVERED

Overall, US services exports to China in 2022 were only 7 percent higher than 2021. They remain 25 percent below 2017 levels and even 24 percent below projected levels had US exports merely kept up with Chinese services imports from the world over 2018–22. (The details of which US export service sectors were behind the poor performance in 2022 will not be known until a data release from the Bureau of Economic Analysis in July 2023.)

The value of agricultural exports boomed, driven by commodity price inflation

The silver lining of US exports to China in 2022 continued to be agriculture. Driven by higher global prices due to multiple factors, including Russia’s war on Ukraine, US farm exports to China were 16 percent higher than 2021 (figure 5).

FIGURE 5. US AGRICULTURE EXPORTS TO CHINA WERE A LONE BRIGHTSPOT IN 2022

US exports of soybeans—the most economically significant agricultural products traded between the two countries—increased by 27 percent (figure 5, panel b), as prices increased by 14 percent and volumes by 11 percent (appendix table).[4] The US Department of Agriculture attributes the higher global soybean prices to a drought in South America (where Argentina and Brazil are other major soybean suppliers), export bans for related products (e.g., palm oil in Indonesia), as well as the war in Ukraine. US exports of cotton were similarly higher, with higher prices and volumes in 2022. In part, this may be due to the Chinese textile sector’s desire to source cotton from abroad, in order to comply with US bans of products using cotton sourced from Xinjiang. China also reportedly replenished state cotton reserves.

Despite declining export volumes, higher prices also resulted in increased values of US exports of corn in 2022. The value of US sorghum exports was basically flat.

Not all agricultural products performed well in 2022. US pork exports fell 42 percent as Chinese domestic production recovered from the African swine fever that had devastated domestic pig herds. (China further reduced imports by increasing its pork import tariff.) US exports of wheat also declined sharply in 2022, despite higher prices, and products like lobsters as well as hides and skins also failed to rebound from poor export performances during the trade war.

The dependencies of US farmers and Chinese consumers may be diverging

With worsening diplomatic relations between the United States and China, each side increasingly appears keen on reducing its economic dependency on the other. For US exports, most of that reduction has seemingly already materialized. The United States has lost the ability to export aircraft and autos, and some of its own policy decisions (e.g., export controls) are limiting sales of products like high-end semiconductor manufacturing equipment. US energy sales are being re-routed to Europe, and China is sourcing from Russia. And services trade requires considerable human-to-human interaction made increasingly difficult by political tensions.

That leaves agriculture, where evidence of a divergence between US and Chinese outcomes is emerging. American farmers have become even more dependent on the Chinese market for their export sales over time (figure 6). (The exception was the devastating 2018–19 trade war, where China targeted soybeans and other agriculture products with retaliatory import tariffs, and US farmers had to be bailed out with tens of billions of dollars in federal subsidies.)

In 2022, over 19 percent of total US farm exports to the world went to China, up from 14 percent in 2017 and 13 percent in 2009. For soybeans—the most important export crop to China in value terms[5]—that dependence has moderated but remains high. While over 50 percent of total soybean exports went to China in 2021–22, before the trade war, that figure was higher than 60 percent in some years.

FIGURE 6. CHINA IS BECOMING LESS DEPENDENT ON AMERICAN FARMERS, AS US DEPENDENCE ON CHINA REMAINS HIGH

At the same time, Chinese buyers may be becoming less reliant on the United States. The share of total Chinese imports of farm products from the United States was only 18 percent in 2021–22—down from 22 percent in 2016 and 26 percent as recently as 2012. For soybeans, imports from the United States were only 31 to 32 percent of total imports in 2021–22; before the trade war, this share was often over 40 percent. China has been trying to reduce its dependence on soybeans imported from all sources. At year-end 2021, China’s Ministry of Agriculture defined expanded domestic soybean production as a major political goal of 2022 in pursuit of “food security.” (Of course, in the face of increased climate-related shocks—e.g., severe storms, floods, droughts—increased geographic concentration of sourcing could make China less secure.)

Policymakers should interpret the evidence with caution

Despite “record-high” levels of trade, closer inspection of the US export data shows additional evidence of China decoupling from the United States. While this is only half of the trade relationship, recent US imports from China tell a similar story. Through trade, the two economies are becoming less directly interdependent.

The full policy implications of this are mixed. There may be some benefits to diversification for certain products where the geographic concentration of production or consumption is otherwise excessively high. Reducing direct dependence in those extreme cases may limit the ability of a country to restrict (weaponize) trade flows in the future to achieve some non-economic objective.

But there are also costs. First are the expenses to setting up new suppliers or finding new consumers. Second, shutting down bilateral engagement where it is not necessary to do so could reduce the ability to diversify away risk and end up increasing exposure to shocks at home or in third countries.

Finally, for commodities, the effect of reducing bilateral interdependence may be limited. If the United States and China remain open to trade with the rest of the world, shocks in one may still affect the other indirectly through price changes propagated through their trade with third countries.

The US-China trade relationship is certainly changing. The task for policymakers is to ensure that this change ends up being for the better.

Appendix Table. Annual changes in prices, volumes, and values of US exports to China in 2022, by commodity
  Price (unit value), percent Quantity, percent Value, percent
Energy products
LNG 59.2 -76.6 -62.8
Coal 48.7 -76.7 -65.3
Oil 32.4 -12.9 15.3
Refined products NA NA 13.4
Agricultural products
Soybeans 14.0 11.0 26.6
Cotton 29.1 69.0 118.2
Corn 20.7 -13.9 4.0
Sorghum 17.3 -12.3 2.9
Pork 17.5 -50.1 -41.4
Wheat 58.7 -67.4 -48.3
Lobster 28.4 -12.1 12.9
Raw hides and skins NA NA -14.3
Other agriculture NA NA 8.2
NA = not available
Source: United States International Trade Commission (USITC)

 

Appendix Figure. US exports to China of products not covered by the phase one agreement’s purchase commitments continue to suffer

 

Notes

1. To make comparisons with the phase one purchase commitments, this figure only reflects products covered by the phase one agreement. The purchase commitments did not cover 27 percent of US exports to China in 2017. Including uncovered products in figure 1 does not change the qualitative nature of any of the key comparisons. See appendix figure for US exports to China of uncovered products.

2. This is not China’s imports from the rest of the world. That would artificially inflate numbers in 2018–19 due to trade diversion—i.e., China’s tariffs on imports from the US shifting some purchases toward imports from the rest of the world.

3. This reflects manufactured products covered by the purchase commitments in the phase one agreement relative to all goods and services covered by the purchase commitments.

4. Chinese customs data reports China’s imports of US soybeans increased 13 percent by value and decreased 8 percent by volume in 2022.

5. In 2022, soybeans were 46 percent of total US farm exports to China (as measured by products covered by the purchase commitments in the phase one agreement).

Data Disclosure

The data underlying this analysis can be downloaded here [zip].

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