trade balance

Is it time for a new approach to bilateral trade with China?

Press accounts last week reviewed new record merchandise trade surpluses for China with the world and a growing trade surplus with the United States despite the Section 301 tariffs and other actions which reduced the bilateral trade deficit in 2019 and 2020 from the figures in 2018. See Reuters, China posts record trade surplus in Dec and 2021 on robust exports, January 14, 2022, (“The trade surplus hit $676.43 billion in 2021, the highest since records started in 1950, up from $523.99 billion in 2020, according to data from the statistics bureau.” “China’s hefty trade surplus with the United States, a key source of contention between the world’s two biggest economies, hit $39.23 billion in December, widening from $36.95 billion the month before, but below this year’s high of $42 billion in September.”). While U.S. trade data are not yet available for December, the U.S. bilateral trade deficit with China for eleven months of 2021 was $319.151 billion, suggesting full year deficit with China of more than $358 billion — reversing the declining deficits of the last several years with China.

For the U.S., 2021 will be the first year where the trade deficit in goods exceeds $1 trillion dollars. So while the U.S. has significant deficits with a number of countries, for the Biden Administration and Congress, the most concerning aspect of the deficit is the effect of distortions flowing from China’s economic system, one that is at odds with the U.S. market-based system and not consistent with WTO basic principles.

I have in prior posts reviewed the incompatability of the Chinese economic system with WTO norms. I have also provided the views of a former WTO Deputy Director-General on the importance of convergence of economic systems as opposed to coexistence, and the views of trade officials in the U.S. and EU on challenges posed by Chna’s economic system. See, e.g., December 11, 2021:  20 Years of China’s Membership in the WTO — a brief critique,; October 16, 2021:  What role China could play in WTO reform — possibilities are real but chances of a positive role are not,; April 8, 2021:  USTR 2021 National Trade Estimate Report on Foreign Trade Barriers — areas of concern with a focus on China,; March 31, 2021:  “Blowing up the trading system” — Clyde Prestowitz’s suggested way for the world to move forward in light of China’s economic system,; March 29, 2021:  China and the WTO – remarks by Dennis C. Shea to the Coalition for a Prosperous America,; January 17, 2021, USTR on January 14, 2021 released its 2020 report to Congress on China’s WTO compliance,; November 10, 2020:  The values of the WTO – do Members and the final Director-General candidates endorse all of them?,; August 24, 2020:  USTR Lighthizer’s Op Ed in the Wall Street Journal – How to Set World Trade Straight,; July 25, 2020:  A new WTO without China?  The July 20, 2020 Les Echos opinion piece by Mogens Peter Carl, a former EC Director General for Trade and then Environment,

As has been reviewed in annual USTR reviews of China’s compliance with WTO commitments, the challenges faced by China’s trading partners are many and largely unaddressed despite efforts through dispute settlement, through bilateral negotiations and otherwise. The U.S.-China Phase 1 Agreement resulted in minimal affirmative movement in U.S. exports to China and there are open issues in terms of China’s implementation and enforcement of other commitments. See, e.g., Peterson Institute for International Economics, December 23, 2021, US-China phase one tracker: China’s purchases of US goods, As of November 2021, While there were increases in U.S. exports to China over 2017 levels in 2020 and 2021 for agriculture, manufactured goods and energy, there were large declines for non-covered goods, so that there was relatively little actual overall progress on merchandise trade and large declines in services trade. See, e.g., USITC data web, U.S. total exports to China (2017, $130.0 BN; 2018, $120.2 BN; 2019, $106.4 BN; 2020, $124.5 BN; 2021 (11 mos.) $137.7 BN); U.S. Census Bureau and the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, MONTHLY U.S. INTERNATIONAL TRADE IN GOODS AND SERVICES, NOVEMBER 2021, January 6, 2022, (Exhibit 20b).


Obviously for nations facing the challenges of dealing with the distortions flowing from China’s economic system, one can attempt to work through the WTO and seek reforms that will address at least some of the major distortions. The U.S., EU, Japan and others are attempting that in the areas of industrial subsidies, state owned and controlled entities and other areas. The prognosis for movement is limited in the near term and even in the middle or long-term as long as China is committed to maintaining its system. Plurilateral negotiations on Joint Statement Initiatives also offer some hope for certain areas, assuming China is a participant and actually implements obligations undertaken.

Plurilateral trade agreements, such as CPTPP, could be another option. China has applied and would have to undertake some significant reforms to enter. The real question would be whether those changes would change the underlying disconnect between the state system pursued by China and market disciplines followed by many others.

Others have argued for major countries withdrawing from the WTO and setting up a system where China is either not a member or must become a market economy in fact to participate. Arguably if the EU and US were to join the CPTPP and seek further modifications, and if China’s application were not accepted until China’s system were significantly modified, this would be an option. A suggestion from the former EC Trade Commissioner is for the EU and U.S. to join the CPTPP. See PIIE’s Cecilia Malmstrom, The EU should use its trade power strategically, January 4, 2022, (“The European Union should also seek to enter the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) and convince the United States to do the same. The European Union already has agreements with most members of the CPTPP, but an FTA would signal the European Union’s readiness to strengthen global trading rules with its partners.”).

The United States has pursued a strategy of strengthening various tools to address discrete issues with China and working with China to have them honor their existing WTO and bilateral agreements. Presumably that approach will continue to be pursued, but the downside of such an approach without more is the long time delay to meaningful change which means ongoing harm to the U.S. industrial base, workers and communities.

Warren Buffett in 2003 and again in 2016 advocated for a system of issuing import certificates to exporters equal to the value of the exports which certificates could be sold, etc. and which would result in a trade balance in goods. See, e.g., Fortune, Warren Buffett: Here’s How I Would Solve the Trade Problem,
April 29, 2016, ttps:// His idea was to address the trade deficit overall and not focus on trading partners whose economic systems don’t mesh with the U.S. model. But an approach vis-a-vis selected countries pending the necessary economic reforms would be a narrower option and more focused on the underlying concern.

Last month in the Harvard Business Review, an article by Thomas Hout argued for a cap and trade system with China. See Harvard Business Review, Thomas Hout, A New Approach to Rebalancing the U.S-China
Trade Deficit, December 20, 2021, The cap and trade approach is similar to Warren Buffett’s idea but limited to trade with China, as the author notes.

“Such a cap-and-trade system for imports from China would be much like the one for greenhouse gas emissions in various parts of the world. The beauty of this system is its insulation from political favoritism and bureaucracy: Market forces would determine who buys licenses and what gets imported. The cap’s level can be managed relative to a target such as GDP or the size of the trade deficit.” The author suggests flexibility in its implementation to limit any disruptions to U.S. businesses.


The Biden Administration has put its initial efforts into addressing domestic competitive needs such as the infrastructure legislation and the Build Back Better bill. At the same time, the Administration has been reviewing how the U.S. should be dealing with China across a broad array of issues including trade.

A multifaceted approach will certainly be needed. While the U.S. has pursued various multifaceted approaches in the past, China’s decision not to abandon state direction and control requires a recognition that global trade principles alone will not ensure fair trade conditions for U.S. companies either in the U.S., in China or in third countries.

In such a situation, considering a cap and trade system for trade with China and encouraging our major market-based trading partners to do the same would seem an important tool for achieving greater sustainability in our trade relationship with China.