Event Recap: US-China Trade Tensions and What It Means for Latin America? (Call)
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On Thursday April 12, the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center held a public, on-the-record conference call to speak about the rising trade tensions between the United States and China, and what it means for Latin America.  

Please find below a recording and transcript of the call.


Daniel Godinho
Former Secretary of Foreign Trade of Brazil (2013-2016);
Corporate Strategy Director, WEG;
Senior Fellow, Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center, Atlantic Council

The Honorable Paula Stern Ph.D.
Founder and President, The Stern Group;
Former Chairwoman, U.S. International Trade Commission;
Board Director, Atlantic Council

Leland Miller
CEO, China Beige Book;
Nonresident Senior Fellow, Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, Atlantic Council


Sean Miner
Fellow and Associate Director, China – Latin America Initiative
Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center
Atlantic Council

Full Audio Recordinghttps://soundcloud.com/atlanticcouncil/what-would-a-us-china-trade-war-mean-for-latin-america


Sean 00:00

Thanks to everyone for joining us today for our Atlantic Council Call: US-China Trade Tensions and What It Means for Latin America? This is part of us responding more rapidly to the quickly changing environment we now live in. I want to give a special thanks to our speakers for taking the time today. I will introduce them in a moment. But first, I want you to know that this call is on the record, and if you want to tweet about it, we’re using the hashtag #ACChina. We will try to have some time towards the end for some questions from the public at around 2:30. So I’ll announce that shortly before we open up the questions. To ask a question, you must be on the app on your phone or your computer. Just tap the screen, hit more, and then hit raise hand.

Sean 00:57

Here we have Daniel Godinho, who we’re very excited to have join us as the Atlantic Council’s new nonresident senior fellow for the Adrienne Arsht Latin America School. Daniel is currently the Corporate Strategy Director at WEG Brazil in Brazil, and was the Secretary for Trade at the Ministry of Development, Industry, and Foreign Trade of Brazil from 2013 to 2016. Leland Miller, who’s also joining us, is the CEO of China Beige Book, and he’s also a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council at the Scowcroft Center on Strategy and Security. He’s a leading authority on China’s economy and financial system, and frequent commentator on a multitude of prominent media outlets. And we have Paula Stern, who’s the founder and president of the Stern Group where she advises national and multinational companies and organizations on business, political, and tech policy issues that affect their competitiveness in the global economy. She’s also a board director here at Atlantic Council and former chairwoman of the US International Trade Commission.

Sean 02:14

But before I start, I want to ask– I want to quickly set the scene. US-China trade tensions have quickly escalated in the past several weeks. Last year, President Trump directed his administration to investigate the impact on national security of steel and aluminum imports, and China’s unfair trade practices, and the ways the US could hit back. This led us to broad tariffs on steel and aluminum being announced early March which only mildly affected China but also affected a number of other countries, some who now have exemptions, at least until May 1st. China retaliated against that with tariffs on $3 billion worth of goods. But then on April 3rd, the USTR published a list, a detailed list, of 1,300 product categories worth around 46 billion of imports from China last year that could be subject to a 25% tariff. The US list focuses mainly on machinery, mechanical appliances, and electrical equipment. China responded swiftly and aggressively by saying it would be forced to retaliate in kind with around 50 billion of tariffs on US goods, 25% tariff, mainly on soybeans, planes, and cars.

Sean 03:40

President Trump responded even more aggressively. Like a high-stakes poker game, Trump quickly raised the bet again by saying it now instructed the USTR to find another $100 billion worth of products from China to hit with tariffs. An astounding escalation. But to be clear, implementation of the larger tariffs could still be months away, especially as there’s a public comment period in the US leaving some time for negotiation. President Xi Jinping somewhat deescalated the friction in his speech on Tuesday at the annual Boao forum, by announcing some incremental steps to open its economy, like lowering tariffs on auto imports, currently at 25%, also reducing restrictions on foreign ownerships of auto companies, and protecting intellectual property rights more strongly. But these remarks were mostly repeated from earlier promises. Something many China analysts noted in their comments. So when looking at China, it’s much more useful to look at their actions in this space more than its words because we have heard a lot of this before.

Sean 05:00

Meanwhile, the regional implications for Latin America from the rising tensions are uncertain. On the one hand, some countries in Latin America could increase their exports to either US or China on certain goods facing tariffs, countries like Mexico, could stand to gain by exporting more machine parts to the US, for example. Brazil could either see soybean prices rise or also export more soybeans to China. But all of this uncertainty clouds the global economic outlook and could put commodity prices down. And many Latin American countries rely on the export of commodities for a significant share of their economy. This could have much more serious implications for regional growth. With all of that, I’d like to move on to our panel. Paula, let’s start with you.

Paula 05:52


Sean 05:54

Given President Trump’s escalation last week asking the USTR to find 100 billion more in potential tariffs, how do you think this will play out? Is President Xi’s speech at the Boao Forum on Tuesday enough to lower the temperature, and what, ultimately, will be the economic implication if Trump’s initial tariff on $50 billion worth of Chinese goods are put in place?

Paula 06:18

Well, I don’t think it will be enough. His comments were repetition of positions that have already been unveiled in China. And I think that he really started the issue of the 301 matters that were raised in the 250-page long report that USTR had put out about China’s industrial policy. So I think they were, if you will, almost crumbs that were to kind of lower the temperature in the debate. And it’s ironic, I think, that Trump, who has really been the saber-rattler in the trade arena and who is keeping, by the way, this political commitment to his base that got him elected by this very tough language against anything foreign, goods as well as people with regard to immigration. Ironically, he sounded very placated from it. He literally came back to Xi’s speech, and it sounded conciliatory saying he was, “Very thankful for President Xi of China’s kind words on tariffs and auto barriers.” It went on in that way. I thought it was quite remarkable.

Paula 08:28

He’s got a problem, President Trump, because his Republican party, particularly those from the farm states, really need placating. They just got back from two weeks’ recess and came back, and Trump’s Secretary of Agriculture admitted that they have to, “Negotiate ourselves out of the saber-rattling that occurred to make sure that these disruptions,” and those were the announcement, “don’t have a permanent effect.” So I think we’ve got a lot more to do– this is simply an opening round. They’re at the negotiating table. There is this consultation period that will take us through about May 21st, probably. But there’s a lot more Xi will need to say, because the opening up that he talked about is nothing like the opening up that China did back in the ’80s and the ’90s. These were, as I said, I think, crumbs, rhetorical crumbs, that were thrown out.

Sean 09:55

I agree. They did seem to be very marginal comments. A lot of people had expected some more major reforms, especially this being 40th year of China’s reform and opening up from the Deng Xiaoping era.

Paula 10:12

And I mean, not only is this idea of a trade war not popular with the farmer’s states that were supportive of the President, but even the manufacturing areas fear that the cost of the goods will go up [inaudible]. And the latest polls nationally here in the United States do not favor a trade war. So the President, I think, has raised some very legitimate concerns that go back many, many years with China, particularly, with regard to their 2025 plan with the high-tech industries in China, which China wants its industrial policy to groom. But the President, I think, is going to have some constraints on him given the retaliatory approach that China came back with so immediately.

Sean 11:26

That’s right. Leland, I want to get your thoughts on this. China’s just coming out of, what they call, the two-session, the National People’s Congress and CPPCC where the big news was that President Xi now has no limits on his terms to remain as China’s President. How does this political environment affect China’s response to President Trump turning up the heat? And second, is China constrained in its options to respond due to the trade balance? China imports a lot less from the US than the US from China. And if tariffs are implemented, will it just make life difficult for US firms already in China?

Leland 12:15

Thanks Sean. Well, the answer to the first question is, I don’t think it has made any difference whatsoever at this point, that President Xi was named president for life, that he’s going to be the ruler going forward. I think that the Chinese are in wait-and-see mode, and will, and were always going to, take a very strong pushback position on anything that seems to be shoved down their throats. So, I don’t think anything’s happened so far that reflects any new sense of politics in China. As to your second question, I think the main problem is that China really doesn’t know what President Trump wants. So, if you look at 301, you’re talking about problems with the theft of intellectual property, and you’re looking at questions of market access. And at the same time, every time the White House puts something out, every time President Trump tweets, it’s about the trade deficit, how we have to get 100 billion back from the trade surplus and then things will be better.

Leland 13:15

And so, the Chinese have been looking at this and trying to figure out how exactly this problem can be solved. Do you offer to buy 100 billion worth of semiconductors and fix the trade deficit problem? Or is the market access the bigger issue? Or is the intellectual property theft an issue? And so, I think that they’re having a problem scoping out their response because they don’t understand what the White House wants. And quite frankly, I don’t think the White House yet has agreement on what it wants. There are several different pushes there. And I think the last part that’s making it very tricky is, we keep talking about 301 as if it’s about tariffs. It’s partly about tariffs. But Section 301 is about a larger platform. It’s going to push back on China on multiple different levels. And you’re going to have some accompanying moves like a tougher CFIUS, possible implementation of IEEPA, which is the International Emergency Powers Act in order to create a platform for defending US firms’ intellectual property. You have a whole bunch of things that have yet to be released, yet to be announced. These are all part of the 301 platform. It’s not just about tariffs. As a matter of fact, I would argue the least important part of this is the tariff headline number.

Leland 14:38

So the takeaway from all of this, I think, is that the markets have made a big mistake that they are completely misreading what’s going on. They’re misreading President Xi’s speech. They think it’s a conciliatory move back to President Trump. I don’t think so. I think he would have said that speech pretty much the same regardless of trade war or not. And I think President Trump is– I think people are seeing him as someone who had big announcements but not actions to back it up. And they think that this is [inaudible]. And they think that perhaps that this is he’s hearing what he wants to hear. And I don’t think that’s the case. I think we’re at the beginning of this, not the middle and not the end. And this is going to get much, much tougher going forward.

Sean 15:21

I agree that the Chinese here– these small steps also take a very long time for them to come to those kind of conclusions. Something much larger would take the Chinese a very long time to go through many review processes. It goes to many committees or leading groups. And there’s a lot of thought in it, but its needs more small steps and economic reforms, and to expect something big quickly is unlikely. So, I think that you’re right about President Xi’s speech, and it was also nothing– Daniel, I want to move on to you, talk a little bit more about Latin America. President Trump canceled his trip to the Summit of the Americas, which starts tomorrow in Peru. With the brewing US-China trade war, what are the geopolitical and economic risk for Latin America, its relationship with the United States, and its kind of shift to rebalance towards Asia and China?

Daniel 16:26

Well, thanks Sean. First, I believe we have to ask how the relations between the US and Latin America are going on in recent years. And the fact is that, in recent years, Latin America has been losing a lot of relative importance, both in terms of US foreign policy and economic strategy, in my opinion. And of course, I’m not talking here only about President Trump’s administration. So in my opinion, again, President Trump’s decision to cancel his trip to Summit of Americas is only one more chapter on that. Having said that, I really don’t believe particularly in any broader effect different than what we’ve seen in the last years. Of course, we’ll get later to more details on more general economic – and I can anticipate negative – impacts for Latin America. But from the bilateral relations perspective between the US and Latin America’s, I really don’t see anything different happening, if compared to the last years.

Sean 17:43

So what is Brazil or South America’s kind of biggest fear from a tariff escalation? Is it the global uncertainty and the global economy will weigh down commodity prices? Or do they see a bigger opportunity there to export more manufactured goods, and vehicles, and products to US and China?

Daniel 18:07

Well, I believe that the greatest risk is definitely increasing uncertainty. This lack of predictability, of course, will lead to price volatility which in the long run will cause more damage than any short-run possible gains, talking about possible gains that there might be some opportunities for Latin America exports. But those would have to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, and would very much depend on a number of prospects such as exportable supplies, trade barriers, and even domestic constraints, sometimes. I could try to give you some examples. Brazil, for instance, has some exportable products included, I mean, to Chinese lists for the US such as soybean, beef, and poultry, even airplanes. And one would imagine that we could naturally export those products to China. That those could be great opportunities for Brazil. But of course, we all know that this is not that simple.

Daniel 19:26

Just to give you another example, in the case of meat, even though Brazil might have exportable supply in this product, there is the issue of the Chinese sanitary standards. In the case of soya bean as a second example, the demand is there, but the exportable supply is quite limited. We could try to explore other opportunities with more details later on, but I want to believe that, for many different reasons, again which very much depends on each situation on each case, those opportunities just tend to be very limited. So just trying to address your original question and try to make my point very clear that there might be opportunities which tend to be limited, but in many events, those will not compensate the expected long-term negative effect of price volatility.

Sean 20:37

Right. That’s a good point because of the complexities of the supply chain if China stops importing a lot of soybeans from the US, it will try to make up for that and some ways by importing more from Brazil if there isn’t enough supply. But the soybeans in China go to crushers. Then most of them go to feed the cattle industry and pigs. So, a reduction in import in soy would likely lead to an increase in prices for cattle and beef. Leland, I wanted to ask you about that. Are the Chinese leaders prepared to take that hit of higher food prices? How would this affect China’s economy?

Leland 21:25

Yeah. I was looking at our inflation data earlier this morning, and I’m not sure they’re worried about inflation [laughter] as a lot of people think they are because it’s not as strong as people think it is. But in any case, the issue here is that there’s a tendency to assume that Chinese firms will immediately feel the brunt of something because that’s the way we look at it on this side of the Pacific. And if we are to go into a trade war– and again, we’re not in a trade war yet. Tariffs have not been imposed. We don’t know what they’re going to be. They haven’t been finalized. We don’t even know that they’re definitely going to happen. But if we were to go forward, then yes, I think that it’s the Chinese system to make sure that firms stay afloat. I think that they’re particularly schooled at this method of making sure that firms are not feeling too much pain and are able to keep going.

Leland 22:17

So, it’s important to understand that if a particular sector is targeted by the United States, then there will be governmental support to that sector, in some shape or form, whether it’s subsidies, whether it’s cheaper credit, whether it’s not having to pay back your loans. We see all these things in our China Beige Book data quite often when certain sectors are hurting. The government certainly intervenes. So, they would certainly do that in the case of a trade war. And I think that when you have something as socially important as soybeans, then certainly that they would be cushioning the blow on that. Does it mean that they can subsidize the economy indefinitely forever? No. But it means in the early phases of a trade war, the government would have the green light button to be making sure that firms are feeling much less pain than they otherwise would.

Sean 23:09

Yeah. It seems like China is in a lot better position to subsidize its industries that are hurt from this potential conflict. In the US, where a lot of senators have already said, “We don’t want subsidies for our farmers, we want revenue,” right? So, Paula, I want to turn to you. So where is this conflict going? We just said we’re not at a trade war yet. A lot of it is rhetoric, posturing, negotiating tactics. Given all of your experience, where do you see this heading? And is there a way to deescalate the situation?

Paula 23:46

Thank you. Well, we’ve certainly never been in quite this situation before. Back in, I guess, the era of Nixon, when we went off the gold standard and we also shocked the Japanese by limiting US soy exports to Japan, might be a kind of similar situation. But we’ve never been in a situation where China, another country, has been so ascendant, certainly since the Civil War in our country. We’ve had our own self-inflicted passages of trade restrictions, the Smoot-Hawley law, but that was both Congress and the President together shooting ourselves in the foot. So this is quite unusual. China is the second largest economy in the world now, and they are great consumers. And the notion that this president will follow the bilateral deficit relationship as a guide to his trade policy going forward, will, I think, be devastating. In addition, he has set himself up, I think, for failure by alienating so many of our allies. One of the first things he did in office was to withdraw the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations with 11 other Pacific nations including countries in Latin America – Mexico, and Chile, and Canada, of course. And we further, in the Trump administration’s rhetoric, have isolated the US by putting on, as a prelude to this 301, tariffs throughout the world when it comes to steel and aluminum imports into the United States.

Paula 26:43

So, he has really isolated the United States. And I think he’s encouraged, if you will, a plan B. No longer can they depend upon the United States as a reliable trading partner. Therefore, as a plan B must seek alternate means of trading markets, and China is right there. And if you look at the statistics, China in its trade diplomacy has reached out to Latin America very dramatically, and it has goals to continue to do so. And so while it may be that short-term supply chains will slow things down in terms of the damage that can come from these unilateral tariffs. And as I said there are these unilateral tariffs which preceded the 301 action against China. So taken together, I just think that Latin America, whether it’s Argentina or Brazil, will be looking for a more positive– the word that will be more open — China for its soybeans and other products. There may be a lag, but we’re talking about long-term geo-strategic shifts that I think the president is putting into play through this saber-rattling in trade, which I think will benefit China more than United States.

Sean 29:02

Right. The negotiations, and NAFTA, and the negotiations that were kind of hastily put together will have very long-ranging implications. And we’ve done a lot of studies here at the Latin America Center at the Atlantic Council, looking at China’s relationship in Latin America. The amount of capital going into the region from China, the amount of increased trade, the amount of increase in political and cultural relationships is quite astounding especially in the last five years or so. And so, the US has again skipped out on the kind of– sent a message to the region that it’s not a high priority compared to the other issues they’re dealing with. So, I’m going to open questions–

Paula 29:51

Excuse me. That combined with the fact that the President chose to be the first president not to attend the summit in Peru is an amazing signal that really is most unfortunate.

Sean 30:21

I agree. The continuation in similar policy towards Latin America. So I want to have one last question for Daniel Godinho, and then I’m going to open up to questions. So, when you’re on the app, you tap the screen, hit the more button, and then you can virtually raise your hand, and we will open you up for a question and answer. Daniel, so with this potential trade war coming up, does this give Latin America some leverage when negotiating with China? There’s a lot of natural resource-exporting countries in the region, and they’ve been seemingly moving down the value chain in their exports to China, meaning they’re exporting more raw and unprocessed goods. Is this an opportunity for some of them to turn that around?

Daniel 31:14

I’ll try to answer this question using the example of Brazil once again. In the case of Brazil, there are basically two aspects that limits our value-added products exports in general. But getting to China, the first one is China’s tariff structure which imposes import duties on finished and processed goods higher than on unprocessed goods, which is, of course, something natural and not wrong whatsoever. But anyways, this happens particularly in the case of soybean, for example. This is only part of the answer since many countries use the same tariff structure, and that does not prevent third countries to export value-added products anyway. Just for you to understand, Argentina, for instance, is capable of exporting a lot of soybean oil which is processed from soybean, of course, adding value to the product. Whereas Brazil only or basically only exports soybean grains.

Daniel 32:31

That leads me directly to the second aspect and more importantly in the case of Brazil which is our own access system. That’s why I spoke before about domestic constraints. Again, I’ll give you a simple example. In Brazil, if you export soybean to China directly, basically, you’re not going to pay any duties. But if you process the soybean into soybean flour, into soybean oil adding value to this product, you pay a tax called the ICMS. So there is a huge incentive to export the unprocessed goods. So unless Brazil undergoes a serious tax reforms to really incentivze value-added goods and exports– and well, we’re still a long way to get there hopefully, after the elections in October. But anyways if we don’t do that, we’re not able to turn this trend of exporting more raw and unprocessed goods around as we mentioned in your questions. So again, this is a very concrete example on how limited those short-term opportunities are because they depend on a lot of different features.

Sean 33:57

Right. A lot of this will depend on how long these tariffs are in place. So, I’m going to again make a call if anybody wants to ask a question. If you are using the computer application Zoom, you can click the participants tab at the bottom, and then you click a button that says raise hand. Go ahead. And we have another question and for Paula or Leland. Well, the US listed in its last annual report on China’s WTO compliance a series of non-tariff barriers the Chinese used to impede free trade. Among these are excess subsidies over urban zone regulatory measures, unclear tariff rate quotas, and the like. How serious and pervasive are these NTBs and how much of an impact do you think they have on the bilateral trade relationships?

Paula 34:58

Well, I think that the non-tariff barriers are always extremely important to call out. We need to use the WTO system, and reporting, and monitoring of these barriers much more actively. So, I’m really glad to see that that’s beginning to happen. And China in 2001 in joining the WTO did make a commitment definitely relating to subsidies. There are some coverage in the WTO which may not be sufficient. And we were trying to patch things up in the Trans-Pacific Partnership where they can’t help state-owned enterprises, for example. So, with the President removing us from that TPP, it removed American leverage and the leverage of the 11 other nations to kind of, if you will, confront China and other countries when it came to the state-owned enterprises, and the distortions that come about in the marketplace from their existence.

Paula 36:47

In the NAFTA negotiations with Mexico, US, and Canada, we’ve basically taken– and this is something that I argue should be done from the very get-go, when Trump said he wanted to get out of the TPP, that we’ve taken it and tried to update the NAFTA. So many of those rules will be applied to US, Mexico, and Canada if we wrap up those negotiations as soon as we hope. But again, how that deals with China, it brings us back to– unless we claw our way back into the TPP, we have to deal with China through the WTO, and a much more active monitoring, reporting, and come faced with, of course, better enforcement of these complaints. That’s why we had to end up with this 301 because the WTO doesn’t commit China. And so, we’ve had to take this up as a one on one with China through the 301 provisions of the 1974 Trade Act.

Sean 38:21

Interesting to note that Senator Sasse, coming out of a meeting today, said he heard President Trump direct USTR Lighthizer and his new chief economic advisor Larry Kudlow to get it done in terms of getting the US back in TPP as a way to mitigate the harm might happen to US farmers from a US-China trade conflict.

Paula 38:49

Oh, well, this is the problem with a very mercurial president with inconsistent tweets and urges that change from one day to the next. This is very costly to the economy, and to individual farmers, and individual business people.

Sean 39:16

Totally agree. So, we do have one question here. And, Daniel, maybe you can help with this. From Pablo Gonzalez, “What is the impact of US-China trade tensions on the EU-Mercosur negotiations, if any?”

Daniel 39:34

Oh, I believe that there is an indirect effect of maybe boosting this negotiation process, which has been there for 20 years now. With some protectionist measures being taken from different countries, there might be a special interest and opportunity for those two blocks to get together. And this is kind of the feeling we have both from the private sector and the government here in Mercosur at least. So, I think that there is an impact. And talking about the negotiation process, what we’ve been hearing here is that they are really close to a final deal.

Sean 40:28

Very interesting to hear that. So, I wanted to ask Leland one more question on– it’s more about the kind of political environment here in China. Are the Chinese really constrained in how they fight back here the US? I mean, we’re seeing the Chinese how measured they are when they are in their international negotiations. Do you see some dramatic moves coming out of them, or will they continue the same as they have been?

Leland 41:13

I don’t think they’re constrained in any political way. They’re constrained economically to the extent that they are trying to change their economy to some degree. Now, a lot of the things that they have been talking about for the last year, deleveraging and rebalancing, these are not happening. So, they need to happen. They were sort of put on hold and some ways reversed in the run-up to the party Congress last November. And so, there’s a lot of work that needs to be done on the economy. This is not something that is mysterious in Beijing. It’s not something mysterious to Xi Jinping, or Liu He, or other people who are running the economy. So, they know that they would like for there to not be much pressure on the economy, so they could do more active restructuring of it. That said, if push does come to shove and you do have a trade tensions boil into a legitimate trade war, then all of that will continue to be put on hold, and it may be put on hold anyways, while they push back.

Leland 42:15

So, I think that the Chinese system– and this is sort of the key point. The Chinese financial system is a non-commercial financial system. And they are going to have much more ability to push back on US moves and the US economy, and the US political system will have to push back on China. It doesn’t mean that the US can’t persevere at the end, and it doesn’t mean that the US wouldn’t undergo less damage than China would in a costly trade war to both. But it does mean that the Chinese have leverage to pull that the Americans do not. I think that they are constrained to some degree, but they’re not constrained to the extent that they need to focus their short-term energies on causing pain to the US economy.

Sean 42:59

Thanks. So, one last question to Daniel. I have this up, one or two more minutes here. You spoke a little bit about maybe potential Latin American exports to China. What are the opportunities for some Latin American countries to the US? A lot of the tariffs against China will go into kind of intermediate inputs, and parts, and machines. Do countries like Mexico and Brazil have the same parts, or are they able to modify their factories quickly enough to make the parts that the companies will be looking for?

Daniel 43:36

Well, this is a very hard question. The answer to the very last part of the question is no. I mean, you don’t change your industrial structure in order to, at least in a country as Brazil, to supply short-term opportunity, and investments are made thinking about the long-run gains. And I don’t see any very concrete opportunity, for Brazil, at least, so I would just stick with that.

Sean 44:15

Okay. Maybe some opportunities for Mexico, but. So, with that, I want to conclude the call today. Thank you, Paula, Leland, and Daniel for joining us. I hope it was useful for everyone. And we will hopefully post this in the next day or two online and have a transcript of the call. So, thank you, everyone.