China offers a path to end U.S. trade deficit, sources say

Containers at the port of Qingdao, in eastern China's Shandong province, in 2013.
Containers at the port of Qingdao, in eastern China’s Shandong province, in 2013.
(Wu Hong / EPA-EFE/REX)

China has offered to go on a six-year buying spree to ramp up imports from the U.S., a move that would reconfigure the relationship between the world’s two largest economies, according to officials familiar with the negotiations.

By increasing goods imports from the U.S. by a combined value of more than $1 trillion over that period, China would seek to reduce its trade surplus — which last year stood at $323 billion — to zero by 2024, one of the people said. The officials asked not to be named as the discussions weren’t public.

The offer, made during talks in Beijing this month, was met with skepticism by U.S. negotiators who nonetheless asked the Chinese to do even better, demanding that the imbalance be cleared in the next two years, the people said. Economists who have studied the trade relationship argue it would be hard to eliminate the gap, which they say is sustained in large part by U.S. demand for Chinese products.


U.S. stocks extended gains and the dollar rose after the news. The Standard & Poor’s 500 index rallied, climbing 1.4% by 10 a.m. Pacific time and heading for its fourth weekly increase.

Trade offers

It’s not the first time China has made an offer to reduce the deficit as a way of trying to break the deadlock between the sides, which has darkened the global economic outlook and roiled financial markets since last year. In May, Trump scrapped a framework for a deal negotiated by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin that would have seen China “significantly” increase purchases of U.S. goods.

By agreeing to buy more goods from the United States, China may just shift its trade surplus toward other trading partners, said Tom Orlik, the chief economist for Bloomberg Economics.

“If China switches its imports from other countries to the U.S. — less Brazilian soybeans, more U.S. soybeans — that might help deal with their bilateral problem with the U.S., but at the expense of worsening imbalances with other countries,” he said.

Additionally, the types of products China offers to buy more of could matter more than the overall target for a dollar amount, Orlik said. Airplanes, soybeans and automobiles were among China’s top U.S. imports last year.

“Over the years, China has used the offer of purchasing more technologies with national security applications as a gambit in trade negotiations,” Orlik said. “That’s always been unacceptable to the U.S. because of the strategic costs.”


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Decisions pending

No decisions were finalized in the latest Beijing talks. Discussions are set to continue at the end of January, when Chinese Vice Premier Liu He is scheduled to travel to Washington.

The United States is missing another opportunity for discussions with its trading partners: President Trump canceled his trip and the U.S. delegation’s visit to the World Economic Forum in Davos next week amid the partial shutdown of the federal government. Although no official plans were disclosed for U.S.-China negotiations at Davos, Chinese Vice President Wang Qishan is due to attend the gathering.

There’s no clear sign that such an offer from China would now have a greater chance of success or even if it is practically feasible. U.S. negotiators are also focused on matters including China’s alleged intellectual-property malpractices and state support of industry, disputes that are much harder to resolve. During the latest Bejing talks, one of the people said, the Americans’ major sticking points were more prominent issues than China’s import plans.

Import values

China’s offer implies raising the annual import total from $155 billion to about $200 billion in 2019 and in increasing steps thereafter, reaching an annual total of about $600 billion by 2024, one of the people said.

The Commerce Ministry in Beijing didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on the negotiation details. The office of the U.S. trade representative also didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.