Trade Tensions Set to Continue in 2020

As the US faces off over trade with both China and the EU, expect another year of uncertainty.

Expert comment Published 14 January 2020 Updated 14 September 2022 3 minute READ
Unloading at a port in Zhangjiagang. Photo: Getty Images.

Unloading at a port in Zhangjiagang. Photo: Getty Images.

Global trade policy is not going back to the consensus that prevailed over the past few decades. Even if the growing cycle of tariffs and trade threats is tamed in 2020, the economic consensus that underpinned broad support for open trade is breaking down, and escalation in trade tensions is likely.

What next for the US and China?

The US and China are currently at the centre of these tensions. The equity and bond markets started 2020 off euphorically as news of a ‘phase one’ trade deal between the two dominated headlines. Such a deal involves the US reducing some previously imposed tariffs and tabling another round of threatened ones, while China agrees to buy more US goods, including agriculture. This represents a détente of sorts, but don’t expect it to last; trade between the two countries is not actually at the heart of their trade war.

The question instead is which country will have the biggest economy, based on excellence in industries such as artificial intelligence, machine learning and quantum computing. There is a national security component to this issue as well, given how much these high-tech industries feed into military and national security operations. This has increasingly become a concern for the United States as China has adopted a more aggressive regional stance, particularly in the South China Sea.

Tariffs have been used as a tool by both countries to try to prevent the other from dominating the global economy, and while they have dented both economies, they aren’t a particularly effective tool. In particular, tariffs do nothing to address US concerns about intellectual property rights in China, forced technology transfers and state subsidies for high tech industries. The phase one deal, therefore, is a superficial one that fails to get at the heart of the matter.

US–EU tensions

However, with a temporary US-China détente, the US may turn its attention to Europe. The EU and US are in the midst of negotiating a trade deal, but obstacles have been present from the start.

Last July, France adopted a 3% digital tax that applies to firms with global revenues over €750 million per annum generated from digital activities, of which €25 million are made in its territory. A US investigation determined that the digital tax discriminates against US companies such as Google, Amazon, Apple and Facebook, and so the US has threatened France with 100% tariffs on luxury exports, including wine.

The long-standing tensions between the US and EU over their aircraft manufacturing behemoths, Boeing and Airbus, make reaching a US–EU trade deal more complicated. They also risk undermining US–EU collaboration on some joint concerns regarding China’s trade policies and practices.

The United States recently threatened to increase its punitive measures against European goods as retaliation for Airbus subsidies. The World Trade Organization (WTO) gave the US the green light to impose tariffs of up to 100% on $7.5 billion of EU exports last October, but the US had limited them to 10% on aircraft and 25% on industrial and agricultural products. Now, the US is threatening to escalate.

Finally, the US has repeatedly threatened to impose tariffs on imported cars from the EU. This threat looms large for Germany in particular, which is a significant producer of automobiles and whose industry is still recovering from the diesel emissions scandal. Germany has for the past two decades been the powerhouse economy in the EU, but has more recently seen sclerotic growth.

US election implications

It is an election year in the United States, and while it is too early to call the election (or even guess who the Democratic candidate might be), the ballot could bring about change on trade. Protectionism has historically been more of a Democrat policy than a Republican one, so there won’t be a complete reversal of Trump’s trade policy if a Democrat were to win. But there might be some changes.

If a Democrat controlled the White House, the US would still want to pressure China, but it might adopt a more international approach in that effort. The US might also reverse the steel and aluminium tariffs that kicked off these heightened trade tensions.

Most importantly, the US might stop hindering the WTO by appointing judges to the appellate body (without which the WTO cannot address rulings that are being appealed) and would likely work with other countries to reform the WTO. The focus would shift from confrontation to negotiation. This, of course, depends on which Democrat is in the White House.

In the meantime, President Trump has a difficult balancing act. Being tough on China and bringing home American jobs were successful slogans in his first presidential bid. He will want to indicate he has delivered on both and will continue to do so. At the same time, tariffs have sparked dips in the markets that have caused the president to de-escalate trade tensions. As the 2020 election approaches, expect the administration to balance these two concerns.

Looking beyond the vote, there may be some changes to the US approach to trade over the next decade, depending on which party is in government. The most pernicious aspect of the trade tensions on the global economy has been the uncertainty they have caused; businesses have deferred and delayed investment as they wait to see what the new rules of the global order are. They know the old consensus on trade won’t come back, but don’t yet know what the new consensus is.

As long as the limbo persists, and it probably will for at least a few more years, trade issues will remain a risk for the global economy.

This article is the first in a series of publications and roundtable discussions, part of the Chatham House Global Trade Policy Forum.