A fundamental flaw will stop Trump from getting even the most basic win from China trade talks

Mikhail Svetlov/Getty ImagesPresident Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping.
  • President Donald Trump has said over and over that he wants to narrow the trade deficit between the US and China by forcing China to buy more US goods.
  • But analysts at Citigroup said the US doesn’t have the capacity to sell China some of the goods it wants.
  • In other cases, selling China the goods it wants would disrupt trade with other allies, or raise national-security and/or intellectual-property concerns.

From the moment he started a trade war with China, President Donald Trump has made it clear that he wants the country to purchase more American goods – a lot more.

But in a note to clients, analysts at Citigroup complicate that picture, saying that the even if China wanted to buy more of certain US goods, the US doesn’t have the capacity (or the will) to sell them.

Citing data from the International Trade Centre, the analysts Dana Peterson and Catherine Mann wrote that the US could send about $US19 billion more of its soybeans and select meats to China – but that’s about it.

From the note:

“The US likely can increase supplies of soy products to China in the short run, as well as select meats. However, meeting the proposed US$1.2 trillion of additional shipments of goods to China over six years, including energy, machinery and tech products, will require major adjustments in the US and China’s current trading partners, as well as a reconfiguration of US domestic production of these items.”

In some cases, the US would even have to change national-security protocols in order to trade goods China actually wants.

The wish-list problem

One of the big problems here – and there are many – is that the US and China don’t have matching wish lists. The US doesn’t want to sell China all the things it wants, and China does not want or need the things that the US wants to sell it (again, with the exception of soybeans).

For example, the US would like to sell China more aircraft, but China isn’t interested. China wants more US electronics, but the US doesn’t want to sell them.

According to Peterson and Mann, “China has the greatest demand for soy beans; smart cards, electronic integrated circuits, LED lamps; passenger cars, motor vehicle parts and accessories; large aircraft; pharmaceutical products; and ‘other machinery.'” All these goods, aside from soybeans, come with their own complications.

For some goods, such as electronics (e.g., smart cards and high-tech autos), the US doesn’t want to sell them for the sake of national security or intellectual-property protection (China’s theft of intellectual property has been a touchy issue).

And then there’s the fact that the US is just maxed out in terms of production for some of these items. Citing data from the Federal Reserve, Peterson and Mann said that when it comes to foods, motor vehicles, semiconductors, and aerospace, the US is at or near full production-capacity-utilization rates.

In some cases, the US would be able to satisfy only a small portion of China’s demand. China wants $US3.6 billion worth of mineral products such as liquefied natural gas, coal, and crude oil, but the US has the capacity to send only about $US100 million more of these goods. China wants about $US1.4 billion in poultry, but the US could satisfy only about $US700 million of that, the bank said.

So if the US wanted to send more of these at- or near-capacity goods to China, it would have to upset its friends. According to analysts, the US could redirect $US16 billion worth of large aircraft, $US4 billion worth of tech (but again, there are intellectual-property and national-security concerns), $US4.6 billion worth of components, and $US7.3 worth of passenger cars.

But to do that the US would have to take away from allies such as South Korea, Canada, Mexico, Japan and the European Union.

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