What Can We Learn about U.S.-China Trade Disputes from China’s Past Trade Retaliations?

Minghao Li, Wendong Zhang, Chad E. Hart
March 2018  [18-PB 22]

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Suggested citation:

Li, M., W. Zhang, and C.E. Hart. 2018. "What Can We Learn about U.S.-China Trade Disputes from China’s Past Trade Retaliations?" Policy brief 18-PB 22. Center for Agricultural and Rural Development, Iowa State University.

Executive Summary

With the United States exporting over $24.1 billion worth of agricultural and related products to China every year, it is difficult to overestimate the importance of the trade relationship. This is why the trade issues that are currently brewing between the United States and China are making stakeholders in the U.S. agricultural industry nervous, fearing that agricultural products will be the target for China’s retaliatory measures. Just last week, China announced that it may enact 15% tariff on ethanol and 25% tariff on pork products in response to the U.S. steel and aluminum tariffs. In this article, we hope to shed light on some key guiding principles of China’s potential actions in the future by analyzing previous agricultural trade retaliations involving the United States and other countries. We argue that China’s previous choices of retaliation targets follow three principles: targeting products that are proportional in trade value, targeting products that are substitutable, and targeting products that inflict economic and political cost. Since the U.S. steel and aluminum tariffs only affects about $3 billion-worth Chinese exports and U.S. soybean exports exceeds $12 billion, soybeans is not part of China’s response this round because of the proportional retaliation principle. However, U.S. soybean exports, despite its critical significance to China and difficulties to substitute or displace, might be brought into the trade drama if the new proposed tariff on $50 billion Chinese goods are enacted.