U.S.-China Phase 1 Agreement — What to Look for When the Agreement is Released on January 15, 2020 after the signing



Terence P. Stewart | Current Thoughts on Trade

The U.S. Administration has indicated that the Phase One trade deal with China is “historic and enforceable”. President Trump tweeted on New Year’s Eve that the agreement would be signed by him and the Chinese at the White House on January 15. The Chinese have reportedly modified their travel schedule to accommodate the President’s desired signing date although the Chinese delegation will be headed by Vice-Premier Liu He, not President Xi Jinping.  See South China Morning Post, 5 January, 2020, Trade war: China to travel to US on January 13 to sign phase one deal.

According to a fact sheet released by USTR on December 13, 2019, the Phase One agreement has at least seven chapters dealing with (1) intellectual property, (2) technology transfer, (3) agriculture, (4) financial services, (5) currency, (6) expanding trade and (7) dispute resolution. The fact sheet is attached below.

The agreement between the U.S. and China is reportedly 86 pages in length. This compares to the draft agreement that was being circulated in mid-2019 that was 150 pages before major revisions were made by China reducing the text to 105 pages and which led to increased tariffs being imposed by the United States and additional retaliation by China. Important issues remain for phase two including cybersecurity issues, China 2025 related issues on state owned or invested enterprises, state subsidization and other matters.

I.  Chapters on Intellectual Property, Technology Transfer, Agriculture, Financial Services and Currency

Because the first five topics have been the subject of bilateral discussions and dispute settlement between the countries for years, the value of the chapters will depend both on the specificity of the obligations identified, the extent to which such obligations go to the provinces and local governments as well as the central government of China and, most importantly the nature and automaticity of the dispute settlement provisions that apply to the obligations undertaken. As reviewed in many USTR reports, China has a long history of making commitments in these areas which have not been implemented or only partially implemented.  See, e.g., USTR, 2019 National Trade Estimate Report on Foreign Trade Barriers, pages 97-117, [“2019 NTE Report], https://ustr.gov/sites/default/files/2019_National_Trade_Estimate_Report.pdf

II. Chapter on Expanding Trade

The expanding trade chapter as the Fact Sheet indicates “includes commitments from China to import various U.S. goods and services over the next two years in a total amount that exceeds China’s annual level of imports for those goods and services in 2017 by no less than $200 billion.” USTR’s 2019 NTE Report indicated that U.S. exports of goods to China were $129.9 billion in 2017 and the U.S. exports of services were $57.6 billion in 2017. Thus, the agreement apparently calls for US exports of goods and services in 2020 and 2021 of at least $387.5 billion/year vs. $187.5 billion in 2017, a level more than twice the 2017 actual levels. The fact sheet suggests that commitments are product specific in terms of increased purchases.  Industries will be looking carefully at what is included in this chapter on products or services of interest, seeing whether China waives any retaliatory tariffs on particular products during 2020 and 2021, and evaluating early signs of improved market access. Presumably the Administration and Congress will be monitoring on a monthly basis how commitments are being implemented in both goods and services.

Considering the large decline in U.S. exports of goods to China during the first 10 months of 2019 ($16.1 billion or 17.17%) and for some products in 2018 vs. 2017 or 2016, one may expect “commitments” in a variety of products where a return to 2017 levels or significant increases would appear to be manageable.  See e.g,. HS 8800, civil aircraft (2019 10 month decline of $5.3 billion in U.S. domestic exports); HS 1201, soybeans (decline 2016-2018 of $11.1 billion); HS 8701, motor vehicles for transporting people (decline 2017-2018 of $3.7 billion); HS 2709 petroleum oils from crude (2019 10 month decline of $2.7 billion); HS 2707, petroleum gases and other gaseous hydrocarbons (2019 10 month decline of $1.3 billion); HS 8708 parts of tractors and motor vehicles (2019 10 month decline of $813 million); HS 7404, copper waste and scrap (2019 10 month decline of $633 million); HS 4407. wood sawn or chipped more than 6 mm thick (2019 10 month decline of $612 million) ; HS 4403, wood in the rough (2019 10 month decline of $504 million); HS 1007, grain sorghum (2019 10 month decline of $403 million).

Other factors, such as existing or available expanded capacity, needs for worker expansion vs. greater utilization of existing workforce, competitiveness of U.S. products, diversion from third countries or from the U.S., will obviously all have some potential effect on whether commitments can be achieved at a micro level if purchase orders are placed. 

For services, it is assumed that significant increases to China are possible with liberalized markets in China.

III. Dispute Resolution

The chapter of Dispute Resolution appears to contain consultation processes at “both the principal level and the working level” and procedures for handling disputes with provisions that “allow each party to take proportionate responsive actions” that a party views as appropriate.  This chapter is important both for the specifics and timing of the consultation process and the specifics of how disputes will be handled, the timing of such disputes and any parameters on “responsive actions”.  At the end of the day, an agreement with China that is not enforceable will lead back to increased tensions in the near future.

IV. Conclusion 

The Phase I agreement has the potential to be an important step in the U.S. efforts to establish a more sustainable trade relationship with China. The Administration deserves credit for aggressively pursuing a reset. Breaking the negotiations into phases carries risks as the more difficult issues remain on the table and are very important in terms of long-term viability of the bilateral trade relationship. Not finding solutions in a single agreement will be viewed by many as weakening the chances for achieving a breakthrough on these critical issues that are left for phase 2.

At the same time, the chapter on “Expanding Trade” is highly unorthodox in terms of its (at least temporarily) invoking managed trade to address the hundreds of barriers that have haunted the ability of the U.S. and others to have market-based results in trade with China. Because several decades of efforts to get China to actually operate on market principles have been unsuccessful and because the WTO rules do not address many of China’s economic system distortions, the chapter and underlying commitments that have been made are an experiment is finding a way forward for economic systems that don’t rationally coexist where there are major countries employing each economic system. The next two years will show whether the experiment provides a possible approach to the coexistence of such different systems in a global economy where companies are already operating in both systems.

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