U.S.-China Phase I Deal is Failing Expanded U.S. Exports Even Before Recent Efforts by China to Limit Certain U.S. Agriculture Exports as Retaliation for U.S. Position on Hong Kong

The U.S.-China Phase I trade agreement went into effect in mid-February just as the COVID-19 pandemic was rapidly spreading globally.  In the United States, the U.S. Trade Representative and U.S. Secretary of Agriculture have released a series of statements indicating that China has been making a number of the substantive changes that were contained in the agreement, with the U.S. being pleased with the progress.  See, e.g. https://ustr.gov/about-us/policy-offices/press-office/press-releases/2020/may/usda-and-ustr-announce-continued-progress-implementation-us-china-phase-one-agreement

The COVID-19 pandemic has seriously reduced economic activity in the United States and in many other countries.  Despite such reduced economic activity in recent months, the U.S. Administration has remained optimistic about China’s meeting the agreement’s terms and the agreement being “a success,” including the significant increase in exports to China from the United States over two years (2020-2021).  https://ustr.gov/about-us/policy-offices/press-office/press-releases/2020/may/usda-and-ustr-announce-continued-progress-implementation-us-china-phase-one-agreement.  An important measure of the success will be the extent to which there are significant increases in U.S. exports.

As reviewed in a recent post, the United States has announced it will be terminating special status of Hong Kong in light of Chinese security actions taken vis-a-vis Hong Kong.  U.S. Withdrawal from the World Health Organization and Decision to Revoke Preferential Treatment for Hong Kong – Reduced Cooperation as COVID-19 Pandemic Rages On, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2020/05/30/u-s-withdrawal-from-the-world-health-organization-and-decision-to-revoke-preferential-treatment-for-hong-kong-reduced-cooperation-as-covid-19-pandemic-rages-on/.  U.S. action did not call for the termination of the US-China Phase I Agreement.  In recent days, the press have reported that China has ordered state-owned entities to stop purchasing from the United States various agriculture products, including soybeans, pork, corn and cotton.  https://thehill.com/policy/finance/trade/500464-china-halts-state-purchases-of-us-soybeans-pork-report.  There have been some statements in the U.S. press suggesting that China continues to buy U.S. agricultural products including soybeans despite the earlier reports to the contrary.  See, e.g.,   https://insidetrade.com/trade/grassley-confident-china-will-meet-phase-one-commitments.

With April 2020 U.S. export data now available, what is clear is that China is far behind in meeting the levels of purchases from the United States in a wide range of goods categories to meet the first year growth over 2017 on goods of $63.9 billion.  Total U.S. domestic exports to China in 2017 were $119.910 billion.  The $63.9 billion increase of U.S. exports of goods were on a subset of total U.S. goods exports, just $66.381 billion.  Thus, the rate of increase in the first twelve months under the agreement is expected to be 96.26% on the categories contained in Annex 6.1 to the Agreement.  There are specific commitments with regard to certain manufactured goods (increase of $32.9 billion over 2017 levels), agriculture (increase of $12.5 billion over 2017 levels) and energy (increase of $18.5 billion over 2017 levels).  While there are no specific commitments on other products the U.S. exports to China, the rate of increase as measured against all U.S. domestic exports to China in 2017 would be 53.29% if all other products were at the same level as in 2017.

Unfortunately, looking just at March and April 2020 (the first two full months after the agreement took effect for which U.S. export data are available), U.S. domestic exports of the products contained in Annex 6.1 to the agreement declined by 4.04% from the March-April 2017 period.  All other U.S. domestic exports of goods to China declined 39.35% in March-April 2020 compared to the same period in 2017.  In total U.S. domestic exports to China of all products declined by 20.24% in March-April 2020 compared to the same months in 2017.  Thus, the early months of the first year of the Phase I Agreement are moving in the wrong direction in terms of U.S. exports.  While challenges in China and in the United States from the pandemic have undoubtedly dampened both demand in China and ability to ship from the U.S. for some products, that situation has changed in May and will presumably improve moving forward.

The above figures do not account for increased U.S. services exports to China contained in Annex 6.1 to the agreement (increase of $18.5 billion over 2017 levels).  Data for U.S. services exports for 2020 are not available by country at this point for January-April.  But overall U.S. services exports have been hard hit in the first four months of 2020 and this will include U.S. exports to China.  U.S. exports of services to the world were $169.482 billion in the January-April 2020 time frame, down from $193.010 billion in 2019, with March and April 2020 being more sharply contracted, $72.117 billion vs. $97.103 billion in 2019.  See https://www.census.gov/foreign-trade/Press-Release/current_press_release/ft900.pdf (page 16).

The table below shows the 18 categories of goods for which there are growth commitments in Annex 6.1 of the Agreement.  All figures are in U.S.$ billions.

Product CategoryMarch-April 2017March-April 2020Change
Manufactured goods
1. Industrial machinery$1.845$2.091+$0.246
2. Electrical Equipment
and machinery
3. Pharmaceutical
4. Aircraft (orders and
$0$0 $0
5. Vehicles$1.747$0.716-$1.031
6. Optical and medical
7. Iron and steel$0.232$0.081-$0.151
8. Other manufactured
Subtotal — MFG goods$7.099$7.046-$0.053
9. Oilseeds$0.747$0.230-$0.517
10. Meat$0.106$0.582+$0.476
11. Cereals$0.224$0.194-$0.030
12. Cotton$0.229$0.200-$0.029
13. Other agricultural
14. Seafood$0.231$0.152-$0.079
Subtotal – Agriculture$1.536$1.712+$0.175
15. Liquefied natural
16. Crude oil$0.658$0.210-$0.448
17. Refined products$0.334$0.193-$0.241
18. Coal$0.090$0.016-$0.074
Subtotal – Energy$1.096$0.581-$0.515
Total of 1.-18.$9.731$9.339-$0.392


The Trump Administration has had an aggressive program over the last several years to address perceived serious problems in our bilateral relationship with China. The Phase I Agreement was viewed as a down payment with the more challenging issues still on the table to be negotiated in a phase 2 agreement. There is no sign that Phase 2 negotiations have started. The history of U.S.-China consultations has been a great many promises of change by China and relatively little action by China to address U.S. concerns.

It is a positive that a number of the specific changes China has agreed to in the Phase I Agreement have been implemented to date. The U.S. has also made modifications it agreed to make in the Phase I Agreement. But the core issue for the Trump Administration is to see if its different approach to China can achieve meaningfully greater reciprocity in our trade relationship with China. That has been the justification for the large tariff increases on large parts of Chinese exports — getting long overdue changes to Chinese actions that harm American businesses and workers and obtain greater market access to the Chinese market.

Through April, U.S. trade data don’t show meaningful expansion of exports to China despite the commitments contained in Annex 6.1 to the Agreement. Indeed, U.S. exports are down sharply to China (U.S. imports from China are down sharply as well).

Despite the ongoing bilateral differences and actions causing a continuation of tensions between the two largest economies in the world, improving bilateral trade to a more reciprocal level would be in both countries’ interest. With China having recovered from COVID-19 constraints and with the U.S.having started its reopening process, the coming months will reveal whether the Agreement represents a further lost opportunity or a sea change in trade flows.

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