WASHINGTON – If new Trump administration policies trigger a trade war with China, the port of Baltimore and Maryland could see revenue and job losses, according to analysts.
“Obviously China is a key trading partner. We do a lot of business with China and a lot of other Asian countries,” Richard Scher, director of communications for the Maryland Port Administration (MPA), told Capital News Service.
China ranked as the fifth-highest trading partner in exports and third in imports in 2015, according to the Port of Baltimore’s most recent foreign commerce statistical report. The port oversaw approximately $4 billion worth of materials that were exchanged between the U.S. and China that year.
The economic relationship between the U.S. and China has been trying at times, and yet the two nations remain each other’s largest trading partners.
However, the U.S.’s trade deficit with China reached $367 billion in 2015, according to a report last month from Robert E. Scott, senior economist and director of trade and manufacturing policy research at the Economic Policy Institute, a nonpartisan Washington think tank.
“Put another way, since China entered the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2001, the U.S. trade deficit with China has increased annually by $20.3 billion, or 11.2 percent, on average,” Scott wrote.
The deficit and President Donald Trump’s unfavorable stances towards China’s trading practices have caused many to speculate about the possibility of a trade war developing between the world’s two largest economies.
“We’ll see how things progress, but we’ve certainly made a lot of investment over the years to have business come over from the Far East,” Scher said.
However, imports into the Port of Baltimore benefit many states in the mid-Atlantic region.
“Certainly a lot of business is done out of the port,” said Benjamin Orr, executive director of the Maryland Center on Economic Policy, located in Baltimore. “But if there is a trade conflict with China, it’s not necessarily that the impact would land on Maryland’s economy specifically. Lots of goods that come into the port end up out of state.”
Orr said that the biggest impact of a potential trade dispute with China would likely be a loss of jobs at the port or in local industries that rely on China for business, such as container shipping companies.
According to Scott’s report, the trade deficit with China caused Maryland to lose 46,000 jobs between 2001 and 2015, approximately 1.6 percent of the state’s total workforce.
Over the 14-year period, Maryland ranked 37th among states in percentage of workforce displaced by the trade deficit with China. Most mid-Atlantic states were not significantly affected.
“The eastern region isn’t particularly susceptible to a trade war with China,” Orr said. “Some effects would be, specifically, prices on Chinese-made goods go up, which could affect Maryland shopping habits and sales tax, and the stock market could fall.”
The White House released its annual trade agenda Wednesday, which indicated that U.S. trade policy under the Trump administration could break from the standards set forth by the WTO.
According to the Washington Post, the agenda suggests the U.S. could impose unilateral tariffs against countries it feels are employing unfair trade practices, such as China.
Trump has accused China of currency and trade manipulation before and has identified the U.S.’s trade deficit with China as something his administration would like to address in future trade discussions, saying he wants to pursue “better deals” with China.
Any conflict would undoubtedly be affected by the two nations jockeying for economic position in the Asia-Pacific region, says Sara Itagaki, project associate in the trade, economic, and energy affairs group with the National Bureau of Asian Research.
In order to establish a strong U.S. economic presence in the Asia-Pacific region, as well as check China’s rising economic power, the Obama administration helped draft the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a 12-country economic agreement completed in October 2015.
Trump called the deal “catastrophic” for the American economy during his campaign and effectively withdrew the U.S. from the deal on Jan. 23.
“The TPP was the Obama administration’s prime Asian agreement,” Itagaki said in an interview with Capital News Service. “The withdrawal raises questions about (the U.S.’s) commitment in the southeast Asian region and could hurt U.S. businesses.”
Itagaki said the TPP was “contentious politically” and that there were questions about the agreement from many other politicians.
Despite Trump’s TPP withdrawal, U.S. companies are not retreating from the Pacific, according to Itagaki.
“The U.S. needed a greater presence in the region and missed its chance to anchor its economic influence in southeast Asia,” Itagaki said. “But the U.S. is still a large market for these Southeast Asian countries. They can’t ignore the U.S. economy.”
Of course, those countries cannot ignore the local and increasingly powerful economy of China, either.
China has been promoting its own multinational trade agreement, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which aims to include several countries that would have been a part of the TPP, in hopes of capitalizing on the U.S.’s withdrawal and increasing its own economic presence in the area.
While competitiveness is recognized as a central part of international trade, it remains to be seen how it will affect the way the U.S. and China do business with each other.
However, the economic risk factors are great enough that the chances of a U.S.-China trade war aren’t high, according to Itagaki.
“U.S. consumers gain a lot from trade with China,” Itagaki said. “The government still has issues with China’s economic practices … but there is great benefit in trade with China for the U.S. economy.”
The unpredictability of the Trump administration, along with its proposal to break from traditional WTO trading practices, makes it difficult to foresee how the State Department will approach trade negotiations with China, but Itagaki suggests both sides should hope for a cordial agreement.
“Both governments recognize the value of their trade relationship,” Itagaki said. “Neither economy should want a conflict because both will be hurt in the end.”