According to a Wall Street Journal news report this weekend, China is considering an escalation in its trade conflict with the United States that could cause real problems for the American economy: restricting its “sales of materials, equipment and other parts key to U.S. manufacturers’ supply chain.”
There’s no significant statistical evidence that the U.S. tariffs imposed on Chinese-made steel under the Obama administration have harmed domestic American manufacturing, and as I’ve shown in several posts (e.g., here, here, and here) as of now, there’s no such evidence either that the Trump administration’s more sweeping, worldwide tariffs on aluminum as well as steel have inflicted any harm on those American industries that are significant users of these metals.
But Chinese limits on exports of the parts and components that go into a wide variety of goods manufactured in the United States could produce a very different story. The U.S. government hasn’t officially tracked this development. Indeed, the share of various American manufacturing markets captured by imports from anywhere, or the global total, hasn’t been monitored since 1995, when the Commerce Department’s annual U.S. Industrial Outlook report was discontinued.
So for more than twenty years, there’s been none of the kind of government-generated information that President Trump and his aides can consult in order to assess the possible damage to domestic industry. This information vacuum – which of course predates the current administration – speaks volumes about how cavalierly Washington has taken the responsibility of safeguarding crucial American economic interests against predatory foreign competition
Yet unofficial data is available, in the form of China import penetration rates for dozens of advanced manufacturing sectors that I calculated for several years through 2011. (Here’s the latest.) I haven’t published any follow-ups since 2013’s edition (which presented the 2011 data – the latest then available) because each year, more and more of the raw output or trade figures I needed to perform the calculations seemed unreliable. Specifically, they would produce results that were mathematically impossible (e.g., imports accounting for more than 100 percent of the entire U.S. market for various sectors, or results that exhibited wildly excessive swings year-to-year).
The 2011 results, however, are worrisome because they revealed that products from China had grabbed noteworthy shares of American markets for large numbers of high value industrial parts and components, as well as industrial machinery categories (including much of the equipment used by U.S. industry to produce a wide range of intermediate and final goods). Further, in many instances, Chinese market shares had increased at jaw-dropping rates.
Even more important, in the seven intervening years, most of these Chinese import penetration rates have surely risen to greater heights still.
China’s capture of these markets and the leverage it undoubtedly creates reflects one of the most crucial failures of America’s trade policies in recent decades. The very magnitude of China’s success might prevent Beijing from pulling the trigger on the proposal reported by The Journal – i.e., that the domestic U.S. industry has simply become too big a market for China to exit. Satisfactory substitutes from other countries, or from domestic sources, might also be available. But it’s also possible that in many key manufacturing sectors, Beijing has the U.S. economy over a barrel.
What is certain is that knowledge is power, and that if the United States doesn’t study more carefully its vulnerabilities to foreign retaliation to more assertive trade policies such as the Trump administration seems determined to pursue, its chances of prevailing in the ensuring showdowns won’t look promising. And voters’ ability to judge campaign promises to this effect will be almost nil.