Speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference last night, former President Donald Trump said the following:
“I will have a four-year plan to phase out all Chinese imports of essential goods and gain total independence from China. We have to do it. We have to do it.”
Such autarky seems outright ludicrous in its scope, impossible in execution.
Granted, the United States political class is in a solidly anti-China mood right now. Recall that when Trump pledged to impose a 45% tariff rate on China while on the campaign trail in 2016, the idea was treated as the gateway to a recession by his political opponents; Trump’s eventual 25% tariff rate on China led to China hitting back on US agricultural exports and cost the US as many as 245,000 jobs.
But things have changed a lot since then. President Biden has kept these tariffs in place, and also has made competing with China a hallmark of his foreign policy. Between the pandemic and the spy balloon and TikTok and the especially Xianjing internment camps, the conversation around China has shifted. “Made in America” has become a mantra for both parties, shorthand for the emerging consensus that the US needs to rely less on China economically. Trump’s rhetoric in the past definitely played a role in shaping that goal.
But actually achieving it is another matter.
Aside from America’s direct neighbors to the north and south (Canada and Mexico), China was the largest US trading partner and was their largest import source. The US imported $161 billion dollars of electronics from China in 2022 alone–the biggest commodity traded from China to the US—according to Census Bureau Data.
No exports from the US (which are mostly agricultural products) clock in at any sum greater than $31 billion. Without any other statistics, the trade gap between the two countries is more than evident, but eliminating that in four years as Trump proposed could never happen in such a short time.
Attempts at rectifying this have failed in the past, as Beijing has never completely followed through on commitments to buy more American goods. Perhaps the biggest indicator that the trade links between these countries can’t be easily broken is that despite posturing by Washington and Beijing over the years, trade between the countries hit a new record in 2022: according to data published by the US Bureau of Economic Analysis, total imports and exports grew 2.5 percent year-on-year to hit an all-time high US$690.6 billion.
Does the US need to rely less on China? It’s an open question where the popular and in some ways morally correct answer is yes. But can total independence be achieved quickly? No, and it’d be foolish to try.
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