The Positive Impact of US-China Trade War on Global South’s Position in the Global Value Chain



Alfin Febrian Basundoro, Muhammad Irsyad Abrar & Trystanto | Journal of World Trade Studies

Amid the US-China trade war, several US companies have relocated back to the US, while China turned its industry inward to become more self-sufficient. This unpleasant development created a risk for Global South’s position in the Global Value Chain (GVC), especially in countries with manufacturing industries that can only assemble products. However, throughout the last decade, the position of the Global South within the GVC has been strengthening. In 2016, the Global South produced more than 47% of global manufacturing exports. However, the US-China trade war has threatened the delicate process and connection of the GVC. The interference of American and Chinese governments in international trade has forced many companies in taking measures to reduce their exposure to political risk. Additionally, an increasing number of American companies are reconsidering their decision to invest in the Chinese market and diversifying their investment to the Global South. This paper argues that the trade war could provide opportunities for Global South countries, particularly Southeast and South Asian countries represented by India. These opportunities include broader employment access for the youth, robust industrial-based innovation, and rapid economic growth, leading to a higher national income and life quality improvements.


Since 2018, the United States and China have been embroiled in a trade war. The trade war stems from US President Donald Trump’s decision to impose tariffs on several products and commodities imported from China. In response to the policy, China also imposed tariffs on several products and commodities imported from the US. Research conducted by Chad P. Bown (2022) from the Peterson Institute forInternational Economics shows that as of July 2018, the average US tariff on imports from China was still 3.8%. However, tariffs on imports from China gradually increased until they peaked at 21% in September 2019 and then dropped to 19.3% in February 2020.

Meanwhile, on the Chinese side, in July 2018, the average tariff on imports from the US was at 7.8% and then gradually increased to 21.8% in September 2019. As of February 2020, Chinese tariffs on imports from the US decreased to 21.3% and reached a low of 21.2% on July 2020. Furthermore, based on the impact of tariffs on the percentage of trade, around 66.4% of US imports from China and 58.3% of Chinese imports from the US in June 2022 are still affected by tariffs set against each other.

There are efforts between the US and China to defuse the trade war through the Phase One agreement, which was agreed upon in December 2019. The two countries agreed on structural reforms to China’s economic and trade regime, particularly in intellectual property, technology transfer, agriculture, financial services, and currency and foreign exchange. In the deal, China also committed to increasing the imports of goods and services from the US. Furthermore, a dispute resolution system was established with immediate and effective implementation and enforcement. Finally, the US agreed to modify Section 301 of the Trade Act of 1974. Despite these efforts, as shown from the data in the previous paragraph, the tariffs that the US and China imposed on each other remained relatively high.

The US put several Chinese companies on the Entity List as the trade war escalated between the two countries. The US Bureau of Industry and Security (2022) reported on August 23rd, 2022, that about 600 Chinese companies were already included on the list, with 110 companies included during President Joe Biden’s tenure. In practice, companies on the Entity List will have restrictions on access to commodities, software, and technology from the US. However, US entities may export, re-export, and transfer such matters to companies on the Entity List with a license from the US Bureau of Industry and Security.

The conflict between the US and China is not limited to political economy issues but also security politics. China’s claim to much of the South China Sea, known as the nine-dashed line, is contrary to the principles of the US freedom of navigation. This situation leads to freedom of navigation operations (FONOPS) by the US Navy in those waters that China regards as part of its territories as opposed to its claims. The existence of Taiwan also creates issues between the two countries. Although since 1972, it has recognized the communists in Beijing as the sole representative of China, the US maintains its ties with nationalists in Taipei and ensures their independence from Beijing. China’s growing economic and military power over the past two decades allows the country to become increasingly assertive of Taiwan. This raises tensions with the US as Taiwan’s ally and security guarantor.

The conflict between the US and China prompted the two countries to reduce their dependence on each other. US manufacturing imports from China have decreased, while Asian countries categorized as low-cost countries, have increased. At the same time, the issue of reshoring US companies’ operations in China arose. A survey conducted by A.T. Kearney (2022) found that about 47% of executives of US manufacturing companies operating in China have moved part of their operations back to the US in the past three years. 29% said they would restore parts of their operations in the next three years, and 16%said they had considered reshoring but are yet to make a decision. In the survey, US company executives also outlined that their options also include Mexico, Canada, and Central American countries (nearshoring), not limited to reshoring to the US. This decision coincides with the trend of automation by US companies; instead of looking for cheap labor, they are replacing them with robots. The process creates challenges for countries that host part of US companies’ operations characterized by the labor-intensive and technology-laden process.

From the Chinese side, the disruption caused by the conflict with the US encourages them to become more economically self-sufficient. Such efforts to achieve self-sufficiency are made through the dual circulation model, which includes changing the growth model from export-based to domestic consumption and reducing dependence on imports. Concerning the second element, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit (2020), China focuses on three sectors. First, technology with a priority towards semiconductors. China provides fiscal incentives and subsidies, and encourages cooperation between industries and universities to reduce dependence on US semiconductor companies or companies from other countries that use US technology. China also provides fiscal incentives and subsidies, and encourages cooperation between industries and universities. The second sector is energy. China does not rely on the US or its allies for energy supplies, however, shipping oil and gas by sea is vulnerable to a blockade or interception. The threat of a blockade prompted China to increase its renewable energy sector investment. The third sector is food. China’s agricultural sector is labor-intensive, but they experience labor shortage and are dependent on imports of seed and technology. This limitation prompted a policy of agriculture modernization from labor-intensive to technology-intensive.

Alfin Febrian Basundorois a graduate student at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, Australian National University, Canberra, Australia.

Muhammad Irsyad Abraris a graduate student at the Department of International Relations, Universitas Gadjah Mada (UGM), Yogyakarta, Indonesia.

Trystantois an undergraduate student of international relations at Universitas Gadjah Mada (UGM), Yogyakarta, Indonesia.



To read the abstract as it was originally posted by the Journal of World Trade Studies, click here.

To read the full research article, click here.