How to avoid the china tariffsAs has been widely reported, the United States and China agreed to a temporary “cease fire” in the current round of tariff escalation. This happened this weekend at the G20 meeting in Argentina and the formal results of the meeting are not known. However the White House has issued a press release that outlines the basic terms of the deal that was cut in Buenos Aires.

On the tariff issue, there are two components to the G20 agreement:

First: The U.S. had threatened to raise tariffs on $200 billion in Chinese product from 10% to 25% effective January 1, 2019. In exchange for the United States not raising tariffs in January, China has agreed to purchase a “substantial, amount of agricultural, energy, industrial, and other product from the United States” so as to reduce the trade imbalance between the the U.S. and China. Note the following regarding this:

First,

  1. The list of products has not been determined.
  2. The purchasing dates have not been determined.
  3. This kind of agreement is standard. China obtains concessions in return for agreeing to purchase products but it never does purchase the products as promised. There is zero doubt the US negotiators are well aware of this predilection.
    The trade deficit is not the core basis of the United State’s Section 301 claim against China. So even if China makes these purchases, this does nothing to address the issues that support the imposition of the existing and proposed tariffs.

Second, the parties will enter into negotiations over a 90 period. These negotiations will be designed to resolve the issues that actually do form the basis of the U.S.’s Section 301 claim against China. As summarized by the White House, the US and China will discuss forced technology transfer, intellectual property protection, non-tariff barriers, cyber intrusions and cyber theft, services and agriculture. None of these issues can be resolved by China merely increasing its purchases of U.S. goods and services. The White House release then states in absolute terms:

If at the end of this [90 day] period of time, the parties are unable to reach an agreement, the 10% tariffs will be raised to 25%.

As someone who has been involved with these sorts of China IP issues for decades, I view the odds at near zero that China will make significant and meaningful changes in their system on the issues that will be discussed.  This means that if the White House is serious about its absolute deadline the chances of the tariff rate being increased come March are nearly 100%. However, tariffs are very unpopular in the U.S. business community, so it is not at all clear what Trump will actually do 90 days from now.

All of this means the new normal is still operative for China-United States business relations and U.S. companies that are doing business in China should us the next 90 days to make their plans on (a) how to begin or continue relations with their Chinese counterparts and (b) whether and how to move to other countries to mitigate the continuing China risk.

What will you do?