For all the ‘decoupling’ rhetoric, U.S.-China trade is booming

BY NICHOLAS GORDON

For all the talk of deepening tensions between the United States and China, there is one area where relations appear to be ‘business-as-usual’: trade. Official Chinese data show that bilateral trade between the two countries surged in 2021, with China’s exports to and imports from the United States reaching $46.9 billion and $14.3 billion in June respectively.

“Trade wars between the U.S. and China have not really diverted trade towards other countries,” Keyu Jin, professor of economics at the London School of Economics and Political Science, said at a Fortune virtual conversation titled “Is Globalization Worth Saving?” on Wednesday. “The fact is, [foreign direct investment] flowed to China—even from the U.S. to China—at record levels last year.” 

It’s not just the United States. Other countries that have butted heads with Beijing have continued to trade with China with few disruptions. Professor Kishore Mahbubani, distinguished fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Asia Research Institute, said that “in the year 2000, Brazil took one year to export $1 billion to China. Today, it takes 72 hours.” Mahbubani argued that countries would likely ignore appeals to change trading relationships with the lucrative mainland market. “You cannot ask countries to commit suicide by cutting off their trade with China,” he said.

All panelists agreed that globalization had provided countless benefits to the world economy, but that the gains had been distributed unequally within countries. 

Anti-globalization sentiment often focuses on a lack of support for those who have been left behind, such as workers in Western industries disrupted by cheaper manufacturing elsewhere. “Globalization is both very efficient, and very painful,” for these groups, explained Pascal Lamy, president of the Paris Peace Forum and former director-general of the World Trade Organization. “We haven’t, at least in the West, properly adjusted our welfare system to the real forces of globalization, which are much more disruptive than they were in the past.”

Craig Burchell, senior vice president for global trade affairs at Huawei Technologies, agreed, saying that “there’s a justified feeling of inequality from many parts of the world where people feel that they’ve been left out from the benefits of globalization.”

Yet the people and countries that will bear the consequences of China’s continued economic development will change over time. It’s no longer “American steel workers or American furniture workers,” according to Jin. Instead, it’s industries higher up the value chain. “The new China is about making highly-competitive products that compete with mid-to-high technology products in Japan, Taiwan, Korea and Germany.”

Still, Mahbubani noted that the conversation about free trade and open markets shouldn’t forget those outside of the West who remain “enthusiastic about globalization.” He argued that the greatest proponents of a multilateral system are now in East Asia, since Western countries lost faith in the multilateral institutions they built.

However, China is making moves to protect itself in case rhetoric around decoupling is backed by action. Beijing has announced a dual circulation economic strategy that places greater emphasis on domestic consumption as a vehicle for economic development. As Jin explained, Chinese policymakers may “want to embrace globalization, but China will have to brace itself and prepare for being cut off.”

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