The U.S. and China: The great decoupling

| January 23, 2022 | 0 Comments
Trade and security tensions between China and the U.S. were exacerbated by former U.S. president Donald Trump, pictured here with Chinese President Xi Jinping, and they show few signs of abating under President Joe Biden. (Photo: White HouseI)

Trade and security tensions between China and the U.S. were exacerbated by former U.S. president Donald Trump, pictured here with Chinese President Xi Jinping, and they show few signs of abating under President Joe Biden. (Photo: White HouseI)

There are few signs that U.S.-China trade and security tensions are abating under the Biden administration, amid heightened fears that the COVID pandemic has exposed critical vulnerabilities in global supply chains and is contributing to rising inflation. There is also a lot of chatter in Western capitals about “decoupling” from China, particularly as political and diplomatic relations worsen over Hong Kong, Taiwan and China’s treatment of its Uyghur population. But such discussions about “decoupling” are not confined to the West. China, too, has its own decoupling narrative, which is being driven by President Xi Jinping, its powerful and authoritarian leader.
But what does “decoupling” actually mean? And is it feasible given the extraordinary and unprecedented levels of economic interdependence we see today in the global economy in the third decade of the 21st Century.

Definitional Quandaries
If you turn to the dictionary for an explanation, decoupling is defined as separating previously linked systems so that they can operate independently from one other. In the traditional study of economics, it means separating negative “externalities” such as pollution or other kinds of environmental “bads” from the production of economic goods and services, usually via the imposition of fines or some kind of taxation mechanism (carbon taxes, for example.)
In the context of U.S.-China relations today, decoupling has acquired a variety of different meanings, which are only tangentially related to the original dictionary definition. The term is sometimes used interchangeably with the concept of “reshoring” supply chains by, for example, relocating the production of essential products, such as medical equipment, to the United States (or Canada) where it is less vulnerable to supply disruptions. Decoupling is also used sometimes to refer to the need to curb imports, or exports, of high value from or to China. That would include technology-intensive goods such as microchips, computers, or airplane parts, which would decouple either for reasons of national security or in order to maintain a competitive economic edge.
Similarly, reducing dependence on Chinese suppliers of key strategic minerals, which are considered essential to manufacturing supply chains in areas such as telecommunications, defence procurement, aircraft manufacturing or energy production, represents another dimension to the current decoupling debate. Decoupling is also associated with measures to restrict Chinese foreign direct investment in the U.S., especially in key sectors considered to be of strategic importance, such as telecommunications, and to ban U.S. investors from buying or selling publicly traded securities issued by Chinese firms to reduce exposure to political and financial risk and, at the same time, thwart China’s rapid economic growth. Like Ambrose Bierce’s definition of a hydra as an animal the ancients classified under many different heads, “decoupling” means different things in different contexts.
There is less mystery about the policy tools associated with a decoupling strategy. They include that old favourite of protectionists — namely tariffs — which are taxes on imports that raise the price of goods while putting more money in the hands of governments (unlike quotas, where the exporting party gets to keep the “windfall” of higher prices from reduced supplies.) Other “decoupling” tools are export and import bans of specified products or services, foreign ownership restrictions and other kinds of investment regulations and restrictions, and economic sanctions involving punitive commercial and financial penalties directed at curbing trade and financial flows.

A 20-year trade spat

U.S.-China bilateral trade adjusted for misreporting

U.S.-China bilateral trade adjusted for misreporting

As such, decoupling measures have been part of the two-decades-long trade spat between the U.S. and China.
Early in this century, U.S. officials accused the Chinese of undervaluing the yuan against the U.S. dollar. They also complained the Chinese were using unfair trade practices to promote Chinese exports and limit imports, and were forcing Western firms to give up their technology and intellectual property in exchange for access to the Chinese market.
Trump banned Huawei and ZTE service
This trade dispute was also fuelled by growing public perceptions that globalization more generally was the leading cause of U.S. job losses, especially in the manufacturing sector, as well as stagnant, if not falling wages for U.S. workers and rising levels of U.S. public debt.
During the Obama administration, the U.S. launched a number of trade enforcement actions against China in the World Trade Organization (WTO) for its unfair subsidies in key sectors such as aluminum, winning some of those cases. It also levied anti-dumping and countervailing duty penalties against China, in key sectors such as steel, where dumping margins were sixfold for some products.
With the election of Donald Trump, whose campaign slogan was “Make America Great Again,” the rhetoric and scale of U.S. trade actions against China escalated dramatically.
The trade war began in earnest in July 2018 when the Trump administration slapped tariffs on $35 billion worth of Chinese imports into the United States. In September 2018, Trump imposed a new round of 10 per cent tariffs on $200 billion worth of Chinese imports. The Trump administration also authorized itself to block purchases of foreign telecommunications equipment on national security grounds and to prohibit the sale of “emerging and foundational technologies” deemed essential to the national security interests of U.S. Two major Chinese telecommunications giants — Huawei and ZTE — were also blacklisted and banned from providing equipment to the U.S. 5G network.
While holding talks with China on trade to lower tensions, the Biden administration has continued on the same path as the Trump administration by expanding Trump’s ban on American investment in Chinese firms, particularly those with ties to the defence and surveillance technology sectors, while keeping in place many of the tariffs on Chinese goods that were introduced by Trump (which cover roughly two thirds of Chinese imports), restricting inbound Chinese investment and curbing high-technology exports. The administration is also considering imposing tougher measures to restrict the sales of U.S.-produced advanced semiconductors to Chinese firms.

China’s new law
China, in turn, has pursued its own “decoupling” strategy to replace foreign with homegrown technology. Under Xi Jinping, the government has strengthened its control over Chinese private companies and foreign investment. It has also set clear targets to enhance domestic production of semiconductors, electric vehicle batteries and other key intermediate inputs. As the Washington-based Atlantic Council explains, China’s new path in economic policy-making “stands in marked contrast to the emphasis on market opening and engagement with the world that defined the first decades of the post-Mao period of modern China that started in 1978.” It goes on to say it involves “a new form of state capitalism, defined by a top-down approach to the economy, featuring government-directed and supported industrial policies with the goal of creating a far more self-sufficient country, and critically, one that continues to grow rapidly.”

U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping are shown here in 2015, when Biden was vice-president under Barack Obama. Tensions between the two countries rose during Donald Trump’s administration and continue under Biden. (Photo: U.S. Department of State)

U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping are shown here in 2015, when Biden was vice-president under Barack Obama. Tensions between the two countries rose during Donald Trump’s administration and continue under Biden. (Photo: U.S. Department of State)

Two new Chinese laws on data security and privacy, which require foreign companies to store all of their data locally while imposing tough new restrictions on data exports and protection, are key to China’s digital decoupling strategy and its government’s efforts to maintain tight control over information flows. As the Wall Street Journal reports, China’s new data-security law “has made it harder for foreign companies and investors to get information, including about supplies and financial statements. The diminishing access to information is making it even harder for foreigners to understand what’s happening in the country.”But there are also well-founded suspicions that this is just another ploy by Chinese authorities to pirate intellectual property and other sensitive proprietary information at the expense of Western firms.
On top of this, the COVID pandemic has reinforced existing pressures to decouple key sectors of the U.S. economy and restructure global supply chains. Unprecedented labour shortages caused by the pandemic have led to scarcities of key intermediate goods, further contributing to price inflation. This, too, is an important factor in political demands to reduce dependence on foreign suppliers, especially China, and “reshore” jobs back home.
Of course, we have seen this movie before. At the beginning of the last century, the world was heavily globalized as countries lowered trade barriers and the invention of the steamship and railroad facilitated export-led growth. (Britain’s repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846 initiated the movement towards free trade.) Prior to the First World War, Britain was Germany’s top trading partner, followed by Austria-Hungary, Russia and France. After the Great War, the world economy retreated into protectionism, culminating in the formation of trading blocs in the 1930s, led by the great imperial powers of the day — Japan, Germany and Great Britain — and the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act in the United States, which raised import duties to shield U.S. farmers and businesses. The use of tariffs increased steadily from the 1920s on, as did exchange controls, which were used by the Nazis to control and expand their trade in central Europe.

Costs of deglobalization

The U.S. Federal Reserve, whose headquarters is shown here, found that “the trade conflict had a much smaller impact on the U.S. bilateral trade balance than first meets the eye.” (Photo: AgnosticPreachersKid)

The U.S. Federal Reserve, whose headquarters is shown here, found that “the trade conflict had a much smaller impact on the U.S. bilateral trade balance than first meets the eye.” (Photo: AgnosticPreachersKid)

Similar protectionist and nationalist impulses are at play today, though. As Keith Johnson and Robbie Gramer point out in Foreign Policy magazine, “This time…decoupling is driven not by war, but by peacetime populist urges, exacerbated by a global coronavirus pandemic that has shaken decades of faith in the wisdom of international supply chains and the virtues of a global economy.”
However, despite the political rhetoric and public desire to do so, any significant decoupling of the world’s major economies may be hard to achieve, absent the disruptive effects of a major war among the world’s great powers à la 1914. The bonds of economic interdependence today are simply too strong to break, unless politicians and the public are prepared to accept major economic costs and the ensuing social misery that will surely come if the world deglobalizes.
Notwithstanding Trump’s trade wars and subsequent decoupling measures by the Trump and Biden administrations, China continues to be the beneficiary of large inflows of foreign capital. Foreign investment in China rose 4.5 per cent in 2019 to US $144.37 billion in 2020 — record levels despite the coronavirus. A study published by Washington’s Wilson Center reports that “the data reveal a pattern of churn rather than decoupling.” It finds that though some multinational corporations (MNCs) did exit from China at a higher rate during the Trump presidency, especially after new retaliatory tariffs were introduced, they were replaced by other multinationals: “the total number of MNCs increased from 257,404 to 308,569 in the Trump years and the number of registered U.S. MNCs held steady between 16,141 and 2017 to 16,536 in 2019.”
Another study by the Geopolitical Monitor shows that although “Trump-era tariffs made a dent in U.S. imports of Chinese goods,” there has been no corresponding increase in Chinese purchases of U.S. goods, which was also a goal of his administration. “U.S. exports to China continue to lag far behind the robust volumes of trade moving in the other direction.”
A similar conclusion is reached by the U.S. Federal Reserve which, after adjusting for evasion of U.S. Section 301 tariffs that distort the “officially” reported statistics, found that “the trade conflict had a much smaller impact on the U.S. bilateral trade balance than first meets the eye,” even though the trade deficit “had narrowed somewhat” as a result of these punitive measures. (

Hardest-hit industries
The simple truth is that any serious effort by the Biden administration to decouple U.S.-China trade and investment flows will be extremely costly, given the high levels of economic interdependence between the world’s two biggest economies. A 2021 U.S. Chamber of Commerce study concludes the following:
“In the trade channel, if 25 per cent tariffs were expanded to cover all two-way trade, the U.S. would forgo $190 billion in GDP annually by 2025. The stakes are even higher when accounting for how lost U.S. market access in China today creates revenue and job losses, lost economies of scale, smaller research and development (R&D) budgets and diminished competitiveness.
“In the investment channel, if decoupling leads to the sale of half of the U.S. foreign direct investment stock in China, U.S. investors would lose $25 billion per year in capital gains, and models point to one-time GDP losses of up to $500 billion. Reduced FDI from China to the U.S. would add to the costs and — by flowing elsewhere instead — likely benefit U.S. competitors.
“In people flows, the pandemic has demonstrated the economic impact from lost Chinese tourism and education spending. If future flows are reduced by half from their pre-COVID levels, the U.S. would lose between $15 billion and $30 billion per year in services trade exports.
“In idea flows, decoupling would undermine U.S. productivity and innovation, but quantification in this regard is difficult. U.S. business R&D at home to support operations in China would fall and companies from other countries would reduce R&D spending related to their China ambitions in the U.S. The longer-term implications could include supply chain diversion away from U.S. players, less attraction for venture capital investment in U.S. innovation, and global innovation competition as other nations try to fill the gap.”
Among the sectors hardest hit by punitive decoupling measures are the U.S. aircraft industry, which would lose major sales in China; the semiconductor industry, which would also lose sales as firms “de-Americanize” their operations; and the medical devices sector, for which recoupling and “reshoring” supply chains will invariably raise costs for American consumers and hurt U.S. firms selling medical equipment in China.
Of course, the vagaries of politics rarely follow the rational laws of economics. The British polyglot Norman Angell argued in his famous book, The Great Illusion (1910), that there was little to be gained through war, territorial conquest and protectionism when there were much greater benefits to be had from trade, open markets and peaceful relations. Angell predicted that major global conflict was a thing of the past in the march to greater economic prosperity. However, he was very much at odds with the political realities of the day and economic interdependence did not prevent the outbreak of the First World War. Let us hope that this time around, more than a century later, Angell is finally right. But even if he is, it is very much in the West’s interests not to compromise its own economic security or expose itself to an unnecessary degree to the predatory behaviour and practices of the Chinese state and its corporate affiliates.

Fen Osler Hampson is Chancellor’s Professor at Carleton University and co-author of Diplomacy and the Future of World Order.

Be Sociable, Share!

Tags: ,

Category: Diplomatica

About the Author ()

Fen Osler Hampson is Distinguished Fellow and Director of Global Security at the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) and Chancellor’s Professor at Carleton University.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *