Who Wins in Trump’s Trade War?

US President Donald Trump has set the scene for an escalating trade confrontation with China, with all of its weighty and unforeseeable geo-strategic implications. But, for the rest of the world – and especially the European Union – the best outcome might be a long Sino-American conflict.

But, as the revamp of the United States-Korea Free Trade Agreement and the “reform” and renaming of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) demonstrate, most countries need to offer only minor concessions to appease Trump. The only country Trump really cares about – his “public enemy number one” – is China.

The scene is thus set for a Sino-American showdown, with all of its weighty and unforeseeable geo-strategic implications. But, for the rest of the world, this might not be such bad news. In fact, economic theory suggests that there is truth in the old adage: “When two quarrel, the third rejoices.”

..  the most recent attempt at universal tariff reduction – the so-called Doha Round – never came to fruition, mainly because India (not China) opposed opening up some of its key markets.

.. With the US imposing higher tariffs on Chinese goods, European producers will enjoy a competitive advantage over Chinese producers in the US market. Likewise, in the Chinese market, both European and Asian producers will have a competitive advantage over US producers.

.. A substantial share of US-China trade is thus likely to be diverted to Europe, Japan, and other Asian economies close to the Chinese market. The European Union is likely to reap particularly large benefits, because it remains one of the largest trading partners of both the US and China, and because European producers are often US companies’ closest competitors.

.. Next year, that tariff may be increased to 25% (ten times the US average tariff on imports from other countries) and expanded to include a broader range of imports. This implies that trade diversion could be substantial.

.. the transatlantic economy’s high degree of integration could act as a mitigating factor

.. more than one-third of the value-added of an Airbus aircraft is contributed by the US. This is one reason why Trump might choose to prolong the truce with the EU agreed in July.

.. it seems likely that the Sino-American confrontation will shift global trade significantly. This may benefit most of the world’s economies, but it will also have serious consequences for the US and China, where consumers and enterprises relying on imported machinery will have to pay more.

.. The losses are likely to be larger for the US than for China, because Chinese imports from the US include a larger share of agricultural commodities for which alternative suppliers are relatively easy to find. For example, China can import soybeans from Brazil instead of the US, at little additional cost.

.. the Sino-US trade war may lead to some losses for China, but those losses will likely be dwarfed by the costs incurred by the US itself. Meanwhile, the rest of the world may well have reason to wish both sides a long and fruitful conflict.