Is China a Threat to the U.S. Economy?
Is China a Threat to the U.S. Economy?
Updated January 23, 2007
Craig K. Elwell and Marc Labonte
Specialists in Macroeconomics
Government and Finance Division
Wayne M. Morrison
Specialist in International Trade and Finance
Foreign Affairs, Defense, and Trade Division
Is China a Threat to the U.S. Economy?
The rise of China from a poor, stagnant country to a major economic power
within a time span of only 28 years is often described by analysts as one of the
greatest economic success stories in modern times. From 1979 (when economic
reforms were first introduced) to 2006, China’s real gross domestic product (GDP)
grew at an average annual rate of 9.7%, the size of its economy increased over 11-
fold, its real per capita GDP grew over 8-fold, and its world ranking for total trade
rose from 27th to 3rd. By some measurements, China has become the world’s second-
largest economy, and it could be the largest within a decade.
China’s economic rise has led to a substantial growth in U.S.-China economic
relations. Total trade between the two countries has surged from $4.9 billion in 1980
to an estimated $343 billion in 2006. For the United States, China is now its second
largest trading partner, its fourth-largest export market, and its second-largest source
of imports. Inexpensive Chinese imports have increased the purchasing power of
U.S. consumers. Many U.S. companies have extensive manufacturing operations in
China in order to sell their products in the booming Chinese market and to take
advantage of low-cost labor for exported goods. China’s purchases of U.S. Treasury
securities have funded federal deficits and helped keep U.S. interest rates relatively
low. Despite the perceived threat from China, the U.S. economy has recently
maintained full employment and robust economic growth. To date, the growth in
Chinese exports appears to have come partly at the expense of Asian competitors.
However, the emergence of China as a major economic superpower has raised
concern among many U.S. policymakers. Some express concern that China will
overtake the United States as the world’s largest trade economy in a few years and
as the world’s largest economy within the next two decades. In this context, China’s
rise is viewed as America’s relative decline. Another concern are the large and
growing U.S. trade deficits with China, which have risen from $10.4 billion in 1990
to an estimated $232 billion in 2006, and are viewed by many Members as an
indicator that China uses unfair trade practices (such as an undervalued currency and
subsidies to domestic producers) to flood U.S. markets with low-cost goods and to
restrict U.S. exports, and that such practices threaten American jobs, wages, and
living standards. Many warn that this situation will get worse as China increasingly
moves toward production and export of more high-value products, such as cars and
computers. A more recent concern has been efforts by Chinese state-owned firms to
acquire U.S. companies and China’s accumulation of U.S. Treasury securities.
Negative congressional perceptions of China’s economic practices have led to the
introduction of numerous bills, including some that would impose sanctions against
China unless it reforms its currency policy and others that would apply U.S.
countervailing laws on Chinese products.
This report examines the implications (both challenges and opportunities) for
the U.S. economy from China’s rapid economic growth and its emergence as a major
economic power. It also describes congressional approaches for dealing with various
Chinese economic policies deemed damaging to various U.S. economic sectors. This
report will be updated as events warrant.
China’s Economic Growth: Causes and Prospects........................4
Historical Perspective on China’s Economic Miracle..................4
The Introduction of Economic Reforms............................4
Results of Economic Reforms....................................5
Why Is China Growing So Fast?..................................7
High Savings and Investment................................7
Foreign Direct Investment...................................8
Can China Continue To Grow at Rapid Rates Over the Long Term?.....11
Projections of China’s Future Economic Growth................12
Comparing the Size of the U.S. and Chinese Economies: Will China
Overtake the United States? ................................13
Historical Perspective on China’s Economy....................13
Using Purchasing Power Parity To Compare the Economies of the
United States and China................................13
Will China Overtake the U.S. Economy?......................14
China as the World’s Largest Exporting Economy?..............16
Growth in U.S.-China Economic Relations ............................17
Growing U.S. Exports to China..................................18
The Growth of U.S. Imports from China...........................19
Why Are U.S. Imports from China Rising So Quickly?...........20
Growing Trade in Advanced Technology..........................21
U.S. Direct Investment in China.................................23
Does Trade with China Harm the U.S. Economy?.......................24
Trade and Jobs...............................................25
Sectoral Employment Effects................................27
Trade and Wages.............................................30
“Unfair” Trade Practices and the Gains from Trade..................34
Effects of the Bilateral Trade Deficit and the Exchange Rate Policy on
the U.S. Economy............................................40
Effect on Exporters and Import-Competitors....................40
Effect on U.S. Borrowers...................................41
Effect on U.S. Consumers..................................42
Net Effect on the U.S. Economy.............................42
The U.S.-China Trade Deficit in the Context of the Overall
U.S. Trade Deficit....................................43
Purchase of U.S. Treasuries To Maintain the Peg....................44
What Will Happen to the Terms of Trade?.............................46
Chinese Takeovers of U.S. Companies................................52
Congressional Concern over the CNOOC Bid..................52
Rising Chinese Demand for Commodities.............................54
List of Tables
Table 1. China’s Average Annual Real GDP Growth Rates, 1960-2006.......5
Table 2. China’s Merchandise World Trade, 1979-2006...................6
Table 3. Foreign Direct Investment in China, Selected Years...............8
Table 4. Exports and Imports by Foreign-Invested Enterprises in China:
Table 5. Projections of China’s Real GDP Growth: 2006-2030.............12
Table 6. Historical Comparison of U.S. and Chinese GDP................13
Table 7. Estimates of U.S., Japanese, and Chinese GDP and Per Capita
GDP in Nominal U.S. Dollars and PPP, 2006.......................14
Table 8. Global Insight Projections of U.S. and Chinese GDP and Per Capita
Income (PPP Basis), Selected Years..............................15
Table 9. Chinese and U.S. Exports of Goods and Services: 2006 and
Projections through 2030.......................................17
Table 10. U.S. Merchandise Trade with China: 1980-2006...............17
Table 11. U.S. Merchandise Exports to Major Trading Partners in 2001,
2005, and January-November 2006 ..............................18
Table 12. U.S. Imports from Asia and China, as a Percentage of Total
Table 13. Leading Foreign Suppliers of U.S. Computer Equipment Imports:
Table 14. U.S. Trade with China in Advanced Technology Products:
2000 and 2005...............................................22
Table 15. Foreign Direct Investment Flows to China: 1979-2005...........24
Table 16. China’s Foreign Exchange Reserves and Chinese Ownership
of U.S. Treasuries............................................45
Is China a Threat to the U.S. Economy?
The rise of China from a poor, stagnant country to a major economic power
within a time span of only 28 years is often described by analysts as one of the
greatest economic success stories in modern times. Prior to 1979, China maintained
a Soviet-style command economy under which the state controlled most aspects of
the economy. These policies kept the economy relatively stagnant and living
standards quite low. However, beginning in 1979, the government began a series of
free market reforms and began opening up to the world in terms of trade and
investment. These reforms have produced dramatic results. From 1979 to 2005,
China’s real gross domestic product (GDP) grew at an average annual rate of 9.7%,
the size of its economy increased over 11-fold, its real per capita GDP grew over 8-
fold, and its world ranking for total trade rose from 27th to 3rd.
China’s economic reforms and growth have benefitted (or could benefit) the
U.S. economy in a number of ways:
!Over the past few years, China has been the fastest growing U.S.
export market among its major trading partners. For example, U.S.
exports to China in 2006 increased by an estimated 33%. China’s
ranking as a U.S. export market rose from 11th in 2000 to 4th in 2006,rd
and may overtake Japan in 2007 to become 3. China’s rapid
economic growth, coupled with its large population and
development needs, makes it a potentially huge market for the
!China has become the second-largest source for U.S. imports. In
many instances, China has replaced other East Asian nations as a
source for many manufactured products imported by the United
States. Low-cost imports from China have helped restrain inflation
and increased the purchasing power of U.S. consumers, and boosted
demand for other products. This has helped U.S. production to shift
into areas where the United States has a comparative advantage.
!China has become the second-largest purchaser of U.S. Treasury
securities. These purchases have helped to fund the U.S. federal
budget deficit and keep interest rates relatively low.
At the same time, however, China’s emergence as an economic power has raised
a number of concerns among some Members of Congress who perceive China as a
threat, or potential threat, to the U.S. economy. As one Member stated, “China’s
competitive challenge makes Americans nervous. From Wall Street to Main Street,
Americans are nervous about China’s effect on the American economy, American
jobs, on the American way of life.”1 Areas of concern include the following issues:
!Analysts project that in the near future, China will replace the United
States as the world’s largest economy and exporter. In this context,
China’s economic rise is viewed as America’s decline.
!The surge in U.S. imports from China is viewed by many as a threat
to various U.S. economic sectors, particularly in manufacturing.
China’s nearly unlimited pool of low-cost labor is viewed by some
as a serious competitive threat to U.S. manufacturing and is blamed
for bankruptcies and/or plant relocation to China, job losses, and
stagnant U.S. wages. This process could get worse as China begins
to manufacture more advanced products that compete directly with
those made by U.S. domestic firms.
!Many are concerned that China employs a number of unfair
economic policies intended to benefit its economy at the expense of
its trading partners, such as the United States. Many policymakers
view the large and growing trade imbalance with China as proof that
China does not trade fairly. They contend, for example, that China’s
policy of pegging its currency to the U.S. dollar is a deliberate policy
meant to make Chinese exports relatively cheap in world markets,
while discouraging imports. They also contend that China uses
industrial policies (such as subsidies) and other unfair trade practices
(such as dumping) to promote the development of various industries
(such as autos and steel) deemed important to national development,
which undermines the ability of U.S. firms in these sectors to
compete in global markets, including the domestic U.S. market. In
many respects, the rise of China as a global economic power is
subject to the same interpretation as the economic rise of Japan
during the 1970s and 1980s and the impact that rise was thought to
have on the U.S. economy.2
!Analysts describe a number of negative consequences of China’s
rapid economic growth, such as increasing demand for oil and raw
materials (which drives up their prices) and growing pollution
(which could have global implications). In addition, the lack of an
effective intellectual property rights (IPR) enforcement regime (and
limited market access for IPR-related products) has led to
widespread IPR piracy in China. Not only does such piracy greatly
1 Statement of Senator Max Baucus during the Senate Committee on Finance hearing on
U.S.-China Relations, June 23, 2005.
2 During the 1980s, Members complained of a growing U.S.-Japan trade imbalance, Japan’s
growing trade surplus and accumulation of foreign exchange reserves, Japanese trade and
investment barriers, government industrial policies intended to promote the development of
targeted industries, and Japanese purchases of U.S. assets in the United States (government
securities, land, and companies).
diminish China as a market for IPR-related industries (such as music
and software), such industries are further harmed by China’s export
of pirated products.
!Some analysts have raised concern over the possible consequences
if China decided to reduce its large holdings of U.S. Treasury
securities. Others worry about the potential effect of Chinese state-
owned companies’ attempts to purchase U.S. firms.
This report examines the implications for the U.S. economy of China’s rapid
economic growth and its emergence as major economic power.3 It addresses various
contentions that have been put forth that certain aspects of China’s economic growth,
policies, and practices pose a threat to the U.S. economy. It also addresses several
questions, including the following:
!Why is China’s economy growing so fast? Will China overtake the
United States as the world’s largest exporter or largest economy? If
so, what are the implications for the U.S. economy?
!What are the causes of the large and increasing trade deficits with
China? Have these resulted from China’s economic and assessment
practices or other global forces? Do they negatively affect the U.S.
!How do allegedly unfair Chinese trade practices, such as trade
barriers, industrial policies, and failure to adequately protect U.S.
intellectual property rights, affect the U.S. economy?
!How does the high level of low-cost imports from China affect U.S.
employment, wages, and terms of trade?
!Is Chinese ownership of U.S. firms and U.S. public debt securities
good or bad for the U.S. economy?
!What legislation has been proposed in Congress to respond to unfair
Chinese trade practices? What other options might be available to
The report concludes that although China will likely become the world’s largest
economy within the next decade or two (provided it can continue to deepen economic
3 The rise of China as an economic power has a number of important political, military, and
strategic implications for the United States that are not addressed in this report. For an
examination of these issues, see CRS Report RL32882, The Rise of China and Its Effect on
Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea: U.S. Policy Choices, by Dick K. Nanto and Emma
Chanlett-Avery; CRS Report RL32688, China-Southeast Asia Relations: Trends, Issues, and
Implications for the United States, by Bruce Vaughn and Wayne M. Morrison; CRS Report
RL33055, China and Sub-Saharan Africa, by Kerry Dumbaugh and Mark P. Sullivan; and
CRS Report RS22119, China’s Growing Interest in Latin America, by Raymond W.
Copson, Kerry Dumbaugh, and Michelle Lau.
reforms), its living standards (as measured by per capita GDP) will remain
substantially below those in the United States for several decades to come. The
assessment presented in this report suggests that China’s economic ascendancy will
not in and of itself undermine or lower U.S. living standards — these will be largely
determined by U.S. economic policies. In addition, although various Chinese
economic policies may have negative effects on certain U.S. economic sectors (and
there are valid economic reasons why many of these should be addressed), other U.S.
sectors (as well as consumers) have benefitted, and thus far the overall impact of
China’s economic growth and opening up to the world appears to have been positive
for both the U.S. and Chinese economies. From an economic perspective, describing
China’s economic rise or its economic policies as an economic “threat” to the United
States fails to reflect the complex nature of the economic relationship and growing
economic integration that is taking place. Hence it may be more accurate to say that
China’s economic growth poses both challenges and opportunities for the United
China’s Economic Growth: Causes and Prospects
Historical Perspective on China’s Economic Miracle
Prior to 1979, China maintained a centrally planned, or command, economy.
A large share of the country’s economic output was directed and controlled by the
state, which set production goals, controlled prices, and allocated resources
throughout most of the economy. During the 1950s, China’s individual household
farms were collectivized into large communes. To support rapid industrialization,
the central government undertook large-scale investments in physical and human
capital during the 1960s and 1970s. As a result, by 1978 nearly three-fourths of
industrial production was produced by centrally controlled state-owned enterprises
subject to centrally planned output targets. Private enterprises and foreign
investment were nearly nonexistent. A central goal of the Chinese government was
to make China’s economy relatively self-sufficient. Foreign trade was generally
limited to obtaining only those goods that could not be made in China.
Although some growth occurred, these policies kept the Chinese economy
relatively stagnant and inefficient, mainly because there were few profit incentives
for firms and farmers. Competition was virtually nonexistent, and price and
production controls caused widespread distortions in the economy. Chinese living
standards were substantially lower than those of many other developing countries.
The Introduction of Economic Reforms
Beginning in 1979, the Chinese government reversed course and launched
several economic reforms in the hope that they would significantly increase economic
growth and raise living standards. The central government initiated price and
ownership incentives for farmers, which enabled them to sell a portion of their crops
on the free market. In addition, the government established four special economic
zones along the coast for the purpose of attracting foreign investment, boosting
exports, and importing high-technology products into China. Additional reforms,
which followed in stages, sought to decentralize economic policymaking in several
sectors, especially trade. Economic control of various enterprises was given to
provincial and local governments, which were generally allowed to operate and
compete on free market principles, rather than under the direction and guidance of
state planning. Additional coastal regions and cities were designated as open cities
and development zones, which allowed them to experiment with free market reforms
and to offer tax and trade incentives to attract foreign investment. In addition, state
price controls on a wide range of products were gradually eliminated.
Results of Economic Reforms
Since the introduction of economic reforms, China’s economy has grown
substantially faster than during the pre-reform period (see Table 1) and has been one
of the world’s fastest growing economies. From 1960 to 1978, annual real GDP
growth averaged 5.3%.4 However, in the post-reform period from 1979 to 2006,
growth averaged 9.7% (it grew by 10.5% in 2006 over the previous year).
Table 1. China’s Average Annual Real GDP Growth Rates,
Time periodAverage annual growth (%)
Source: Official Chinese government data.
Economic reforms have transformed China into a major trading power. Chinese
exports rose from $18 billion in 1980 to $969 billion in 2006, while imports over this
4 Many analysts contend that Chinese government economic data (prior to reforms) may
have been exaggerated for propaganda purposes, especially during periods of economic
upheaval that took place during the Great Leap Forward (1958-1972) and the Cultural
Revolution (1966-1976). Similar doubts remain about the quality of current data.
period grew from $20 billion to $791 billion (see Table 2). Trade has constituted an
important source of China’s economic growth and efficiency gains.
In 2004, China surpassed Japan as the world’s third-largest trading economy
(after the European Union and the United States). China’s trade continues to grow
dramatically: in just three years (2003 to 2006), the size of China’s trade doubled.
In 2006, China’s exports and imports rose by 26% and 20%, respectively, over 2005
levels. China’s trade surplus has risen sharply in recent years, going from $24 billion
in 2004, to $102 billion in 2005, to $178 billion in 2006.
Table 2. China’s Merchandise World Trade, 1979-2006
Y e ar Exports I mports TradeBalance
1979 13.7 15.7 -2.0
1980 18.1 19.5 -1.4
1985 27.3 42.5 -15.3
1995 148.8 132.1 16.7
2005 762.0 660.1 101.9
2006 969.1 791.5 177.6
Source: International Monetary Fund, Direction of Trade Statistics, and
official Chinese statistics.
In addition to the data cited above, some highlights of China’s rapid economic
rise and current level of economic development are reflected in the following data:
!China’s GDP as a percentage of world GDP rose from 4.5% in 1984
to 16.3% in 2006.5
!Foreign direct investment in China rose from $109 million in 1979
to over $72 billion 2005, making it the largest destination for FDI
among developing countries and the third-largest overall FDI
destination after the United States and the United Kingdom.6
!According to the U.S. Commerce Department, China’s middle class
(defined as per capita income over $8,000) currently totals 200
5 Based on purchasing power parity measurements. Source: EIU.
6 United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, World Development Report, 2005,
million people. According to Merrill Lynch, in 2004, China had
!China currently has the world’s largest mobile phone network and
one of the fastest-growing markets, with an estimated 432 million
cellular phone users (as of August 2006), compared to 87 million
users in 2000.
!In 2002, China replaced Japan as the world’s second-largest personal
computer (PC) market.8 China also became the world’s second-
largest Internet user (after the United States), with 136 million users
in 2006, up from 22.5 million in 2000.9
!According to the World Bank, from 1981 to 2001, economic reforms
helped raise more than 400 million people out of extreme poverty.10
!China’s foreign exchange reserves rose from $2.5 billion at the end
of 1980 to $819 billion at the end of 2005. In February 2006, China
overtook Japan to become the world’s largest holder of foreign
exchange reserves (at $854 billion), and by the end of 2006, the
Chinese government estimated that reserves had topped $1 trillion.
Why Is China Growing So Fast?
Table 1 indicates that China’s real GDP in the reform period has grown nearly
twice as fast as before the reform period. What factors have caused this to occur?
Economic theory holds that economic output can be boosted by increasing inputs of
physical and human capital (e.g., investment in plant and equipment, education,
infrastructure) and/or labor (i.e., growth in the labor force). At some point, however,
barring technical advances, increases in capital and labor eventually produce
diminishing returns to output, and hence the accelerated economic growth is unlikely
to be sustained. However, output can also be boosted by productivity gains (i.e.,
improvements in the efficiency with which inputs are used). Productivity gains can
be obtained, for example, by adopting technological advances or improving
managerial practices. As a result, greater output can be achieved using the same level
of capital and labor inputs.
High Savings and Investment. Several economists have attributed China’s
rapid economic growth since 1979 to a large accumulation of capital and to vast
improvements in productivity that have resulted from economic reforms. These two
factors generally went hand in hand. Improved productivity increased growth and
7 Merrill Lynch, Capgemini, 2005 World Wealth Report, 2004, p. 29.
8 People’s Daily, Jan. 22, 2003.
9 This accounted for only 10.0% of the Chinese population (compared with 70% in the
United States). See Internet World Stats, [http://www.internetworldstats.com/stats3.htm].
10 Poverty level based on the number of people living on less than $1 dollar per day standard.
Source: World Bank, Fighting Poverty: Findings and Lessons from China’s Success.
generated funds used for new investment. China also benefitted from having a very
large pool of domestic savings to draw from to finance investment when reforms
were begun. When reforms were initiated in 1979, domestic savings as a percentage
of GDP stood at 32%. However, most Chinese savings during this period were
generated by the profits of state-owned enterprises (SOEs), which were used by the
central government for domestic investment. Economic reforms, which included the
decentralization of economic production, led to substantial growth in Chinese
household savings (these now account for half of Chinese domestic savings). As a
result, savings as a percentage of GDP has steadily risen; it reached 51.1% in 2006,
among the highest savings rates in the world.11
Foreign Direct Investment. China’s trade and investment reforms and
incentives led to a surge in foreign direct investment (FDI), which has been a major
source of China’s capital growth. Annual FDI in China showed the fastest growth
in the 1990s, when it grew from $3.5 billion in 1990 to $37.5 billion in 1995, more
than a 10-fold increase. From 1995 to 2005, the level of annual FDI more than12
doubled to $72.4 billion. Although small relative to domestic saving, it is argued
that this capital is used much more efficiently (much domestic saving flows to state
owned enterprises), and thus makes an outsized contribution to economic growth.
The cumulative level of FDI in China at the end of 2005 stood at about $633 billion
(see Table 3).
Table 3. Foreign Direct Investment in China, Selected Years
YearFDI ($ millions)
Sources: U.S. Departments of Commerce and State, Doing Business In
China: A Country Commercial Guide for U.S. Companies, 2005, and China
Da ily .
Note: In June 2006, Chinese officials revised their 2005 FDI data from
$60.3 billion to $72.4 billion to include FDI flows into the banking,
insurance, and securities sectors. Therefore, 2005 data may not be
comparable to previous data.
11 In comparison, the U.S. savings rate was 10.2%. Savings defined as aggregate national
savings by the public and private sector as a percentage of nominal GDP. (Economist
Intelligence Unit database.)
12 Chinese officials recently revised China’s 2005 FDI total to $72.4 billion, claiming
previous estimates excluded FDI in the banking, insurance, and securities sectors. (See
People’s Daily, June 9, 2006). However, revisions were not made for previous years.
Much of the FDI going into China has gone into export-oriented manufactured
goods, such as consumer electronics. The level of both Chinese imports and exports
attributed to foreign invested enterprises (FIEs) in China has risen dramatically, as
shown in Table 4. In 1986, only 1.9% of China’s exports were from FIEs, but by
FIEs accounted for only 5.6% of China’s imports in 1986, but rose to 58.7% in 2005.
Table 4. Exports and Imports by Foreign-Invested Enterprises
in China: 1986-2005
Exports by FIEsImports by FIEs
YearAs a % ofAs a % of
$ billionstotal Chinese $ billionstotal Chinese
1990 7.8 12.6 12.3 23.1
1995 46.9 31.5 62.9 47.7
2000 119.4 47.9 117.2 52.1
2005 444.2 58.3 387.5 58.7
Source: Chinese Ministry of Commerce.
Productivity Increases. Several studies have shown that productivity gains
have been a major cause of China’s rapid economic growth since reforms were
implemented. For example —
!An International Monetary Fund (IMF) study concluded that
productivity growth was a significant cause of China’s economic
growth during its reform period. The study estimated that from 1952
to 1978, capital accumulation accounted for 65% of China’s output
growth, with productivity and labor input growth accounting for
18% and 17%, respectively. In contrast, between 1979 and 1994
(during China’s economic reform period), productivity growth
accounted for nearly 42% of its economic output growth, while
increases in capital and labor inputs accounted for 58%.13 The IMF
study concluded that “[a]lthough growth rates in both capital and
labor inputs rose significantly in 1979-1994, the productivity growth
differential appears to explain the bulk of the difference in output
growth between pre-reform and reform periods.”14
13 Hu, Zuliu F., and Khan, Mohsin S. Why Is China Growing So Fast? International
Monetary Fund Staff Paper, vol. 44, no. 1, March 1997, p. 116.
14 Ibid, p. 117.
!A World Bank study reached similar conclusions, estimating that
(total factor) productivity grew by more than 3% annually from 1985
to1994 (a rate the World Bank describes as “exceptional by
international standards”), and that one-third of the increase in
China’s output was the result of increased productivity.15
!Goldman Sachs estimates that China’s total factor productivity grew
at an estimated 3.4% per annum between 1979 and 2004, accounting
for 36% of China’s growth.16 According to Goldman Sachs, the
productivity gains were the result of China’s extremely low starting
point of economic development when reforms began, and a
“profound evolution of government policies that have gradually but
consistently reduced inefficiencies in the system.”17
Economists note that China’s economic reforms have led to a reallocation of
resources to more productive uses, especially in sectors that were formerly controlled
by the central government, such as agriculture, trade, and services. Agricultural
reforms boosted production and freed workers to pursue employment in activities
where their marginal product was higher. From 1978 to 1994, the proportion of the
workforce engaged in agricultural production dropped from 71% to 54%. A large
share of these workers found employment in locally controlled enterprises or foreign
joint ventures. In addition, a greater share of investment was being made by the non-
state sector (such as privately owned firms), whose output tended to grow more
rapidly than SOEs. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development
(OECD) found that market reforms, which led to a significant decline in the role of
the state sector in the economy and a sharp increase in the role of the non-state sector,
were a major contributor to China’s rapid productivity gains and economic growth.
The OECD estimated that the private sector was responsible for as much as 57% of
the value-added produced by the non-farm business sector (up from 43% in 1998)
and three-fourths of China’s exports in 2003. It also found that the growth of the
private sector (including the role of foreign invested firms in China) was a major
cause of China’s productivity gains and that private firms enjoy a significantly higher
rate of return on their assets than SOEs (15.0% versus 10.2%).18 China’s opening up
to trade and investment has contributed to China’s productivity gains. An important
result of foreign investment in China and increased trade has been significant
spillovers in technology and managerial know-how to Chinese firms.
15 World Bank, World Development Report, 1996, p. 25.
16 Other contributors to growth included capital stock (36%), educational attainment (15%),
and labor (13%).
17 Goldman Sachs, China’s Ascent: Can the Middle Kingdom Meet its Dreams, Global
Economics Paper No. 133, November 11, 2005, p. 8.
18 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Economic Survey of China,
Can China Continue To Grow at Rapid
Rates Over the Long Term?
Growth theory holds that countries can increase their level of economic growth
by boosting their savings/investment levels and by increasing productivity. Over
time, adding more capital per worker has a diminishing rate of return; therefore,
economic growth is equal to the growth in the work force, the so called “steady state”
rate of growth. The only way to increase the steady state rate of growth is to increase
productivity. Thus, countries such as China with very high savings and investment
rates, and improvements to productivity (through acquisition of foreign know-how
and reforms to their economy), can obtain very high rates of growth in the short run.
Over time, the level of growth will likely slow as capital produces diminishing rates
of return and productivity gains slow because the benefits of copying and catching
up diminish. At that point, it is expected that China’s growth rate would slow to a
rate comparable to the United States or Japan. But with a per capita income equal
to only one-seventh that of the United States (at purchasing power parity), China still
has plenty of room for rapid catch-up growth in the near term.
At the same time, however, China maintains a number of inefficient and
potentially harmful policies that could significantly limit future economic
development if not addressed. Some of these include:
!Support for inefficient firms. SOEs, which account for about one-
third of Chinese industrial production, put a heavy strain on China’s
economy. It is estimated that between a third and one half of all
SOEs are unprofitable and must be supported by subsidies, mainly
through loans by government-controlled banks. Many SOEs do not
repay these loans, and as a result, the banks have accumulated
substantial level of non-performing loans. Government support of
unprofitable SOEs diverts resources away from potentially more
efficient and profitable enterprises (especially in the private sector)
and puts the banking system at risk to future financial crises.
!Public unrest. The Chinese government reported that there were
more than 87,000 protests/public disturbances in 2005 (up from
Sources of these protests have reportedly included issues such as
pollution, government corruption, resentment over growing income19
disparities, layoffs from SOEs, and government land seizures.
Growing unrest could threaten political stability and hence
undermine future growth.
!Growing Pollution. Pollution poses serious health risks to the
population, and this could undermine worker productivity.
According to the World Bank, 20 out of the world’s most polluted
19 See CRS Report RL33416, Social Unrest in China, by Thoms Lum.
cities are in China.20 According to Zhu Guangyao, deputy chief of
the State Environmental Protection Agency, environmental damage
costs the country $226 billion, or 10 percent of the country’s GDP,
each year.21 The Chinese government estimates that there are more
than 300 million people living in rural areas that drink unsafe water
(affected by chemicals and other contaminants).22 Toxic spills in
China over the past few years threatened the water supply of
millions of people.
!The lack of the rule of law in China has led to widespread
government corruption, financial speculation, and mis-allocation of
investment funds. In many cases, government “connections,” not
market forces, are the main determinant of commercial success in
China. The lack of the rule of law in China limits competition and
undermines the efficient allocation of resources in the economy.
These problems may undermine China’s attempts to promote the
development of its own globally competitive firms.
Projections of China’s Future Economic Growth. The economic
projections of China’s real GDP growth by three economic forecasting firms (Global
Insight, the Economist Intelligence Unit [EIU], and Goldman Sachs) over several
years are indicated in Table 5. Although the three projections differ on how fast
China will grow, they all predict that China will be able to maintain rapid economic
growth in the near and medium term, but that the rate of growth will slow over time.
Five-year average real GDP growth projections are projected to slow from a range
of 7.1% to 8.6% during 2006 to 2010 to a range of 4.5% to 6.1% from 2021 to 2025.
Goldman Sachs projects that China’s real GDP will average 3.8% between 2031 and
Table 5. Projections of China’s Real GDP Growth: 2006-2030
Average AnnualGlobal InsightEconomistGoldman Sachs
Growth (%)Intelligence Unit
2006-2010 8.6 8.0 7.1
2011-2015 7.2 5.5 5.8
2016-2020 6.4 4.4 5.0
2021-2025 6.1 4.5 4.5
2026-2030 n.a. 4.7 4.1
Sources: Global Insight, China — Interim Forecast, May 2006; the Economist Intelligence Unit, EIU
Country Data (database); Goldman Sachs, China’s Ascent: Can the Middle Kingdom Meet its Dreams,
Global Economics Paper No. 133, November 11, 2005.
20 World Bank, China Quick Facts.
21 China Daily, June 6, 2006.
22 Xinhua News Service, Dec. 22, 2004.
Comparing the Size of the U.S. and Chinese Economies:
Will China Overtake the United States?
This section compares China’s economy relative to the United States in terms
of GDP, per capita GDP, and trade. It also provides projections of future economic
performance of the two countries.
Historical Perspective on China’s Economy. A 2001 OECD report,
which attempted to measure world GDP and that of major countries (in 1990
international dollars) from 1500 to 1998, determined that for many years, China’s
was the world’s largest economy (see Table 6).23 In 1820, for example, China
constituted nearly one-third of the world’s economy, 18 times the share of the United
States. However, by 1913, China’s share of world GDP dropped to 8.9% and its
economy was less than half the size of that of the United States; by 1950, it was
about a third as large. By 1973, China’s economy was roughly one-fifth the size of
the United States’ economy. Although China’s GDP grew significantly between
1950 and 1973, the size of its economy relative to that of the United States and the
world as a whole changed little. However, this trend reversed significantly after
China began to reform its economy. By 1998, China’s share of world GDP rose to
Table 6. Historical Comparison of U.S. and Chinese GDP
(millions of 1990 international dollars)
GDPAs a % ofworld GDPGDPAs a % ofWorld GDPAs a % ofU.S. GDP
1820 12,548 1.8 228,600 32.9 1814.3
1870 98,374 8.9 189,740 17.2 192.9
1913 517,383 19.1 241,344 8.9 46.6
1950 1,132,434 21.2 239,903 4.5 21.2
1973 3,536,622 22.0 740,048 4.6 20.9
1998 7,394,598 21.9 3,873,352 11.5 52.4
Source: Angus Maddison, The World Economy: A Millennial Perspective, OECD, 2001.
Using Purchasing Power Parity To Compare the Economies of the
United States and China. The actual size of China’s economy has been a subject
of extensive debate among economists. Measured in U.S. dollars using nominal
exchange rates, China’s GDP in 2006 was estimated about $2.7 trillion; its per capita
GDP (a commonly used measure of living standards) was $2,040. U.S. GDP and per
23 OECD, Angus Maddison, The World Economy: A Millennial Perspective, 2001.
capita GDP were estimated at $13.2 trillion and $44,140, respectively. Japan’s
nominal GDP and per capita GDP were $4.4 trillion and $34,290, respectively.
These data could suggest that China’s economy was substantially smaller than those
of the United States and Japan.
Many economists, however, contend that using nominal exchange rates to
convert Chinese data into U.S. dollars substantially underestimates the size of
China’s economy. This is because prices in China for many goods and services are
significantly lower than those in the United States and other developed countries.
Economists have attempted to factor in these price differentials by using a purchasing
power parity (PPP) measurement, which attempts to convert foreign currencies into
U.S. dollars on the basis of the actual purchasing power of such currency (based on
surveys of the prices of various goods and services) in each respective country. This
PPP exchange rate is then used to convert foreign economic data in national
currencies into U.S. dollars.
A comparison of economic data using nominal exchange rates and PPP for
China, Japan, and the United States for 2006 appears in Table 7. Because prices for
many goods and services are significantly lower in China than in the United States
and other developed countries (while prices in Japan are higher), the PPP exchange
rate raises the estimated size of Chinese economy from $2.7 trillion (nominal dollars)
to $9.9 trillion (PPP dollars), significantly larger than Japan’s GDP in PPPs ($4.1
trillion), and nearly three-fourths the size of the U.S. economy. PPP data also raise
China’s per capita GDP from $2,040 (nominal) to $7,500. The PPP figures indicate
that, while the size of China’s economy is substantial, its living standards fall far
below those of the U.S. and Japan. China’s per capita GDP on a PPP basis is only
17% of U.S. levels. Thus, even if China’s GDP were to overtake that of the United
States in the next few decades, its living standards would remain substantially below
those of the United States for many years to come.
Table 7. Estimates of U.S., Japanese, and Chinese GDP and Per
Capita GDP in Nominal U.S. Dollars and PPP, 2006
Nominal GDPGDP in PPPNominal PerPer Capita
Country($ billions)($ billions)Capita GDPGDP in PPP
J a pan 4,371 4,088 34,290 32,070
China 2,677 9,862 2,040 7,500
Source: Economist Intelligence Unit.
Note: PPP data for China should be interpreted with caution. China is not a fully developed market
economy; the prices of many goods and services are distorted due to price controls and government
sub sid ies.
Will China Overtake the U.S. Economy? Based on measurements of
China’s GDP on a PPP basis and projections of China’s economic growth over the
next several decades, it appears highly likely that China at some point will overtake
the United States as the world’s largest economy. Global Insight’s projections
(which are the highest of the three presented) project that China will achieve 7.1%
average real growth over the next 20 years. In comparison, the U.S. economy is
projected by Global Insight to grow at an average annual real rate of about 3.0%, less
than half China’s rate. Global Insight’s projections indicate that China could
overtake the United States as the world’s largest economy by 2013.24 By the year
according to Global Insight (see Table 8).
Table 8. Global Insight Projections of U.S. and Chinese GDP
and Per Capita Income (PPP Basis), Selected Years
GDP ($ billions)Per capita income ($)
China’s Uni t e d China’s
China UnitedStatesas a % ofChinaStatesas a % of
Source: Global Insight. Note, estimated 2006 is this table differs somewhat from those made by the
Economist Intelligence Unit in Table 7.
Although China’s rise to the world’s largest economy may shock and alarm
some in the United States (who might view it as reflective of poor U.S. economic
performance), it is hardly surprising to most economists, given that China’s
population is 4.4 times larger and that China’s economy continues to grow rapidly
from improvements to productivity (i.e., through catching up). Economists contend
that a more appropriate measurement of a nation’s well-being or standard of living
is per capita GDP on a PPP basis. As noted earlier, China’s per capita GDP (PPP
basis) in 2006 was 17% percent as large as that in the United States. Global Insight
projects that this level will grow to 19.8% in 2010, 25.4% in 2015, 33.0% in 2020,
and 42.3% in 2025. These data indicate that although China’s economy could soon
overtake the U.S. economy in size, Chinese living standards are likely to remain
significantly below those of the United States for many years to come.
Economic growth is not a zero-sum game: China’s growth is not offset by a
decrease in the output of the United States or any other foreign economy. Although
a larger Chinese economy would produce more goods that Americans might
24 EIU’s forecasts of the U.S. and Chinese economies predict that China will not overtake
the United States as the world’s largest economy until 2018.
consume, it would also consume more goods that American workers might produce.
As discussed below, the long-run net effect of China’s growth on American well-
being will depend on how it affects the terms of trade by which American goods are
exchanged for Chinese goods. China’s future growth will also increase the demands
on the world’s natural resources and commodities (see below), which may affect
America’s terms of trade as well.
Likewise, there is no particular advantage to being the world’s largest economy
from the perspective of living standards. For example, the three countries in the
world with a higher per capita income than the United States — Luxembourg,
Norway, and Switzerland — are hardly known for their size. Trade takes place not
between countries, but between millions of individual economic agents within
countries, so country size does not confer any market power that allows a country to
negotiate favorable market price. (Size may afford greater bargaining power in trade
negotiations and international organizations, however.)
China as the World’s Largest Exporting Economy? In 2006, China
was the world’s third-largest merchandise export economy, after the European Union
and United States. China’s merchandise exports, fueled largely by high levels of
foreign direct investment (FDI) in China, have risen dramatically over the past
several years. From 2003 to 2006, China’s merchandise exports grew by 121%; they
were up by 27.2% in 2006 over 2005. Given these rapid growth levels, Chinese
merchandise exports are likely to exceed U.S. export levels within a very short time
period, perhaps early as 2007.25 A broader measurement of a country’s export levels
would also include export services. Table 9 lists estimates for U.S. and Chinese
exports of goods and services in 2006 and projections through 2023 by Global
Insight. Based on this broader measurement, China’s exports are projected to exceed
those of the United States by 2009, and by the year 2020 they are projected to be
nearly twice as large.26
25 In terms of merchandise imports, Global Insight projects that China’s imports will exceed
those of the United States by 2014.
26 However, the European Union is projected to remain the world’s largest exporter, both
in terms of merchandise exporter, and exporter of goods and services, from 2006-2030.
Table 9. Chinese and U.S. Exports of Goods and Services: 2006
and Projections through 2030
YearChinese Exports($billions)U.S. Exports($billions)Chinese Exports as a% of U.S. Exports
2006 1,055 1,464 72.1
2007 1,342 1,619 82.9
2008 1,713 1,791 95.6
2009 2,009 1,959 102.6
2010 2,305 2,117 108.9
2015 4,124 3,045 135.4
2020 6,914 4,392 157.4
2025 11,001 6,219 176.9
2030 17,376 8,699 199.7
Source: Global Insight.
Growth in U.S.-China Economic Relations
U.S.-China trade rose rapidly after the two nations established diplomatic
relations (January 1979), signed a bilateral trade agreement (July 1979), and provided
mutual most-favored-nation (MFN) treatment beginning in 1980. Total trade
(exports plus imports) between the two nations rose from about $5 billion in 1980,
to $20 billion in 1990, to an estimated $343 billion in 2006 (see Table 10). Chinand
is now the 2 largest U.S. trading partner. Over the past few years, U.S. trade with
China has grown faster than that of any other major U.S. trading partner.
Table 10. U.S. Merchandise Trade with China: 1980-2006
YearU.S.ExportsU.S. ImportsU.S. TradeBalance
1990 4.8 15.2 -10.4
1995 11.745.6 -33.8
2005 41.8 243.5 -201.6
Source: U.S. Department of Commerce and USITC Dataweb.
*Estimated, based on data for January-November 2006.
Growing U.S. Exports to China
China’s ranking as a destination for U.S. merchandise exports rose from 23rd
in 1979 to 18th in 1990, 11th in 2000, 5th in 2004, and 4th in 2005 and 2006. U.S.
merchandise exports to China in 2006 accounted for 5.3% of total U.S. exports
(compared with 3.9% in 2003). The top five U.S. exports to China in 2006 (based on
January-November data) were semiconductors and electronic components (up 79%
over 2005 levels), aircraft and parts (up 40%), waste and scrap (up 64%), oilseeds
and grain (up 7%), and resins and synthetic rubber and fibers (up 13%).
Over the past few years, China has become been the fastest growing U.S. export
market. From 2001 to 2005, U.S. exports to China rose by 118%; and from January-
November 2006 they were up by 33.0% over the same period in 2005. If these trends
continue, China could replace Japan as the third largest U.S. export market in 2007.
Table 11. U.S. Merchandise Exports to Major Trading Partners
in 2001, 2005, and January-November 2006
($ in billions and % change)
2001 2005Change FromChange FromJan-Nov. 2006
Canada 163.7 211.4 12.6 29.1 9.4
Mexico 101.5 120.0 8.4 18.2 13.0
J a pan 57.6 55.4 1.9 -3.8 8.4
China 19.2 41.8 20.5 117.7 33.0
United 40.8 38.6 7.4 -5.4 17.9
Germany 30.1 34.1 8.8 13.3 20.7
Netherlands 19.5 26.5 9.1 35.9 17.8
France 19.9 22.4 5.5 12.6 9.0
Singapore 17.7 20.6 5.1 16.4 14.1
World 731.0 904.4 10.8 23.7 14.9
Source: USITC DataWeb.
Note: Ranked by top 10 U.S. export markets in Jan.-Nov. 2006.
Many trade analysts argue that China could prove to be a much more significant
market for U.S. exports in the future if rapid economic growth continues. China’s
goal of modernizing its infrastructure and upgrading its industries is predicted to
generate substantial demand for foreign goods and services. According to a U.S.
Department of Commerce report, “China’s unmet infrastructural needs are
staggering. Foreign capital, expertise, and equipment will have to be brought in if
China is to build all the ports, roads, bridges, airports, power plants,
telecommunications networks and rail lines that it needs.”27 Finally, economic
growth has substantially improved the purchasing power of Chinese citizens,
especially those living in urban areas along the east coast of China. China’s growing
economy and large population make it a potentially enormous market. For example:
!The Chinese government projects that by the year 2020, there will
be 140 million cars in China (seven times the current level), and that
the number of cars sold annually will rise from 4.4 million units to
!Boeing Corporation predicts that China will be the largest market for
commercial air travel outside the United States for the next 20 years;
during this period, China will buy 2,300 aircraft, valued at $183
billion. By 2023, Chinese carriers are expected to be flying more
than 2,801 airplanes, making China the largest commercial aviation
market outside the United States.28
!Credit Suisse predicts that by the year 2014, China will be the
world’s second-largest consumer market after the United States
(compared to 7th in 2004), with total household spending of $3.7
trillion (2004 U.S. dollars), accounting for 11% of world
consumption (compared to 3% in 2004).29
!Global Insight projects that China’s merchandise imports will
increase by 374% (nearly fourfold) over the next 10 years (from
$792 billion in 2006 to $3,752 billion in 2015). Assuming U.S.
exports to China grow at the same rate as the projected increase in
China’s total imports, U.S. merchandise exports to China could
increase from $55.6 billion in 2006 to nearly $208 billion in 2015.30
The Growth of U.S. Imports from China
China is a major source of many U.S. imports, especially labor-intensive
products. In 2006, imports from China were estimated at $288 billion, accounting
for 15.4% of total U.S. imports in 2006 (up from 6.5% in 1996). U.S. imports from
China rose by 18.2% in 2006 over the previous year. The importance (ranking) of
China as a source of U.S. imports has risen dramatically, from 8th largest in 1990,
to 4th in 2000, to 2nd in 2004-2006. The top U.S. imports from China for the first 11
27 U.S. Department of Commerce, FY1998 Country Commercial Guide: China, Aug. 1997.
28 Boeing Corporation, The Boeing Company and China, available at
[http://www.boeing.com/ companyoffices/aboutus/boechina.html ].
29 Credit Suisse, The Rise of the Chinese Consumer Revisited, Jan. 6, 2006.
30 China’s combined imports of goods and services are projected to rise even faster — from
$1.2 trillion in 2006 to $11.2 trillion in 2005, up 831%.
months of 2006 were computers and parts (up 15% over 2005 levels), miscellaneous
manufactured articles (such as toys, games, etc.) (up 7%), apparel (up 14%), audio
and video equipment (up 24%), and communications equipment (up 29%).
Why Are U.S. Imports from China Rising So Quickly? Many analysts
contend that the sharp increase in China’s exports is, to an extent, the result of
movement in production facilities from other Asian countries to China. That is,
various exports that used to be made in Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, for example, are
now being made in China (in many cases, by foreign firms in China) and exported
to the United States. This trend is reflected in Table 12, which lists data on U.S.
imports from Asia as a whole and from China for 1996-2005. The share of U.S.
imports from Asia to total imports decreased from 38.8% to 35.7% in 2005, whereas
U.S. imports from China as share of total U.S. imports rose from 6.5% to 14.6%.
U.S. imports from China as a percentage of total imports from Asia increased from
U.S. imports from Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong,
and Thailand fell by $42 billion in 2000 dollars, whereas imports from China rose by
$119 billion. The shift becomes more striking when one considers that imports from
the former group fell at a time when overall imports to the United States were rising
rapidly. According to Morgan Stanley, the shift in production by East Asian firms
to China has saved U.S. consumers more than $100 billion per year since 1997.31
Table 12. U.S. Imports from Asia and China, as a Percentage of
Total U.S. Imports
U.S. Imports from Asia (including China)38.836.635.7
U.S. Imports from Asia (excluding China) 32.329.221.1
U.S. Imports from China126.96.36.199
U.S. Imports from China, as a % of Total U.S. Imports16.822.440.8
Source: USITC DataWeb.
Another illustration of this shift can be seen in the U.S. imports of computer
equipment and parts from 2000 to 2005 (Table 13). In 2000, Japan was the largest
foreign supplier of U.S. computer equipment (with a 19.6% share of total shipments),
while China ranked 4th (at a 12.1% share). In just five years, Japan’s ranking fell to
4th, the value of its shipments dropped by over half, and its share of shipments
declined to 7.8% (2005). Singapore and Taiwan also experienced significant declines
in their computer equipment shipments to the United States during this period. By
31 Morgan Stanley, Global Economic Forum, China: Punishing Whom? Sept. 11, 2003.
with a 45.4% share of total imports. While U.S. imports of computer equipment
from China rose by 327.7% over the past six years, the total value of U.S. imports
from the world of these commodities rose by only 14.2%. Many analysts contend
that a large share of the increase in Chinese computer production has come from
foreign computer companies that have manufacturing facilities in China.
Table 13. Leading Foreign Suppliers of U.S. Computer
Equipment Imports: 2000-2005
($billions and % change)
World 68.5 59.0 62.3 64.0 73.9 78.2 14.2
China 8.3 8.2 12.0 18.7 29.5 35.5 327.7
Malays ia 4.9 5.0 7.1 8.0 8.7 9.9 102.0
Mexico 6.9 8.5 7.9 7.0 7.4 6.7 -2.9
J a pan 13.4 9.5 8.1 6.3 6.3 6.1 -54.5
Singapore 8.7 7.1 7.1 6.9 6.6 5.9 -32.1
T a iwan 8.3 7.0 7.1 5.4 4.1 2.9 -65.1
Source: U.S. International Trade Commission Trade Data Web.
Note: Ranked according to top six suppliers in 2005.
Growing Trade in Advanced Technology
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, nearly all U.S. imports from China were low-
value, labor-intensive products such as toys and games, footwear, and textiles.
However, over the past few years, an increasing proportion of U.S. imports from
China has consisted of more technologically advanced products, such as computers.
According to the National Science Foundation, the Chinese share of world high-
technology production has risen from 1.0% in 1980 to 9.3% in 2003.32
Table 14 lists U.S. trade with China in “advanced technology products” (ATP),
a classification developed by the U.S. Census Bureau to identify trade in new or
leading-edge technologies.33 These data indicate that U.S. ATP exports to China rose
by 123.6%between 2000 and 2005, while imports increased by 454.2%. During that
period, ATP exports as a share of total U.S. exports dropped slightly from 33.7% to
32 National Science Foundation, Science and Engineering Indicators 2006, February 2006.
33 They include products in 10 main categories, including biotechnology, life science,
opto-electronics, information and communications, electronics, flexible manufacturing,
advanced materials, aerospace, weapons, and nuclear technology. See U.S. Census Bureau
trade website at [http://www.census.gov/foreign-trade/www/index.html] for more detailed
descriptions of these categories.
the importance of China as a destination of U.S. advanced technology exports: their
share rose from 2.2% to 5.7%, while the import share of these products rose from
5.4% to 22.8%. The United States went from a $0.1 billion trade surplus with China
for ATP to a $47 billion trade deficit.
Table 14. U.S. Trade with China in Advanced Technology
Products: 2000 and 2005
($billions and %)
As a %% of TotalAs a %% of Total
of TotalU.S.of TotalU.S.
Year Expor t s($billions) U.S.Expor t s Advanced Imports($billions) U.S.Import Advanced
toTechnologyExports s FromTechnologyImports
2000 5.5 33.7 2.2 10.7 10.7 5.4
2005 12.3 29.4 5.7 59.3 24.4 22.8
Source: U.S. Census Bureau, Foreign Trade Statistics.
Some analysts view these statistics with alarm, contending that they are an
indicator that Chinese firms will pose an increasing competitive challenge to U.S.
high-technology firms. For example, the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review
Commission warned in its 2005 annual report to Congress that
the technology that China is developing and producing is increasing in
sophistication at an unexpectedly fast pace. Advances in China’s technological
infrastructure and industries, along with similar advances in other developing
countries, pose a significant competitive challenge that is eroding U.S.34
On the other hand, a joint study by the Center for Strategic and International Studies
and the Institute for International Economics concluded that data on China’s high-
technology trade is misleading, noting, for example, that more than 90% of China’s
exports of electronic and information technology are produced by foreign firms in35
China using imported components, and that China adds relatively little value to
products such as computers and mobile phones before export. For example,
assembly may take place in China, but research and development takes place
elsewhere. The study concluded that Census data on U.S. ATP trade with China
“hardly reflect a dramatic deterioration in U.S. competitiveness. Rather they reflect
34 U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, 2005 Annual Report, pp. 86-87,
35 To illustrate, Taiwan has shifted nearly all of its notebook computer manufacturing to
China’s emergence as the location for final assembly of a small number of very
popular consumer electronic products.”36
U.S. Direct Investment in China
China is an important destination for U.S. FDI, although it is relatively small in
relation to total U.S. FDI, which, according to U.S. data, was nearly $2.1 trillion at
the end 2005 (on a historic cost basis).37 As indicated in Table 15, cumulative U.S.
FDI in China at the end of 2005 was $51.1 billion (according to Chinese data),
accounting for 8.2% of total cumulative FDI in China, and making the United States
the third-largest overall investor in China after Hong Kong and Taiwan.38
Motorola is the largest U.S. foreign investor in China. Its exports of Chinese-
made products totaled $6.5 billion in 2005, making Motorola the second largest
foreign enterprise exporter in China.39 It employs 9,000 workers in China and has40
invested $3.5 billion in China between 1987 and 2005. Other major U.S. investors
include General Motors (GM), Dell Computer, Hewlett-Packard, and Kodak.
Annual U.S. FDI flows to China appear to have slowed in recent years, falling
from $5.4 billion in 2002 to $3.1 billion in 2005, and its share of annual FDI fell
from 10.2% to 5.1%.41 However, several U.S. companies have announced major
investment plans in China. For example, in January 2007, the Chinese government
announced it had approved Intel’s application to build a semiconductor42
manufacturing plant in China, estimated to cost $3 to $3.5 billion. GM, which
employs 20,000 workers in China, also announced in January 2007 that it would43
invest an average $1 billion per year in China through 2010.
36 Center for Strategic and International Studies and the Institute for International
Economics, China: The Balance Sheet, 2006, p. 105.
37 Source: U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis.
38 U.S. data on FDI in China, and Chinese data on U.S. FDI in China differ significantly.
According to U.S. data, cumulative U.S. FDI in China (on a historical cost basis) was $16.9
billion at the end of 2005.
39 Source: Invest in China website, [http://www.fdi.gov.cn].
40 Motorola Press Release, March 15, 2006.
41 Chinese FDI data for January-November indicate U.S. FDI declined by 11.7% over 2005
42 International Tribune, January 18, 2007.
43 General Motors Press Release, January 7, 2007.
Table 15. Foreign Direct Investment Flows to China:
YearTotal FDI($ billions)U.S. FDI ($ billions)U.S. FDI in Chinaas a % of Total
Cumulative 634.5 51.1 8.2
Source: Official Chinese government estimates.
Note: In 2006, China made major revisions to its 2005 FDI data (revised from $60.3 billion to 72.4
billion) to new estimates of FDI in the banking, insurance, and securities sectors. Data prior to 2005
do not included revisions.
*Average U.S. FDI was $46 million.
Does Trade with China Harm the U.S. Economy?
The U.S. trade deficit with China has grown significantly in recent years, due
largely to a surge in U.S. imports of Chinese goods relative to U.S. exports to China.
That deficit rose from $30 billion in 1994 to an estimated $232 billion in 2006 (see
Table 10). The U.S. trade deficit with China is now larger than that of any other U.S.
trading partner. Some analysts contend that the large U.S. trade imbalance with
China is an indicator that China maintains a number of unfair trade practices that
seek to restrict imports of U.S. goods and services while boosting Chinese exports
to the United States. According to China’s critics, these include currency
manipulation, trade and investment barriers, industrial policies, failure to protect
intellectual property, dumping, and low labor and environmental standards.
The next section discusses the costs and benefits of trade with China in general
and evaluates some of the specific complaints made by critics. The report then
considers the effects of China’s trade deficit and currency regime.
Trade and Jobs
Imports from China (and other countries) can destroy jobs in the parts of the
U.S. economy that produce the same products. But economic analysis indicates that
due to off-setting job creation in other parts of the economy, the inflow of imports
is unlikely to cause a net loss of jobs economy-wide. There are two complementary
reasons for the relative steadiness of total employment and output in the face of a
rising level of imports or other disruptive market forces. First, the Federal Reserve,
using monetary policy, works to set the overall level of spending in the economy to
a level generally consistent with full employment.44 Although deviations from full
employment can occur, a well-run monetary policy can minimize the incidence and
duration of such episodes and help keep the total level of employment high in most
years despite outsourcing, trade deficits, or trade in general.
To give some perspective on the typical magnitude of “job loss” and its
relationship to total employment, consider that in any quarter of 2000, at the peak of
the last economic expansion, with total U.S. employment at about 137 million, gross
job losses tallied between 8.5 million and 9.0 million, and some fraction of those job
losses were likely the consequence of foreign trade. Nevertheless, the economy at
this time was operating at the lowest rate of unemployment in 40 years. In fact, over
the whole course of that expansion, the gross number of jobs lost actually rose as the
unemployment rate steadily fell. This was possible because with strong economy-
wide spending, it was possible to create job gains, including jobs created by foreign
trade, that more than offset losses. Similarly, in the far weaker labor market of 2004,
gross job losses per quarter measured about 7.4 million. But gross job gains in the
same time period were about 7.8 million per quarter, leading to a rise in total
employment over the year. In either time period, gross job losses occurred on a scale
well beyond what is currently attributed to foreign trade, suggesting that on an
economy-wide basis, job loss due to foreign trade may be relatively minor
occurrence, even though particular industries may be hit hard.45
Second, against the economic backdrop of adequate aggregate spending, any
increase in the purchase of imports will tend to generate an equal increase in the sale
of the country’s exports of goods or assets. This outcome follows from the
fundamental economic requirement that imports must be paid for and exports are the
44 Economies always have some amount of unemployment. Each economy will tend to have
a natural rate of unemployment around which the actual unemployment rate fluctuates. This
natural rate will also represent the rate at which the economy is effectively at full
employment, because a lower rate of unemployment would not be sustainable due to the
inducement of higher a rate of inflation. The natural rate is not zero because at any point
in time, there will be some people who are changing jobs and other people whom normal
market forces have temporarily displaced. The more fluid the economy’s labor markets, the
lower its natural rate of unemployment is likely to be. For most of the last 30 years, the U.S.
economy’s natural rate was judged to be in the 5.5% to 6.0% range. Since the mid-1990s,
the natural rate has likely fallen to the 4.5% to 5.0% range. Most often, an appropriate level
of aggregate spending is that consistent with employment at the natural rate.
45 U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Business Employment Dynamics,
only means for making that payment. The export sold can be a domestically
produced good or service, or it can also be the sale to a foreigner of an asset such as
a deposit in a bank account, shares of stock, bonds, or real property. Therefore, when
tallied across transactions in goods and assets, a nation’s trade is always in balance,
in the sense that any imbalance in goods trade must be offset by a compensating
imbalance in asset trade. Moreover, both types of exports have a positive effect on
Consider, for example, a situation where a good once produced domestically is
now imported from China. Because foreign suppliers do not spend dollars, the U.S.
importer will have to buy the foreign currency needed from the foreign exchange
market or pay in dollars and let the foreign supplier buy local currency from its
foreign exchange market. Either way, to generate the foreign exchange, the United
States must export something. It can sell U.S. goods or services, or it can sell U.S.
assets (e.g., bank deposits, stocks, bonds, real property).
The positive stimulus to employment from increased export of goods is direct.
When foreigners increase their purchases of U.S. goods, domestic output and
employment rise. This will counter the loss of jobs caused by the increase of
imports. If U.S. exports of goods increase less than the increase of imports, the
United States then must, in effect, borrow to fully pay for the increased imports
through the sale of an asset.
The positive stimulus to domestic employment from an increased export of
assets is indirect, however. Because the sale of an asset is equivalent to an increase
in the flow of saving available to the United States, it exerts a downward push on
domestic interest rates, stimulating interest-sensitive activities such as spending on
consumer durables and residential construction, and raising output and employment
in these sectors.47 Therefore, the negative effects that increased imports have on
output48 and employment in one part of the economy are offset by the positive
economic effects of increased exports of goods or assets in other parts of the
46 The official data on U.S. international transactions are presented in two sections: the
current account that tallies flows of goods and services and the financial account that tallies
flows of assets. The two accounts must be equal in magnitude but opposite in sign.
47 Of course, asset sales represent borrowing to sustain current domestic spending by
transferring to foreigners a claim on some amount of the future output of the United States.
The repayment of the loan will manifest as a future trade surplus and a net outflow of U.S.
exports of goods and services and, thereby, lead to reduction of future domestic spending
below what it otherwise would be.
48 The focus of this discussion is the circumstance when an import is a direct substitute for
domestic output. Imports, however, are not always substitutes for domestic output. An
import can be seen by consumers as a distinct product and primarily generate an increase
in total demand rather than a substitute for some domestic product. An imported good can
be an essential component necessary for the expansion of domestic output. An import can
satisfy a domestic demand that can not be readily supplied by domestic producers due to
capacity constraints. Imports from one country can be a substitute for imports formerly
obtained from another country.
economy.49 The composition of output and employment will change in response to
these changed demands, but as long as the Federal Reserve can maintain aggregate
spending at the an appropriate level, total output and employment will not change.
This scenario is discussed in greater detail below.
Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data on job loss can also provide some
perspective on the possible employment effects of trade with China. Beginning in
2004, the BLS has collected data on job loss due to transfer of work outside of the
United States. These data are a measure of gross job loss and show that through
2005 such lay-offs occurred on a small scale — between 3,000 and 5,000 workers per
quarter, or 12,000 to 20,000 per year. That represents about 2.0% of the total layoffs
in each quarter and an extremely small share of the U.S. total labor force of more
than 149 million workers.50
Although these data do not tell to which country work was transferred, one
would have to conclude that, even if all of the reported layoffs were the result of
production being shifted to China, the impact is small. Moreover, the overall effect
of trade on jobs is a net effect, reflecting the jobs that are created by international
trade in general or with China in particular. Unfortunately, there are no public data
series that allow a ready tallying of the net impact of trade on employment.
However, given the very small size of gross job loss observed in the BLS data, it is
reasonable to believe that the impact is either a very small net job loss or a net job
Sectoral Employment Effects. The impact of increased trade with low-
wage economies such as China’s might not have a net negative effect on overall
employment, but it likely does have some negative effect on employment in
particular trade-sensitive sectors of the economy. The employment problems of the
U.S. manufacturing sector are often cited as a consequence of, in part, the rising tide
of imports from China. Manufactured goods are far more important in U.S.
international trade than in the overall economy, making up about 80% of
international trade in goods but only 18% of U.S. GDP. Therefore, the expectation
is that factors that affect international trade will be more strongly felt in the
manufacturing sector than in the wider economy.
In the context of balanced goods trade, an increase in imports will be paid for
with an equal valued increase of exports. Although the increase of imports can
destroy jobs in manufacturing, the increase of exports tends to create jobs in that
49 Export related jobs generally pay on average 7% to 13% higher wages than jobs in import-
competing industries. So, most often, better jobs are being created than those that are being
destroyed. However, the new jobs are not necessarily going to be filled by those whose jobs
were destroyed. See Andrew B. Bernard and J. Bradford Jensen, “Exporters, Jobs, and
Wages in U.S. Manufacturing,” Brookings Papers on Economic Activity: Microeconomics
no. 47, 1995, pp. 67-112.
50 For these data, see United States Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics,
Extended Mass Layoffs, various issues. For further discussion of layoffs, see CRS Report
RL30799, Unemployment Through Layoffs: What are the Underlying Reasons, by Linda
sector. In the context of unbalanced trade, an economy such as the United States’
that is inclined by macroeconomic forces (largely separate from trade activity) to run
trade deficits can result in a net negative effect on employment in manufacturing.51
However, depending on the rate of capacity utilization in the sector, the structure of
final demand, and the degree of indirect demand for domestic manufactured goods
stimulated by the capital inflow that finances the trade deficit, the negative
employment effect on manufacturing can be significantly smaller than the size of the
An accurate assessment of trade’s possible negative impact on employment in
the U.S. manufacturing sector, however, requires consideration of factors other than
trade that also affect employment. These include the existing stage of the business
cycle, changes in the underlying demand for manufactured goods in general, and the
impact of increased productivity in manufacturing. Analyzing the large decline in
manufacturing employment since 2000, a 2004 CRS report found that as much as
60% of the job losses between 2000 and 2002 were the result of strong increases in
productivity in the manufacturing sector. About 20% of the lost jobs were found to
be the result of recession and slow recovery, and about 20% were considered to be
the result of a large and rising trade deficit.52 Again, none of these negative impacts
are a necessary consequence of a rising level of trade with China and other low-wage
Because of their sizeable presence in domestic production and even greater
presence in international trade, some sense of the magnitude of the impact of
increased trade with China on U.S. jobs can be gleaned from any changes in the
distribution of employment between home and foreign locations by U.S.
multinational companies (MNC).53 Thus, if a rising level of international trade were
diverting a large number of domestic jobs overseas, it would be evident in the
changing distribution of employment between MNC domestic parents and foreign
affiliates. Also, changes in the distribution of employment across countries would
give some indication of whether there has been a shift of jobs towards low-wage
economies, particularly if there has been a substantial shifting by multinationals of
employment from the United States to China.
The U.S.-parent share of total MNC employment decreased from 78% in 1977
to 72% in 2003 (the most recent year for which data are available). This decrease
is part of a decline that began in 1987, well before trade with China was a significant
economic force. Employment by foreign affiliates continues to be concentrated in
high-wage countries, however, with a share of about 65%. But employment in
foreign-affiliates in high-wage countries has grown more slowly than that in low-
wage countries, pushing the share of high-wage countries down from a high of about
51 See the discussion of trade deficits below.
52 See CRS Report RL32350, Deindustrialization of the U.S. Economy, by Craig Elwell.
53 In 2001, the MNC’s domestic parents produced about 25% of U.S. gross domestic
product (GDP) and employed more than 23 million workers, or about 20% of the nonbank
work force. MNCs are even more important in U.S. international trade, being involved in
nearly 60% of total goods exports and about 40% of total goods imports.
is suspected of causing a large loss of domestic jobs, the domestic parents of U.S.
multinational companies decreased employment by 165,000 jobs. At the same time,
employment in Chinese affiliates of U.S. MNCs increased by 95,000 jobs, but
employment in relatively high-wage European affiliates increased by 98,000 jobs as
well. What is also interesting is that there are also some significant decreases in
employment by affiliates in other low-wage economies. For example, Mexico had
a decrease of 21,000 jobs, and the whole South and Central American region had a
decrease of 52,000. Similarly, affiliates in some countries in Asia have had decreases
in employment. This has occurred to varying degrees in Taiwan, Thailand, Malaysia,
and the Philippines for a combined loss of about 60,000 jobs.54
This pattern of change in employment by U.S. multinationals could indicate that
domestic jobs were shifted to China. But it is also consistent with a pattern of jobs
in China being shifted from other low-wage countries. The changing national
composition of U.S. imports gives support to the latter scenario. As discussed above,
the increase in share of total U.S. imports coming from China has been largely
matched by a decrease in the share of goods imported from other Pacific Rim
countries. One reason offered for this changed pattern of trade is that China has
increasingly taken over the role as the final assembly and shipping point for many
exports that would previously have been exported from other low-wage economies
on the Pacific Rim and elsewhere. So U.S. trade with low-wage economies is not
necessarily rising to the degree widely believed; rather, it is shifting location (see
Table 13). Furthermore, this implies that the negative employment effects of this
change fell more heavily on workers in Pacific Rim countries and low-wage countries55
in other regions economies rather than on workers in the United States.
The natural “two-way” nature of trade suggests that for a complete view of
trade’s employment effects, we also consider the behavior of foreign MNCs in the
United States. A U.S. company can destroy jobs by diverting production abroad, but
a foreign company can create jobs by diverting production to the United States.
Economic reasoning tells us that if it is more efficient to produce some products
abroad, it is also likely that it is more efficient to produce other products in the
United States. Therefore, we might expect there to be outsourcing into and out of the
U.S. economy. During the 1977-2001 period, employment in the United States by
foreign MNCs grew by 4.7 million, exceeding the 2.8 million increase in
employment in the foreign affiliates of U.S. MNCs.56 These data could indicate that
54 Raymond J. Mataloni Jr., “A Note on Patterns of Production and Employment by U.S
Multinational Companies,” Survey of Current Business, vol. 84, no. 3 (March 2004), pp.
55 This also suggests that any restriction placed on China’s imports to the United States
would not increase domestic output, but would increase the output of the Pacific Rim
economies whose exports to the United States would increase as they become a replacement
for restricted Chinese goods. For a discussion of this and other aspects of trade with China,
see The Economic Report of the President (Washington: GPO, 2004), pp. 65-68, and CRS
Report RL32165, China’s Currency: Economic Issues and Options for U.S. Trade Policy,
by Wayne M. Morrison and Marc Labonte.
56 See Mataloni op. cit. For a closer look at the nature and extent of outsourcing, see CRS
considering inflows and outflows the United States was overall more likely to be the
destination than the departure point for foreign outsourcing.
Trade and Wages
Another common concern with a rising level of trade with China (and other low-
wage economies) is that it puts downward pressure on the wages of domestic
workers. Foreign trade is commonly seen as a process driven by the search by
American companies for low-wage environments, which ultimately places American
workers in effective competition with a vast pool of lower-wage foreign labor and
exerts downward pressure on the wages of domestic workers. This competition, it
is argued, will result in the so-called “race to the bottom” between domestic and
The reality of the supposed deleterious effect of increased trade with low-wage
economies on wages of American workers was given apparent credence for many
people by the observed concurrence, over a 20 year period beginning in the mid-
1970s, of slower growth of the average real wage and widening gap between the
wages of skilled and less-skilled workers with the steady increase in the U.S.
economy’s level of trade. The growth of real wages accelerated in the booming
1990s, deflecting some of the concerns about the effect of rising globalization on
worker compensation (although inequality continued to widen). But since the 2001
recession, real wages have been flat while the level of trade with China and other
low-wage economies has increased, generating renewed concern about the adverse
effects of that trade on worker wages.
In thinking about relative wages levels, international cost competition, and trade
between the United States and China, economic theory leads to two general
conclusions relevant to the impact of trade on the wages of American workers. First,
differences in the level of wages between countries are most often a reflection of
differences in worker productivity. Wages in the U.S. economy are high because
worker productivity is high; wages in the Chinese and other emerging economies are
low because worker productivity is commensurately low. Therefore, a comparison
more telling of the true differences in production cost between high-wage and low-
wage economies is differences in unit labor costs, the wage per hour divided by
output per hour. Because of the substantial concordance of wages and productivity,
differences in unit labor costs across countries tend to be much smaller than
differences in money wage rates. For example, one would expect that if a low-wage
economy’s average wage is only 10% of the average American wage, but its worker’s
productivity is also only 10% of the American worker’s productivity, there would be
no difference in unit labor costs and no labor cost advantage. Because there is
seldom a perfect concordance between a country’s wage level and productivity,
estimates of actual unit labor costs will not always just compensate for the money
wage difference. In most cases, however, unit labor costs in low-wage countries are
a substantial percentage of U.S. unit labor costs and in some cases actually exceed
Report RL32292, Offshoring (a.k.a. Offshore Outsourcing) and Job Insecurity Among U.S.
Workers, by Linda Levine.
the U.S. level. For example, one study found that Korea, Mexico, Brazil, and
Thailand had average unit labor costs 70% to 80% of that of the United States,
whereas Malaysia, Philippines, and India had average unit labor costs above that of
the United States.57 Other studies that have looked at the Chinese economy have also
found unit labor costs there to be 75% to 80% of the U.S. level.58 If we then consider
that the other elements needed for production such as capital, raw materials, energy,
and infrastructure are relatively more costly in most emerging economies, any
absolute cost advantage over the United States may be nil.
If there is no large absolute cost advantage to production in low-wage
economies, why does the United States buy imports from them? Answering this
question leads to the second general conclusion of economic theory on trade’s effect
on wages. Economic theory tells us that differences in the absolute cost of
production do not determine whether it is more beneficial to trade for a good or to
produce it domestically. The potential for mutually beneficial trade is determined by
differences in relative cost, or what economists term the presence of comparative
advantage in the production of a good.
The essential condition for a comparative advantage to exist is that for each
trading country there be a difference in the rate at which the production of one
tradable good must be decreased in order to increase production of another good. In
other words, what matters is the existence of differences in opportunity cost, not
absolute cost. Regardless of differences between countries in absolute production
costs, if these relative opportunity costs are different, then each country has a
comparative advantage in the production of one of the tradable goods, and by
specializing in the production of this good and trading for (importing) the other, the
country expands its consumption possibilities of both goods and thereby raises its
overall economic well-being.
Differences in comparative advantage will arise between countries because of
differences in the relative abundance or scarcity of the factors of production.
Comparative advantage will be found in those activities that make intensive use of
the abundant productive resource. For example, the United States, with a relative
abundance of high-skilled labor compared with many other countries, will find that
specialization in the production of goods that use high-skilled labor intensively will,
with trade, raise national income. By contrast, China, which has a relative abundance
of low-skilled labor and relative scarcity of high-skilled labor, would find that
specialization in the production of goods that use low-skilled workers intensively
would, with trade, raise that country’s real income.
Such specialization and trade would be expected to raise overall economic well-
being, but it also could have a disparate effect on the wages of American workers of
57 Stephen Golub, Does Trade with Low-Wage Countries Hurt American Workers? (Federal
Reserve Bank of Philadelphia,1998).
58 Sebastian Dullien, China’s Changing Competitive Position: Lessons from a Unit Labor
Cost Based FEER (Economics Working Papers Archive, 2005), and Chi Hung Kwan, The
Myth of Chinese Competitiveness: Are Low-Wages China’s Strength or Weakness?
(Research Institute of Economy Trade, and Industry, 2002).
different skill levels. When trade with China expands, there is an increase in the
demand for high-skilled American workers, tending to raise their wage, but there is
a decrease in the demand for less-skilled workers, tending to decrease their wages.
(Meanwhile, China experiences the opposite effect.) The average level of wages
does not change as the result of trade, being determined by the average level of labor
productivity, but the distribution of wages between skilled and less-skilled has
become less equal and the absolute level of economic well-being of less-skilled
workers would also fall.
The actual effect of trade on wages in the U.S. economy has been the focus of
numerous empirical studies over the last 15 years, and the conclusions that may be
drawn from these efforts are as follows:
!As regards the slow growth of the average real wage from the mid-
1970s to the late 1990s, increased trade is not seen as being the
cause of that sluggish performance. Rather, the identified reason
was slow productivity growth. Labor’s share of the economic pie
was not getting smaller; the economic pie just was not growing as
fast.59 That the level of wages is most often reflective of the level of
worker productivity also explains why higher-wage American
workers are not necessarily at a disadvantage to lower-wage foreign
!As regards trade and increased wage inequality, the research
indicates that trade was a contributing factor, but a minor one,
accounting for perhaps 10% to 20% of the observed increase in wage
inequality between skilled and less-skilled workers.60 The principal
contributing force causing the rise in wage inequality is thought to
most likely be the character of recent technological change to
generally raise the demand for higher-skilled workers. It would
seem then that from the standpoint of the economy as a whole, trade
with low-wage economies has, so far, not triggered a “race to the
Why has the impact of trade on wages been so modest? One reason is probably
a matter of scale. Trade with low-wage countries has been relatively small,
amounting to less than 5% of GDP in 2005. In fact, among U.S. trade partners the
average wage level in manufacturing relative to the U.S. manufacturing wage level
59 This conclusion is also confirmed by the absence of any sustained deterioration in labor’s
share of national income, which has remained at about 70% throughout the post-World War
60 See Cline, William R., Trade and Wage Inequality, Institute For International Economics,
Washington, DC, 1997; and Borjas, George, and Richard B. Freeman; Lawrence F. Katz.
“How Much Do Immigration and Trade Affect Labor Market Outcomes?” Brookings Papers
on Economic Activity, 1997, pp. 1-90; Susan Collins, Trade and the American Worker,
Brookings Institution, Washington, DC, 1997; and Lawrence and Litan, op. cit.
grew from 60% in 1975 to 76% of the U.S. level in 2000.61 This has occurred
because many trading partners that were once low-wage economies, with open trade
and steady economic growth, have now become high-wage economies. China’s scale
of trade with the United States has increased greatly, but relative to the U.S.
economy, it stills remains small. In 2005, the U.S. trade deficit with China was $202
billion, a size equivalent to less than 2% of U.S. GDP and not large enough to have
a major effect on overall wages in the United States.
The scale of impact is also related to the overall size of the U.S. sectors
producing tradeable goods. Keep in mind that the U.S. economy is still largely
domestic in orientation, with perhaps as much as two-thirds of the labor force,
including large numbers of low-skilled workers, working and having wages
determined in activities largely unaffected by trade. A sector like manufacturing,
which produces a large share of U.S. tradable goods, employs only about 14 million
workers out of a total labor force of nearly 140 million. In contrast, the service
sector, which produces a largely non-tradeable output, employs nearly 110 million
Rising income in the world is also likely to raise the demand for the products
whose production uses low-skilled labor intensively. Once low-wage economies
transform to high-wage economies, two events occur: (1) they tend to produce fewer
of the goods typically produced by low-wage workers, and (2) they tend to increase
their absolute demand for the products produced by low-wage workers. The two
effects exert upward pressure on the wages of these workers, including any producing
similar products in the United States. This outcome is consistent with the evidence
that for the United States, the relative price of unskilled, labor-intensive, import-
competing goods rose in the 1980s and 1990s.62
This shifting of the location of production for products made by low-skill
workers is particularly relevant for understanding the probable impact on the U.S.
economy of sharply rising imports from China in recent years. China has picked up
the role of producer of these types of products, as other East Asian economies have
withdrawn from that type of production as these economies did when Japan shifted
away from low-wage based production. Reviewing the period 1994 through 2003,
the Council of Economic Advisors concluded that for the United States, the increase
in share of total U.S. imports accounted for by imports of goods from China has been
largely offset by a decrease in the share of goods imported from other Pacific Rim
countries. The value of imports from both sources has increased considerably. Still,
many of the export jobs in non-China Asia are migrating to China, so the
61 U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, “A Perspective on U.S. and Foreign
Compensation Costs in Manufacturing,” Monthly Labor Review, vol. 125, no. 6 (June 2002),
62 Jagdish Bhagwati and Vivek Dehejia, “Freer Trade and Wages — Is Marx Striking
Again,” in Jagdish Bhagwati and Marvin Kosters, eds., Trade and Wages:Leveling Wages
Down? (Washington: AEI Press, 1995), pp. 36-75.
distributional effects of this change fell on workers in China and the Pacific Rim
economies rather than on workers in the United States.63
Economies of scale are also a factor that likely helps hold up industrial wages
in the face of low-wage foreign competition. The beneficial effects on cost from a
larger-scale production are thought to be significant in many industries in high-wage
countries, tending to increase worker productivity and decrease unit labor costs. It
is also possible that the increase of competition itself spurs companies to higher
levels of efficiency, which lowers unit labor costs and helps preserve higher wages.
Of course, it cannot be ruled out that if trade with relatively low-wage
economies such as China continues to grow in importance, the negative effects on
U.S. worker wages of such trade would grow in significance. Yet, there is probably
an upper bound to this effect, for it is possible that in the future, with only relatively
moderate differences between home and foreign production costs, complete
specialization could occur. That is, the United States would no longer produce much
of what is imported from low-wage foreign economies. There would be short-run
transition costs for those displaced from low-wage jobs at that time. But since the
United States would then no longer have industries that use low-wage labor
intensively, there would be no downward pressure on domestic wages caused by such
trade from that point forward. To the extent that this pattern of trade allows for a
fuller realization of economies of scale and lowers product prices, the real wage of
the average domestic worker could be increased.
“Unfair” Trade Practices and the Gains from Trade
Some critics argue that “fair” trade with a country that “plays by the rules”
would be beneficial to the United States, but that China employs many unfair trading
practices that make trade with it not in America’s self-interest. Major issues of
concern include a wide assortment of tariff and non-tariff barriers, China’s currency
policy (addressed below), industrial policies to promote domestic industries, selling
goods below cost (dumping), low wages and poor environmental practices, and
failure to protect U.S. intellectual property rights (IPR).
!Trade and investment barriers. Critics charge that although China
has significantly liberalized its trade regime since joining the WTO
in 2001 (such as lowering tariff and removing a number of non-tariff
barriers), implementation of its WTO commitments has been uneven
and incomplete and has prevented U.S. firms from enjoying the level
of market access they expected to obtain. On February 14, 2006,
then-U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) Rob Portman complained
63 This also suggests any restriction placed on China’s imports to the United States would
not increase domestic output; rather, it would increase the output of the Pacific Rim
economies whose exports to the United States would increase as they become a replacement
for restricted Chinese goods. For a discussion of this and other aspects of trade with China,
see The Economic Report of the President (Washington: GPO, 2004), pp. 65-68, and CRS
Report RL32165, China’s Currency: Economic Issues and Options for U.S. Trade Policy,
by Wayne M. Morrison and Marc Labonte.
that “overall, our U.S.-China trade relationship today lacks equity,
durability, and balance in the opportunities it provides.”64
!Industrial policies. The USTR noted in its 2006 China WTO
compliance report that many of the shortcomings in China’s
implementation of its WTO obligations stemmed from its65
incomplete transition to a free market economy. Many U.S.
policymakers have raised concerns over China’s policies to promote
the development of mainly state-owned industries (often referred to
as “pillar industries”) deemed by the government to be critical to
future development and growth, such as autos, steel, energy,
electronics, and information technology. For example, in July 2005,
the Chinese government issued new guidelines on steel production,
which included provisions for the preferential use of domestically
produced steel-manufacturing equipment and domestic technologies;
extensive government involvement in determining the number, size,
location, and production quantities of steel producers in China;
technology transfer requirements on foreign investment; and
restrictions on foreign majority ownership. Other U.S. complaints
include the issuance of regulations on auto parts tariffs that
discourage the use of imported parts, attempts to develop unique
national standards in a number of high technology areas that could
lead to the extraction of technology or intellectual property from
foreign rights-holders, and draft government procurement66
regulations mandating purchases of Chinese-produced software.
Many U.S. policymakers contend that China’s industrial policies67
violate its WTO commitments. China is hoping to move from an
export platform of foreign multinational companies invested in
China to a major exporter of advanced Chinese designed and made
products. For example, two Chinese auto companies have
announced plans to begin exporting cars to the United States by
!Dumping. A number of groups have charged that China often sells
its products to the United States at less than fair market value and
that China’s low wages and poor labor conditions give Chinese
products an unfair advantage in the United States and third markets.
They charge that these practices have damaged several U.S.
industries (such as textiles) and the loss of millions of U.S.
64 Remarks by Ambassador Rob Portman, press conference on U.S.-China Trade Relations,
Top-to-Bottom Review, Feb. 14, 2006.
65 USTR, 2006 Report to Congress on China’s WTO Compliance, Dec. 11, 2006.
66 Prepared testimony of Assistant USTR Timothy P. Stratford before the U.S.-China
Economic and Security Review Commission, Apr. 4, 2006.
67 Chinese industrial policies that discriminate against foreign products have been the target
of two U.S. cases against China in the WTO involving semiconductors and auto parts.
manufacturing jobs (see below). As a result, China has been the
biggest target of U.S. anti-dumping measures.
!Low labor and environmental standards. Chinese firms have
been widely criticized for environmental practices that would not be
allowed in the United States. U.S. firms argue that this confers a
cost advantage against which they, with their cost of environmental
compliance, cannot compete. Similarly, U.S. firms argue that they
cannot compete with Chinese firms because of the cost of complying
with the workplace protections afforded to U.S., but not Chinese,
workers. This dynamic is often referred to as a “race to the bottom,”
as the United States will purportedly be forced to eventually lower
its labor and environmental standards to developing country levels
in order to compete with developing countries.
!International property rights (IPR). U.S. IPR industry officials
estimate that IPR piracy in China cost U.S. copyright firms $2.4
billion in lost sales in 2005 and that the piracy rate for IPR-related
products in China is among the highest in the world.68 U.S. firms
contend that IPR piracy in China has worsened in recent years. In
addition, China accounts for a significant share of imported
counterfeit products seized by U.S. Customs and Border Protection:
$64 million, or 69% of total goods seized, in FY2005.
Although it is beyond the scope of this report to evaluate all of the specific
claims that have been made about China, it is perhaps useful, as a first step, to
consider some general observations regarding “unfair” trade. This will help clarify
the economic reality of this issue and suggest economically efficient policy
Virtually all economists argue that free trade leads to a more efficient allocation
of worldwide productive resources that result in higher real income and economic
well-being for each trading partner. Critics maintain, however, that unless such trade
is also “fair,” in the sense that each trading partner has the same rules and regulations
governing its trading practices, then the gains from trade will not occur or be much
smaller than they otherwise would be.
The metaphor most often invoked by the proponents of fair trade is the need for
a “level playing field.” If U.S. trading partners abide by the same rules and
regulations governing business and trade practices, the “playing field” will no longer
be tilted to the disadvantage of the United States, undercutting its ability to compete
in trade with these nations. The problem with such sports metaphors is that they do
not give an accurate characterization of the true nature of trade. In sports, games are
a zero-sum activity, where there is a winner and a loser. Trade, however, is a
“positive-sum” activity, where both parties benefit. So long as the foreign producer
68 The International Intellectual Property Alliance (IIPA) estimated China’s piracy rates in
2005 in the following areas: motion pictures (93%), records and music (85%), business
software (88%), and entertainment software (92%). See [http://www.iipa.com].
sells the good to you at a relative cost below that of producing the good at home, it
can be said that there is an economic gain to the United States, regardless of whether
the foreign producer’s trade practices are “unfair.”
More fundamentally, as indicated by the economic theory of comparative
advantage, the cost advantage results from there being significant economic
difference between trading countries. In other words, it is the “tilted playing field”
that creates the possibility for mutual gains from trade. The difference could be in
the relative abundance of productive resources like land, capital and labor, or the
level of technology, or in climate. But it could also be the result of differences in
government-initiated rules and regulations governing business and trade practices.
Nor is it necessarily unreasonable for countries to have significantly different rules
and regulations governing economic activity, as they will often reflect legitimate
differences in social preferences, as well as the realistic choices of countries with
vastly lower levels of national income that are trying to pull themselves up out of
poverty. Although labor and environmental standards may be low now, the higher
income that trade brings might be an important force for the eventual elevation of
wage and environmental standards in these countries.
Individual industries in the United States may be harmed by the trade that
emerges as a result of these differences in rules and regulations, but a policy by the
United States, such as a tariff on imported products that leads to a “level playing
field,” would also erase the gains from trade. The tariff may help those individual
industries, but its overall effect could be to turn a positive-sum activity into a
negative-sum activity in which both countries are net losers.
That it is possible to have gains from trade in the presence of various “unfair”
trade practices does not mean that better outcomes are not possible. Despite
substantial reduction in the post-World War II era, significant tariff barriers continue
to exist in rich and poor countries alike. Removing the tariff barriers that remain
would raise the level of world trade and increase the mutual gains from trade. The
steady reductions of tariffs and other trade barriers by the world’s economies over the
last 60 years was largely achieved by successive rounds of multilateral reductions.
Since WWII, there have been eight major multilateral trade agreements, the most
recent being the Uruguay Round, which was completed in 1994. From a public
policy perspective, the use of unfair trade practices can undermine public support
(especially by representatives of domestic firms and workers that are hurt by these
practices) for bilateral, regional, and multilateral trade agreements that might further
liberalize trade rules and thus boost economic growth.
Other alleged “unfair” trade practices are likely to be more difficult to resolve
for, to an important degree, the unfairness is “in the eye of the beholder.” For
example, the dumping of exports is seen by the United States as an unfair trade
practice. It is illegal under U.S. law, and the government has actively used the law
to impose anti-dumping duties on the imports of offending countries. Yet,
determining whether dumping has occurred is often far from straightforward, and the
process is seen by many to be biased against the foreign producer. More important,
economists place little economic merit in most claims of dumping, seeing price
cutting as a useful element of competition that is widely practiced by domestic firms,
and it leads to greater efficiency and economic benefit to consumers. Because they
are being sanctioned for actions that would not be illegal for a U.S. firm
domestically, it is natural for exporters to the U.S. market to see the ready use or
threat of use of the anti-dumping levy as the “unfair” trade practice, being, in their
eyes, thinly veiled protectionism.
This same inversion of perspective can also arise when rich countries, in an
attempt to “level the playing field,” push for higher labor and environmental
standards in poor countries. As countries with low standards might see it, standards
in the United States and other rich countries have been set too high and are being
used to create a trade barrier. It is seen as a trade barrier because to conform to the
higher standards, foreign rivals would incur increased production costs and become
unable to maintain a competitive position in the U.S. market. This is an example of
what is called “export protectionism,” meaning rather than use a tariff to deter
imports, the cost of the product is forced to rise, accomplishing the same result as a
In other instances, the unfair trade practice may be more costly than beneficial
to the country that pursues it. This is probably true of subsidies to promote exporting
industries. If the subsidy lowers the price of goods the U.S. imports, there would be
a favorable terms of trade effect that causes a shifting of the division of the overall
gains from trade from the exporting country to the importing country. If the subsidy
lowers the price of a good that competes with U.S. exports, there would be an
unfavorable shift in the U.S. terms of trade and a reduction in the U.S. gains from
trade. However, based on the experience of Japan in the 1970s and 1980s and of
South Korea, Thailand, and Indonesia in the 1980s and 1990s, it is more likely that
the subsidy policy will fail overall, not being successful at establishing any form of
competitive exporting industry, while imposing significant costs on the overall
economy by diverting scarce resources from more efficient uses.
There are also arguments that certain unfair trade practices could threaten to
undermine so-called “strategic industries.” These are generally considered to be
high-technology sectors that are deemed critical to future economic development
because of the important spillover effects they have over other parts of the economy,
and therefore warrant strong government action, including trade protection.69
Sometimes this is called the “infant industry” rationale for protectionism, because it
suggests that these strategic industries need government assistance to become
commercially viable, although they may eventually be able to compete on their own.
The problem with this argument is that it suggests that the government can “pick
winners” more effectively than markets, perhaps because it has a longer time horizon.
On the contrary, private investors are often willing to take losses on new companies,
particularly in high-tech industries, for several years if they believe they will
ultimately be profitable. Moreover, governments may have other motives besides
profit maximization behind the winners that they back.
69 Such spillovers could include the development and diffusion of new technology
throughout the economy, an improvement in a nation’s term of trade, growth in other related
industries, an increase in productivity, and the creation of high-paying jobs.
A closely related argument is that certain U.S. industries are critical to U.S.
national security and must be defended against unfair trade practices. For example,
some analysts contend that national security needs require the United States to
maintain an independent supply of steel. China is the world’s largest steel producer,
accounting for 31% of the world’s steel production; its production levels in 2005 rose
by 25% over the previous year. The U.S. steel industry has expressed growing fears
that overinvestment and overcapacity will lead China to flood world markets with
cheap steel.70 The problem with these arguments is how to identify such industries
and to prevent trade policies from being used mainly to protect firms from foreign
competition for political reasons.
Finally, IPR piracy is an issue that most economists would agree has economic
costs that outweigh any benefits. There are a number of costs to consider. First, the
distribution of pirated products can lower the sales of legitimate products, thus
undermining the attainment of greater economies of scale by U.S. firms, making
them less competitive. Second, many firms expend a significant level of resources
on research and development (R&D) to create develop new products (such as
medicines) with the expectation that these costs will later be recovered through sale
of the product. However, widespread piracy of that product undermines the ability
to recover R&D costs and thus may discourage innovation. Likewise, creators of
intellectual property are responding to the financial incentives that copyrights and
trademarks provide. If piracy undermines those incentives, the economic benefits to
creation of intellectual property could decline. Third, pirated products that use false
labels to pass as legitimate brand name products are generally inferior in quality and
thus can undermine a company’s reputation and reduce its legitimate sales. Another
concern is over the health of consumers, such as when pirated drugs and medicines
(that lack effectiveness) are sold, and safety, such as when pirated brake pads are
used to replace old pads on a car. Finally, the prevalence of pirated low-cost
products in China makes it substantially more difficult for U.S. firms to sell their
products in the Chinese market.
Piracy also poses challenges to China’s economy. The Chinese government
estimated that in 2001, $19-$24 billion worth of counterfeit goods were sold in
China. A study by the Motion Picture Association of America estimated that China’s
domestic film industry lost about $1.5 billion in revenue to piracy in 2005.71 Chinese
press reports indicate a number of health and safety problems resulting from
counterfeit products in China.72 This indicates that IPR piracy has had a significant
negative impact on various Chinese economic sectors as well. Without a solid IPR
enforcement regime, innovation and growth of IPR-related industries in China will
likely be greatly retarded.
70 According to U.S. officials, China’s excess steel capacity in 2006 could be larger than
total U.S. steel production. Such concerns have led the United States to begin a Steel
Dialogue with China, which first met in March 2006 to discuss issues of concern to the U.S.
71 Reuters, “China Piracy Costs Film Industry $2.7 Billion in 2005,” June 19, 2006.
72 For example, in 2004, 13 infants in China reportedly died, and hundreds were sickened,
from drinking fake baby formula. See New York Times, “China: Prison for Two in Baby
Formula Scandal,” Aug. 6, 2004, p. A4.
Effects of the Bilateral Trade Deficit and the
Exchange Rate Policy on the U.S. Economy
Some argue that trade with China is not necessarily harmful to the U.S.
economy per se, but becomes harmful because imports to the United States are
matched by a trade deficit rather than by exports to China. As noted earlier, both
imports from China and the trade deficit have grown rapidly. U.S. exports to China
have also grown rapidly, but remain small compared with imports. Many U.S.
policymakers have expressed concern that the trade deficit is reducing economic
output and employment in the United States, particularly in the manufacturing sector.
They believe that China’s exchange rate policy is at the root of the trade imbalance.
From 1994 to July 21, 2005, China kept its exchange rate fixed to the U.S. dollar at
a rate of 8.3 yuan to the dollar. (The operation of the peg is discussed below.)
Although it is difficult to estimate how much the yuan might have appreciated in the
absence of government intervention, many U.S. critics claimed that the
undervaluation was large.
The Chinese government modified its currency policy on July 21, 2005. It
announced that the yuan’s exchange rate would become “adjustable, based on market
supply and demand with reference to exchange rate movements of currencies in a
basket.”73 (It was later announced that the composition of the basket includes the
dollar, the yen, the euro, and a few other currencies.) Further, it announced that the
exchange rate of the U.S. dollar against the yuan would be immediately adjusted
from 8.28 to 8.11, an appreciation of about 2.1%. Unlike a true floating exchange
rate, the yuan would (according to the Chinese government) be allowed to fluctuate
by no more than 0.3% on a daily basis against the basket. Since July 2005, China has
allowed the yuan to appreciate steadily but very slowly. It has continued to
accumulate foreign reserves at a rapid pace, which suggests that if the yuan were
allowed to freely float it would appreciate much more rapidly. The current situation
might be best described as a “managed float” — market forces are determining the
general direction of the yuan’s movement, but the government is retarding its rate of
appreciation through market intervention.
Although an undervalued yuan does depress the output of the U.S. trade sector,
the overall effect on the U.S. economy is more complex, as discussed below.
Effect on Exporters and Import-Competitors. When China’s exchange
rate policy causes the yuan to be less expensive than it would be if it were floating,
it causes Chinese exports to the United States to be relatively inexpensive and U.S.
exports to China to be relatively expensive. As a result, U.S. exports and the
production of U.S. goods and services that compete with Chinese imports fall, in the
short run. This causes the U.S. trade deficit to rise and reduces aggregate demand in
the short run, all else equal.
73 Fixing the yuan to a basket of currencies does not rule out the possibility that the yuan
could depreciate or appreciate against the dollar. When the other currencies in the basket
depreciate against the dollar, so will the yuan, but to a lesser extent. How closely the yuan
moves with the dollar against other currencies will depend on how large a weight the dollar
has in the basket.
China has become the United States’ second-largest supplier of imports (2006
data). A large share of China’s exports to the United States are labor-intensive
consumer goods, such as toys and games, textiles and apparel, shoes, and consumer
electronics. Many of these products do not compete directly with U.S. domestic
producers; the manufacture of many such products shifted overseas several years ago.
However, there are a number of U.S. industries (many of which are small and
medium-sized firms), including makers of machine tools, hardware, plastics,
furniture, and tool and die equipment that are expressing concern over the growing
competitive challenge posed by China.74 An undervalued Chinese currency may
contribute to a reduction in the output of such industries.75
On the other hand, U.S. producers also import capital equipment and inputs to
final products from China. For example, U.S. computer firms use a significant level
of imported computer parts in their production, and China was the largest foreign
supplier of computer equipment to the United States in 2005. An undervalued yuan
lowers the price of these U.S. products, increasing their output and competitiveness
in world markets. And many imports from China are produced by U.S.-invested
enterprises (as discussed above), which benefit from an undervalued currency.
Effect on U.S. Borrowers. An undervalued yuan also has an effect on U.S.
borrowers. When the United States runs a current account deficit with China, an
equivalent amount of capital flows from China to the United States, as can be seen
in the U.S. balance of payments accounts. This occurs because the Chinese central
bank or private Chinese citizens are investing in U.S. assets, which allows more U.S.
capital investment in plant and equipment to take place than would otherwise occur.
Capital investment increases because the greater demand for U.S. assets puts
downward pressure on U.S. interest rates, and firms are now willing to make
investments that were previously unprofitable. This increases aggregate spending in
the short run, all else equal, and increases the size of the economy in the long run by
increasing the capital stock.
Private firms are not the only beneficiaries of the lower interest rates caused by
the capital inflow (trade deficit) from China. Interest-sensitive household spending
on goods such as consumer durables and housing is also higher than it would be if
capital from China did not flow into the United States. Consumer durables and
residential investment have been two of the strongest sectors of the economy in the
In addition, a large proportion of the U.S. assets bought by the Chinese,
particularly by the central bank, are U.S. Treasury securities, which fund U.S. federal
74 Testimony of Franklin J. Vargo, National Association of Manufacturers, before the House
Committee on Financial Services, Subcommittee on Domestic and International Monetary,
Trade, and Technology Policy hearing, China’s Exchange Rate Regime and Its Effects on
the U.S. Economy, Oct. 1, 2003.
75 As discussed above, U.S. manufacturing has been particularly affected by trade with
China. The bilateral trade deficit likely attenuates the effect of trade on manufacturing
because many services are non-tradeable. As a result, manufacturing bears a
disproportionate burden of any trade deficit.
budget deficits. According to the U.S. Treasury Department, China (as of November
2006) held $347 billion in U.S. Treasury securities, making China the second-largest
foreign holder of such securities (after Japan). If the U.S. trade deficit with China
were eliminated, Chinese capital would no longer flow into this country on net, and
the government would have to find other buyers of its U.S. Treasuries. This would
increase the government’s interest payments, increasing the budget deficit, all else
Effect on U.S. Consumers. A society’s economic well-being is usually
measured not by how much it can produce, but by how much it can consume. An
undervalued yuan that lowers the price of imports from China allows the United
States to increase its consumption of both imported and domestically produced goods
through an improvement in the terms-of-trade. The terms-of-trade measures the
terms on which U.S. labor and capital can be exchanged for foreign labor and capital.
Because changes in aggregate spending are only temporary, from a long-term
perspective, the lasting effect of an undervalued yuan is to increase the purchasing76
power of U.S. consumers.
Net Effect on the U.S. Economy. In the medium run, an undervalued yuan
neither increases nor decreases aggregate demand in the United States. Rather, it
leads to a compositional shift in U.S. production, away from U.S. exporters and
import-competing firms toward the firms that benefit from the lower interest rates
caused by Chinese capital inflows. In particular, capital-intensive firms and firms
that produce consumer durables would be expected to benefit from lower interest
rates. Thus, it is expected to have no medium- or long-run effect on aggregate U.S.
employment or unemployment. As evidence, one can consider that the United States
had a historically large and growing trade deficit throughout the 1990s at a time when
unemployment reached a three-decade low and there was no decline in manufacturing
employment. However, the gains and losses in employment and production caused
by the trade deficit will not be dispersed evenly across regions and sectors of the
economy: on balance, some areas will gain while others will lose.
Although the compositional shift in output has no negative effect on aggregate
U.S. output and employment in the long run, there may be adverse short-run
consequences. If output in the trade sector falls more quickly than the output of U.S.
recipients of Chinese capital rises, aggregate spending and employment could
temporarily fall. If this occurs, then there is likely to be a decline in the inflation rate
as well (which could be beneficial or harmful, depending on whether inflation is high
or low at the time). A fall in aggregate spending is more likely to be a concern if the
economy is already sluggish than if it is at full employment. Otherwise, it is likely
that government macroeconomic policy adjustment and market forces can quickly
compensate for any decline of output in the trade sector by expanding other elements
76 Some commentators have compared the undervalued exchange rate to a Chinese tariff on
U.S. imports. One major difference between a tariff and the peg is that a tariff does not
result in any benefit to U.S. consumers, as the peg did. A more appropriate comparison
might be an export subsidy, which benefits consumers who purchase the subsidized product
at a lower cost, but may harm some domestic firms that must compete against the
of aggregate demand. The deficit with China has not prevented the U.S. economy
from registering high rates of growth since 2003.
By shifting the composition of U.S. output to a higher capital base, the size of
the economy would be larger in the long run as a result of the capital inflow/trade
deficit. U.S. citizens would not enjoy the returns to Chinese-owned capital in the
United States. U.S. workers employing that Chinese-owned capital would enjoy
higher productivity, however, and correspondingly higher wages.
The U.S.-China Trade Deficit in the Context of the Overall U.S.
Trade Deficit. Although China is a large trading partner, it accounted for only
about 15.4% of U.S. imports in 2006 and 26.0% of the sum of the bilateral trade77
deficits. Over a span of several years, a country with a floating exchange rate like
the United States can run an ongoing overall trade deficit for only one reason: a
domestic imbalance between saving and investment. This has been the case for the
United States over the past two decades, where saving as a share of gross domestic78
product (GDP) has been in gradual decline. On the one hand, the United States has
high rates of productivity growth and strong economic fundamentals that are
conducive to high rates of capital investment. On the other hand, it has a chronically
low household saving rate and, recently, a negative government saving rate as a result
of the budget deficit. As long as Americans save little, and foreigners use their
saving to finance profitable investment opportunities in the United States, the trade79
deficit is the result. The returns to foreign-owned capital will flow to foreigners
instead of Americans, but the returns to U.S. labor utilizing foreign-owned capital
will flow to U.S. labor.
For this reason, economists generally are more concerned with the overall trade
deficit than bilateral trade balances. Because of comparative advantage (and other
forces that shape the structure of trade), it is natural that a country will have some
trading partners from which it imports more and some trading partners to which it
exports more. For example, the United States has a trade deficit with Austria and a
trade surplus with the Netherlands, even though both countries use the euro, which
floats against the dollar. Of concern to the United States from an economic
perspective is that its low saving rate makes it so reliant on foreigners to finance its
investment opportunities, and not the fact that much of the capital comes from
77 Estimated, based on January-November 2006 data.
78 See Congressional Budget Office, Causes and Consequences of the Trade Deficit, March
79 Nations that fail to save enough to meet their investment needs must obtain savings from
other countries with high savings rates. By obtaining resources from foreign investors for
its investment needs, the United States is able to enjoy a higher rate of consumption than it
would if investment were funded by domestic savings alone (although many analysts warn
that America’s low savings rate could be risky to the U.S. economy in the long run). The
inflow of foreign capital to the United States is equivalent to the United States borrowing
from the rest of the world. The only way the United States can borrow from the rest of the
world is by importing more than it exports (running a trade deficit).
China.80 If the United States did not borrow from China as a result of the exchange
rate peg, it would still have to borrow from other countries.81
Purchase of U.S. Treasuries To Maintain the Peg
The Chinese central bank maintained the exchange rate peg to the dollar from
1994 to July 2005 by buying (or selling) as many dollar-denominated assets (referred
to as foreign exchange reserves) in exchange for newly printed yuan as needed to
eliminate excess demand (supply) for the yuan.82 As a result, the exchange rate
between the yuan and the dollar basically stayed the same, despite changing
economic factors that could have otherwise caused the yuan to either appreciate or
depreciate relative to the dollar. Under a floating exchange rate system, such as the
arrangement between the dollar and the euro, the relative demand for the two
countries’ goods and assets would determine the exchange rate of the yuan to the
dollar, and the central bank would not systematically intervene in currency markets
to influence its value.
Many economists contend that for the first several years of the peg, the fixed
value was likely close to the market value. But in the past few years, economic
conditions have changed such that the yuan would likely have appreciated if it had
been floating. The main evidence that the yuan was undervalued was the rapid
increase in China’s foreign exchange reserves, as seen in Table 16. Comparing the
increase in Chinese ownership of U.S. Treasuries to the increase in foreign reserves,
one can see that U.S. Treasuries made up only a portion of the foreign reserves
accumulated by China. The remainder were securities of other foreign countries, and
perhaps U.S. agency securities (e.g., the debt obligations of Fannie Mae and Freddie
Mac). Not all of the U.S. Treasuries were bought by the Chinese central bank; some
were likely bought by private Chinese firms and citizens.
80 From a political perspective, some U.S. policymakers have expressed concern over the
high level of U.S. government debt owed to the Chinese government.
81 For more information, see CRS Report RL30534, America’s Growing Current Account
Deficit: Its Cause and What It Means for the Economy, by Marc Labonte and Gail Makinen.
82 China may have been able to partially offset the inflationary effects of this policy because
it maintains capital controls. This may have allowed the central bank to remove some of the
newly printed yuan from circulation without attracting capital inflows.
Table 16. China’s Foreign Exchange Reserves and Chinese
Ownership of U.S. Treasuries
Chinese Central Bank’s
YearChinese Ownership ofU.S. TreasuriesForeign Exchange
Source: U.S. Treasury, Economist Intelligence Unit, and China Daily.
Note: Year-end values.
*End of November 2006.
As discussed in the previous section, the purchase of U.S. Treasuries by the
Chinese central bank resulted in greater demand for — and therefore lower interest
rates on — the U.S. government’s debt. This reduces interest rates and increases
interest-sensitive spending throughout the U.S. economy.
As long as the peg was maintained, the Chinese central bank was obliged to buy
as many U.S. Treasuries as necessary to maintain the peg. Now its obligations are
somewhat different. To limit the yuan’s daily fluctuation to 0.3%, it is likely the
Chinese central bank will still actively buy and sell foreign reserves. Because the
exchange rate is no longer exclusively tied to the dollar, a smaller proportion of their
future foreign reserve transactions may be in dollar-denominated assets. To date, the
new arrangement (and its effect on the U.S. economy) has not produced significantly
different results than the previous fixed exchange rate regime. The current situation
might be best described as a “managed float” — market forces are determining the
general direction of the yuan’s movement, but the government is still accumulating
foreign reserves to retard its rate of appreciation. This exchange rate policy is similar
to many of its neighbors, which are also major U.S. trading partners.
If the Chinese moved to a freely floating exchange rates, as many U.S.
policymakers have requested, then it would no longer be necessary for the Chinese
central bank to maintain large holdings of U.S. Treasuries. Some have feared that the
Chinese might then dump their holding of U.S. Treasuries on the market, disrupting
U.S. financial markets, and thereby damaging the overall economy. While there is
a legitimate concern that financial markets would be disrupted in this scenario, it is
unclear why this action would be in China’s self interest. Were the Chinese central
bank to dump enough Treasuries on the market to push down their price, it would be
forced to take capital losses on the sale. A depreciation of the dollar would also
reduce the yuan value of China’s holdings of U.S. securities. If the losses were great
enough, it could cause the Chinese central bank’s liabilities to exceed its assets.
Even if China no longer needs U.S. Treasuries to maintain the peg, it would still want
to hold Treasuries to maintain a well-balanced portfolio of foreign reserves. Given
China’s focus on maintaining exchange rate stability and discouraging currency
speculation, it is unlikely to wish to reduce its overall foreign reserve holdings either.
Finally, it would not be in China’s self-interest to reduce growth in its largest export
market. It is possible, however, that the move could be made for geopolitical, rather
than economic, reasons.
Some commentators have referred to the maintenance of the peg as a new form
of mercantilism. Mercantilism is a school of thought originating in the 17th century
that held that the goal of a nation’s trade policy should be to maximize the
accumulation of gold and silver reserves through large trade surpluses. In this case,
it is argued, China is trying to maximize its foreign reserve holdings (mainly U.S.
Treasuries and other foreign debt) instead of gold and silver. David Hume’s forceful
rejection of the mercantilist’s logic applies to the current situation as well. Economic
welfare is measured by total consumption over one’s lifetime, not by the hoarding of
foreign exchange reserves. Those foreign exchange reserves could be sold at some
point to finance future consumption, but if the earnings on those reserves are
relatively low (as is the case with U.S. Treasuries), future consumption will be worth
less than the consumption forgone today to accumulate them. Furthermore, any
attempt to accumulate unlimited reserves will automatically be thwarted by the
inflationary effects of such a policy, which will reduce the trade surplus. Ultimately,
a nation’s wealth lies in its productive capacity rather than its reserve holdings.
What Will Happen to the Terms of Trade?
In economics, the central economic question to be answered in regard to
increased international trade is not its particular effect on employment or wages.
Those effects are not to be ignored, but they are symptoms of a larger process. The
answer economic analysis attempts to provide is whether that larger process
ultimately makes the United States richer or poorer. As economic growth abroad
expands the number of competitive sources of production, will substituting foreign
for domestic output generate gains from trade and raise overall economic well-being
in the United States? As examined above, there will likely be negative effects from
trade, but in most circumstances, including increased trade with China and other low
wage economies, the strong expectation of economists is that gains outweigh losses
and that trade’s disruptive reshuffling of the economy’s productive resources does
ultimately result in an increase in overall economic well-being.83 This expectation
is confirmed by the preponderance of evidence.84
The gains from trade are not a static phenomenon, however. At any point in
time, trade increases economic well-being over what it otherwise would be; however,
over time, the size of the gain that accrues to an economy from a given volume of
trade could rise or fall as the relative economic circumstances of trading partners
change. Such changes in circumstance could arise from changes in consumer tastes,
resource endowments, or technology. Trade can continue to be a positive-sum
process of mutual gain in that an economy would be worse off by not trading, but the
apportionment of total gains among trading partners can be altered, causing either an
enhancement or an erosion of a particular economy’s share of the total gains from
Therefore, it can be telling of the economy’s international trade performance and
its view of how it is faring from increased trade to also consider whether there has
been any long-term trend in the nation’s share of the gains from trade. More
specifically, this is a question of whether, over time, the U.S. economy’s terms of
trade, defined as the ratio of the economy’s average export price to its average import
price, has tended to rise or fall as the industrial output and export sales of China and
other low-wage economies has grown. This expansion of world output may not only
put downward pressure on the price of U.S. imports, but may also have an impact on
the price of U.S. exports through, at once, a rising demand for U.S. goods and a
rising supply of goods competitive with U.S. exports at home and in the wider world
The terms of trade can be understood as a measure of the export cost of
acquiring imports. An increase in this ratio — an improving terms of trade — means
that any given volume of export sales will now exchange for a larger volume of
imports, indicating an increase in the gains from trade. A rising trend would indicate
that a country’s trade performance has improved relative to other trading countries,
reaping an increasing share of the gains from trade, and real income benefits for the
economy. Similarly, a decrease in the ratio of export prices to import prices — a
deteriorating terms of trade — raises the export cost of acquiring imports and reduces
the gains from trade. A falling trend would be indicative of deteriorating trade
performance, decreasing share of the gains from trade, and decrements to real
income. Deterioration in the terms of trade does not necessarily mean that trade,
overall, is not beneficial and that we would be better off without trade. It merely
has become less beneficial. In circumstances where the volume of trade is rising
83 The gains from trade can emerge from comparative advantage, economies of scale, and
inducements to innovation and the generation of faster economic growth. See for example,
Max W. Corden, “The Normative Theory Of International Trade,” in The Handbook of
International Economics, vol.1 (Amsterdam: North Holland, 1984).
84 See for example, Edward E. Leamer and James Levinsohn,”International Trade Theory:
The Evidence,” in The Handbook of International Economics, vol. 3 (Amsterdam: North
Holland, 1995); and Jeffery Frankel and David Romer, Does Trade Cause Growth?,
National Bureau of Economic Research, Working Paper no. 5476, June 1999.
there may not be an absolute decline in real income, rather the rate of growth of
income will be slower than it otherwise would be.85
Over time, it is possible that economic growth in the rest of the world will tend
to show a bias either towards production of goods a country exports or towards
production of the goods a country imports. If export-biased, the economic growth
abroad will cause a more than a proportionate increase in the worldwide supply of
goods that compete with U.S. exports, tending to reduce the price of our exports,
inducing a deterioration of the U.S. terms of trade. That deterioration is a decrement
to our economic welfare and an increase to that of our trading partners. In contrast,
if economic growth in the rest of the world is import-biased, there is a more than
proportionate increase in the worldwide supply of the goods the U.S. imports,
pushing down import prices and inducing an improvement in the U.S. terms of trade
over time. That improvement translates into a gain in U.S. economic welfare to the
detriment of our trading partners.
A rising level of trade is clearly a manifestation of economic growth in the rest
of the world, and in recent years, this has included the expanded participation of low-
wage developing economies such as China in the internationally fragmented
production processes (in which an import has value added in several locations during
production) that now propels a large and growing share of international trade. Has
the increase in such trade adversely affected the U.S. economy’s terms of trade?
Relative to its peak in the mid-1960s, the U.S. economy’s terms of trade has
certainly declined, but the period of trend-like decline stops around 1980. The
deterioration in this period was at about 1.0% per year. The impact, however, of this
fall of the terms of trade on U.S. economic welfare would be proportional to the
share of imports in GDP, which in this period was about 10%. This would then
translate into an annual real income loss of about 0.1%. This deterioration is
moderate but significant, particularly if judged by its cumulative impact. This
deterioration most likely reflects the recovery and return to competitive posture of the
many high-income economies from the devastation of World War II. These were
largely economies that had resource endowments similar to that of the United States
and who, with economic recovery, could be expected to increasingly compete against
U.S. exports in global markets. In this period, growth in the rest of the world was
export-biased and accordingly pushed down the average price of U.S. exports.
85 Also, the terms of trade will not fully reflect the gains from trade that come from the
realization of economies of scale. This is of some significance for trade between mature
economies that have similar factor proportions (i.e., the United States, Europe, Japan, and
Canada) and has most likely steadily risen in importance for such economies. This can be
taken as, at least, a partial offset to any loss in the gains from trade indicated by a falling
terms of trade. Nevertheless, movement in the terms of trade would still be indicative of
changes in the gains from trade coming from rising trade with low wage economies that
would still have very different resource endowments (i.e., relatively large supplies of low-
skill labor and relatively small supplies of capital and high skill labor). Nor will the terms
of trade fully reflect the benefit to consumers that come from access to, not just more goods,
but a wider variety of goods.
Since the 1980s, the U.S. terms of trade has fluctuated but has not shown a
sustained track, up or down. It rose in the early 1980s, fell in the late 1980s and early
1990s, and then moved up again through the late 1990s to the present. It is likely that
this undulating but trend-less path was mostly a reflection of the effect of relatively
short-term movements of the dollar’s exchange rate on export and import prices,
suggesting that there were no enduring forces, up or down, being generated by the
underlying demand and supply conditions in the global economy that would most
often cause enduring trends in export and import prices. It is, of course, in this recent
trend-less period that trade by low-wage economies with the United States and other
advanced industrial economies grew in importance. So whatever impact this growth
had on the U.S. terms of trade was not strong enough by itself to induce an upward
or downward trend in that measure. It would seem then that growth in the rest of the
world in this period was, on balance, without a bias towards either the goods the
United States exports or imports.
Although there is no precise way to isolate the impact of economic growth in
China on the U.S. terms of trade, some qualitative observations may be informative.
First, it has certainly been the case that recent economic growth in China has been
rich in the production and export of many labor-intensive goods that the United
States imports, and it seems likely this production, if anything, has exerted a
downward push on the price of U.S. imports and an upward pull on the terms of
Second, economic growth in China, in contrast to the prior experience with
Japan and other East Asian economies at a similar stage of development, has
occurred with relatively open trade, leading to strong demand for imports,
particularly of high-tech capital goods, from the United States and other advanced
economies. U.S. exports to China more than doubled between 2001 to 2005, rising
from about $19 billion to $42 billion. This rising demand likely exerted an upward
pull on the price of U.S. exports and the U.S. terms of trade.
Third, it seems unlikely that there has been strong, large-scale, head-to-head
competition between U.S. and Chinese exports in global markets. The greater part
of U.S. merchandise exports are in relatively high-tech goods, such as computer
accessories, semiconductors, and telecommunications equipment; in sophisticated
industrial machinery, such as electrical apparatus, industrial engines, and measuring
testing and control instruments; in transportation equipment such as aircraft, aircraft
parts, and aircraft engines; and in medical related goods, such medical equipment and
pharmaceuticals. In contrast, a large portion of Chinese exports are in relatively low-
tech consumer goods, such furniture, toys, footwear, and apparel. China also exports
a rising volume of electrical machinery and equipment that might be seen to be in
more direct competition with some U.S. exports. But these exports primarily reflect
China steadily becoming the location for final assembly of many consumer
electronics, computers, and information technology goods. Sophisticated
components used in this assembly process are likely to be an export from the high-
wage economies. Therefore, despite the high-tech nature of the components and the
final good, this assembly process is a relatively low-tech undertaking that lends itself
to the intensive use of low-skilled labor and is not in competition with U.S. exports.
Another major difference in the composition of U.S. and Chinese exports is the
importance of services. In 2004, the United States exported $350 billion in services,
representing nearly 40% of all U.S. exports. The largest type of services export was
in the category called other private services, which includes business services,
financial services, insurance services, telecommunication services, and engineering
services. In comparison, China’s services exports in 2004 were only about $60
billion and heavily composed of travel and tourism services. Services exports are
growing rapidly in China, up 34% in 2004, and growth over the last decade averaged
a 14% annual rate. However, China’s demand for services imports is equally strong,
totaling nearly $72 billion and growing 31% in 2004, with a decade annual average
pace of 13%. This pattern of trade in services suggests that whatever impact China’s
increased services exports are having on the price of service exports of the United
States and other advanced industrial nations may well be offset by the opposite
impact from China’s growing demand for services.
At this point, there does not seem to be strong reason to believe that the recent
economic growth of China has had an eroding effect on the U.S. terms of trade. Of
course, future economic growth could have a more adverse outcome for the U.S.
gains from trade if the path of economic development China (and other low-wage
economies) follows is also linked to a change in their resource endowments to the
capital and skill abundant form characteristic of advanced economies, making it more
likely that a rising proportion of their expanding output will consist of goods and
services in direct competition with the exports of the advanced economies.
However, there are also several reasons that suggest there may not be a
significant deterioration of the U.S. terms of trade associated with future economic
growth in China. First, the Chinese economy is far more open to imports than Japan
and other East Asian economies were at this stage of their development, and the
openness of the domestic Chinese market seems likely to increase. This would likely
increase the probability that already strong Chinese demand for U.S. exports will
grow stronger as their economic growth proceeds. Of particular importance in this
regard is the ongoing Chinese liberalization of trade in services — an area where the
U.S. economy has significant comparative advantage and a good prospect of
generating substantial gains from trade.
Second, given that many production processes will continue to be
geographically fragmented and a large share of the final value of this type of Chinese
exports will be derived from imported components, a large share of the gains from
trade associated with the sale of this type of Chinese export will accrue to the
workers and inventors, outside of China, who produce these components, including
many in the United States. It seems reasonable to expect a sizable portion of any
future growth of such gains would also accrue to the U.S. economy.
Third, also unlike other trading partners in Asia, 58% of Chinese exports are
produced by foreign-owned firms. Therefore, even if China accounts for the bulk of
value-added on the products produced and exported by such enterprises, with
economic growth, a relatively larger share of the gains from trade would accrue to
foreign investors like the United States through repatriated earnings from the foreign
affiliate to the domestic parent than was true of the growth of Japan and other East
Asian countries at this stage of their economic development.
Fourth, for China to compete in the future on a large scale against U.S. exports
in world markets it would have to have command of the same scope and level
industrial technology as the United States. This would likely require that China not
only effectively absorb existing technology but also be able to regularly generate new
technology as the U.S. does. Some argue that the current structure of the Chinese
economy raises some doubts about this occurring.
Again, unlike what occurred in Japan and other East Asian economies,
technological transfer and diffusion in China has, so far, been relatively limited. A
recent analysis by George Gilboy points to possible reasons why the Chinese
economy is unlikely any time soon to challenge the technological leadership of the
United States, Europe, and Japan.86 First, as noted earlier, foreign-funded enterprises
produce nearly 60% of China’s exports, and the share of high-tech exports may be
near 90%. Moreover, beginning in the 1990s, the Chinese government allowed
foreign enterprises to move away from joint ventures and establish wholly owned
foreign enterprises, and this form now accounts for 65% of recent foreign investment
in China. Such enterprises are much less inclined to share their technical knowledge,
for doing so would give up their competitive advantage, over both indigenous
Chinese companies and other foreign enterprises, in expanding their market share of
the domestic Chinese market. Second, China’s unreformed political system
suppresses the development of the “horizontal networks” that establish fruitful
linkages of the firm to research institutions, investors, suppliers, customers, as well
as for collaborations with other Chinese firms. The importance of such horizontal
networks is that they are often thought to be the means by which new technical
knowledge is nurtured and spread through the economy. Third, most Chinese firms
have not invested strongly in the creation of new technologies, with economy-wide
R&D spending as a share of GDP falling well below the average share devoted to
R&D by the advanced industrial economies.
However, this optimistic outlook is certainly conditional on the United States
continuing to do those things that have made it economically dynamic and
innovative, and steadily able to offer the world economy a wide array of new and
desirable goods and services. How can this be ensured? The terms of trade is
unlikely to be at the center of most discussions of trade policy or macroeconomic
policy because it is not a variable that is easy to influence directly. Because your gain
is going to be at their expense, other nations are likely to try to counter such policies.
This is a situation that could all too easily devolve into a vicious cycle of retaliation
and counter-retaliation, shrinking the volume of world trade and leaving all parties
Nevertheless, economic policy may be able to indirectly influence the
economy’s terms of trade in a favorable manner. This can occur as a beneficial by-
product of an array of policies that support an “infrastructure” that furthers the goal
of vigorous economic growth. These policies will raise the probability (but certainly
not assure) a favorable terms of trade effect. Relevant policies would likely include
macroeconomic policies that minimize economic instability and raise the incentive
86 George Gilboy, “The Myth Behind China’s Miracle,” Foreign Affairs (July/August 2004),
for economic agents to undertake the forward looking activities of investment and
innovation, policies that give focused public support of knowledge producing
activities such as education and scientific research that are very likely undervalued
and under-produced by the private market, and continued initiatives toward the
lowering of trade barriers at home and abroad. In this way, terms of trade gains
would likely be seen as emerging from a process that has probably increased the
gains to each trading partner (although not necessarily equally), and thereby not seen
by other nations as a “zero-sum game” where our gain is their loss.
Chinese Takeovers of U.S. Companies
With a few exceptions (mainly dealing with national security concerns), the
United States has maintained a relatively liberal and open policy regarding foreign
investment in the United States because it is believed that such investment benefits
the U.S. economy through increased production, job creation, increased competition,
expansion of trade, and improvements to productivity.
China’s rise as an economic power has raised a number of concerns among U.S.
policymakers, including recent efforts by Chinese companies with substantial state
ownership to take over major U.S. companies. Many Members believe these
takeovers could pose risks to U.S. economic (as well as national security) interests.
Some of these major takeover bids include:
!On December 8, 2004, Lenovo Group Limited, a computer company
primarily owned by the Chinese government, signed an agreement
with IBM Corporation to purchase IBM’s personal computer
division for $1.75 billion. On April 30, 2005, the acquisition was
!On June 20, 2005, Haier Group, a major Chinese home appliances
manufacturer, made a $1.28 billion bid to take over Maytag
Corporation. The bid was withdrawn on July 19, 2005, after
Whirlpool made a higher bid.
!On June 23, 2005, the China National Offshore Oil Corporation
(CNOOC), through its Hong Kong subsidiary (CNOOC Ltd.), made
a bid to buy a U.S. energy company, UNOCAL, for $18.5 billion.
On August 2, 2005, CNOOC withdrew its bid.
Congressional Concern over the CNOOC Bid. CNOOC’s bid to take
over Unocal was particularly troublesome to many Members of Congress. On June
27, 2005, Representative Joe Barton, Chairman of the House Energy and Commerce
Committee, and Representative Ralph Hall, chairman of the House Energy and
Commerce Subcommittee on Energy and Air Quality, sent a letter to President Bush
expressing “deep concern” over CNOOC’s bid to take over Unocal, describing it “a
clear threat to the energy and national security of the United States.” In the Senate,
letters written by Senators Conrad and Grassley expressed concerns that CNOOC’s
bid to take over Unocal would be heavily subsidized by the Chinese government and
urged the Administration to determine whether the CNOOC bid would be a violation
of China’s WTO commitments. Several bills were introduced in the 109th Congress
on CNOOC’s bid, including some that would have blocked the sale had it gone
CNOOC made a number of pledges to allay concerns, including promising that
most of the oil and gas produced by UNOCAL in the United States would still be
sold in the United States and that most Unocal jobs in the United States would be
retained. The chairman of CNOOC stated that his company’s main interest in
UNOCAL was its large holdings of oil and gas in Asia, not the United States.
However, on August 2, 2005, CNOOC announced it was withdrawing its bid, citing
significant political opposition to the sale in the United States, which the company
termed as “regrettable and unjustified.”87
Despite these high-profile cases, Chinese foreign direct investment in the United
States remains small enough that the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) does not
provide data for it in its quarterly and annual reports on FDI in the United States.88
However, it does list such data from time to time in various issues of the BEA’s
Survey of Current Business.89 China’s total FDI in the United States (on a historical
cost position basis) grew from $277 million in 2000 to $490 million in 2004. In
comparison, Taiwan’s FDI in the United States was $3.2 billion. China’s FDI in the
United States accounted for .03% of total FDI in the United States.90 The United
States, by contrast, held $51.1 billion of FDI in China in 2005, according to Chinese
Congressional concern over Chinese efforts to purchase U.S. firms appears to
be driven in part by the perception that China does not play by the rules in
international trade policy. For example, most of China’s major companies are
wholly or partially owned by the state. CNOOC, for example, is 70% owned by the
Chinese government. These firms are believed to be heavily subsidized by the
government, primarily through the banking system, where loans often go unpaid.
Some analysts contend that the Chinese government has a plan to direct companies
under its control to purchase major international companies to obtain their brand
names and thus become global companies. Some analysts believe that the Chinese
government may also be involved in financing takeover bids. Finally, many
87 For an overview of this issue, see CRS Report RL33093, China and the CNOOC Bid for
Unocal: Issues for Congress, by Dick K. Nanto, James K. Jackson, and Wayne M.
88 See BEA website for listing of FDI data at [http://www.bea.gov/bea/di/di1fdibal.htm].
89 BEA, Survey of Current Business, U.S. Direct Investment Abroad: Detail for Historical-
Cost Position and Related Capital and Income Flows, 2004, September 2005, available at
[http://www.bea.gov/ bea/pub/0905cont.htm] .
90 This figure will be higher once the Lenovo deal is included in the data.
91 U.S. data (as reported by BEA) on its FDI in China differ significantly from China’s data
on U.S. FDI in China. According to the BEA, U.S. FDI (on a historical cost basis) stood at
$15.4 billion at end of 2004.
Members contend that Chinese firms should not be allowed to take over U.S. firms
because, in most cases, China does not allow foreign firms to take over major
Chinese companies (rather, it sometimes permits minority ownership in some
Some analysts contend that, given U.S. complaints over the size of the U.S.-
China trade imbalance, the United States should be encouraging China to invest in
the United States.92 They suggest that in some cases, Chinese FDI in the United
States might help revitalize (through an infusion of capital) some manufacturing
companies that otherwise might be forced to close down or relocate outside the
United States.93 According to the State Department, Japanese FDI (among others)
in the United States during the 1980s “provided critical support for change, which
increased U.S. competitiveness, employment and productivity.”94 Others contend
that efforts to block Chinese FDI in the United States might be viewed by other
foreign investors as a sign of growing protectionism in the United States against FDI,
which could affect future FDI decisions, while others warn that singling out China
for FDI restrictions could affect Chinese policy on U.S. FDI in China.
Rising Chinese Demand for Commodities
Demand for commodities and natural resources is another channel through
which China’s economic development might affect the U.S. economy. In particular,
many commentators have looked to China’s growing economy as the explanation for
why world oil prices have risen so precipitously in recent years. As China’s demand
for commodities rises, some argue that world commodity prices will rise, making the
U.S., as a net commodity importer, worse off. (Although, by the same logic, U.S.
producers of commodities would be better off.) If this occurred, it would lower U.S.
welfare through a deterioration in the terms-of-trade (see the section above). The
deterioration would occur, however, vis-a-vis commodity-exporting countries, not
The first question to consider is why China’s commodity demand would
suddenly become a factor today. Observers point to China’s high rates of GDP
growth, but China’s GDP growth has actually slowed slightly in recent years: in the
92 During the 1980s, Japanese companies, such as auto and electronic firms, boosted
investment in the United States as a way to respond U.S. criticism over the growing trade
imbalance and to discourage the use of trade restrictions by the United States. See CRS
Report RL32649, U.S.-Japan Economic Relations: Significance, Prospects, and Policy
Options, by William H. Cooper.
93 Foreign-owned manufacturing firms in the United States often pay higher wages and
experience higher worker productivity and output per worker than comparable U.S.-owned
manufacturing plants, because most such FDI is in large scale plants. See CRS Report
RS21857, Foreign Direct Investment in the United States: An Economic Analysis, by James
94 U.S. Department of State, U.S.-Japan Economic Partnership for Growth: U.S.-Japan
Investment Initiative 2004 Report, at [http://www.state.gov/p/eap/rls/rpt/33295.htm].
8.5%. On the other hand, China’s economy now produces a bigger share of world
output. As measured by purchasing power parity, China now accounts for 14% of
world GDP, compared with 3% in 1980 and 6% in 1990. So even at lower growth
rates, China’s output is increasing by more in dollar terms each year today. Although
its share of world GDP is growing, its share of world GDP growth in any given year
is still relatively small, averaging about 6% over the past three years. China’s role
in the world economy is clearly not yet as great as conventional wisdom holds.95
One important commodity whose price has risen sharply in recent years is oil.
In real terms, real prices have risen from $13 a barrel in 1998 to $23 in 2002 to $45
in 2005 (all prices in 2000 dollars). Although the effects of this price spike on the
U.S. economy have been muted thus far, oil price spikes are a concern, as they have
preceded eight of the past nine U.S. recessions. Energy analysts see rising world
demand as a major contributor to the recent price spike and point to China as a major
source of rising world demand.96 In 2005, China accounted for 8.5% of the world’s
oil consumption, which is the second highest in the world after the United States
(25%). China’s share of world oil consumption has more than doubled since 1990,
when it accounted for 3% of world consumption. Since 1998, Chinese oil
consumption has increased by 2.8 million barrels a day, or 65%. Over the same
period, U.S. oil consumption has increased by 1.7 million barrels a day, or 9%, and
European Union oil consumption has increased only 2%. Chinese oil consumption
has grown particularly rapidly recently, rising 16% in 2004 alone, fastest among all
of the world’s major economies. If Chinese consumption continues to rise so rapidly,
world supply will also have to rise rapidly or prices will rise further. However, it
would be a mistake to extrapolate past growth rates into the future precisely because
rising prices put a curb on future demand growth (by encouraging energy efficiency,
for example) and induce supply increases. For example, Chinese annual oil
consumption growth slowed to 3% in 2005.97
China’s consumption of other energy commodities has also shown a sharp
increase. Since 1998, its consumption of natural gas has increased by 137% and its
consumption of coal has increased by 66%. Prices in these markets are more
regionally determined than oil, however, so the effect of Chinese consumption on
U.S. prices would be more limited.
Similar growth in Chinese consumption has been seen in other commodity
markets as well. According to The Economist, China is the world’s largest consumer
of aluminum, steel, copper, and coal.98 In 1998, China produced 1.2 million metric
tons of copper, about enough to meet its consumption needs. In 2005, Chinese
consumption had risen to 3.6 million tons, but production had only risen to 2 million
tons. China’s demand for steel has risen from 140 million metric tons in 2000 to 300
95 China’s share of world growth is smaller than its share of world output in part because its
share of world growth is measured at current exchange rates, not purchasing power parity.
96 See CRS Report RL32530, World Oil Demand and Its Effect on Oil Prices, by Robert
97 All oil data come from British Petroleum, Statistical Review of World Energy, June 2006.
98 “From T-shirts to T-bonds,” The Economist, July 30, 2005, p. 61.
million metric tons in 2005. Between 2003 and 2004, the world price of steel has
risen about 50%. Chinese aluminum consumption has risen from 3.8 million metric
tons in 2001 to 5.9 million in 2005. Chinese imports of iron ore have risen from 55
million metric tons in 1999 to 150 million in 2003, making it the world’s largest
importer. Between 2002 and 2004, world iron prices more than doubled.99
Some observers have been concerned that China will gain control of commodity
supplies and that this would boost prices for U.S. consumers. For example, they
point to the Chinese company CNOOC’s failed bid to take over the U.S. oil company
Unocal (see previous section). What these observers fail to take into account is that
national ownership does not affect the price of a commodity whose price is
determined in an international market. For example, oil prices have risen
internationally, and countries such as Great Britain are not sheltered from this
increase just because they are net exporters. If China purchased oil companies or oil
supplies, and then directed those companies to only serve the Chinese market, the
result would be that other companies who now supply China would reduce their
supplies to China 1-to-1 and redirect their supplies to other countries. Thus, there
would be no effect on the price or supply of oil to the rest of the world.
It is not a given that rising commodity demand will lead to higher prices — it
depends on whether the growth in the supply of commodities can keep pace.100
Indeed, most commodities have fallen in value in the long run despite the steady
increase in world economic output. The Economist’s Commodity Price Index has
fallen about 60% in real terms since 1950, even though it has risen about 75% since
its trough in 2001.101 Using data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, crude
commodity prices have fallen 32% in real terms since 1974.102 And there are already
signs that commodity demand growth may be falling in China in response to higher
pri ces. 103
A growing concern over China’s energy use and rising demand is the possible
global environmental consequences. According to one estimate, one-third of the air
pollution in the West Coast of the United States comes from China.104 China’s
99 All data from David Menzie et al., “China’s Growing Appetite for Minerals,” U.S.
Geological Survey, Open Report 2004-1374.
100 It is also possible that part of the increase in Chinese demand for some commodities
could be offset by lower demand elsewhere. For example, it has been well-documented that
the production of some goods has shifted from other parts of East Asia to China in recent
years. It is possible that consumption of the commodities used in the production of those
goods would, as a result, be greater in China but lower in the country that used to produce
101 “160 Years On,” The Economist, Feb. 12, 2005, p. 76. Their index consists of 25
commodities and excludes oil and precious metals. Part of the rise since 2001 is because
the index is measured in dollar terms and the dollar has depreciated.
102 Calculated by CRS using crude commodities divided by the consumer price index.
103 “From Accelerator to Brake,” The Economist, Oct. 8, 2005.
104 The Aspen Institute, U.S.-China Relations, Eight Conference (April 9-15, 2006), China
pollution levels are expected to worsen. For example, according to the U.S. Energy
Information Administration (EIA), China in 2003 was the world’s second-largest
emitter of dioxide emissions (at 3.5 billion metric tons) after the United States, but
by the year 2030 it will be the largest emitter (at 10.7 billion metric tons, three times
the level in 2003), with much of these emissions (78%) coming from coal use.105
China’s economic ascendency over the past 28 years has been described by
some as an economic miracle. China has gone from a poor, backward economy to
the world’s second-largest economy (on a PPP basis). Although many have
welcomed China’s prosperity and integration into the world economy, others have
viewed it with alarm, contending that China’s rise as an economic superpower
threatens to undermine the U.S. economy. For example, some contend that China’s
rise must indicate a decline in U.S. economic power. Others contend that China’s
economic policies, such as subsidies to its state sector, an undervalued currency, and
low wages, threaten U.S. jobs, wages, technological edge, and living standards.
China’s economic growth has resulted in a substantial increase in commercial
ties between it and the United States. China is now the third-largest U.S. trading
partner, its second-largest source of imports, and its fourth-largest export market.
Over the past five years, China has been the fastest growing U.S. export market.
Continued economic growth and a growing middle class will likely make China an
enormous market for U.S. goods and services, provided that trade and investment
barriers continue to fall. Within a decade or two, it is projected that China will
surpass the United States and become the world’s largest economy. There is little
reason to believe that China’s rise will be matched by any fall in U.S. living
The high level of relatively low-cost imports from China have benefitted the
United States in a number of ways. First, lower-cost imports have helped keep
inflation down. Second, low-cost imports have increased overall consumer welfare,
enabling consumers to purchase other goods and services (and hence stimulating
growth in other sectors of the economy). Finally, low-cost imports have benefitted
U.S. firms that use them as inputs for the production of other goods, thus making
those firms more competitive. Although trade is often seen as a threat, economists
point to comparative advantage and maintain that trade is mutually beneficial. On
the other hand, low-cost imports from China have adversely affected a number of
firms and workers in the manufacturing sector (such as textiles), diminishing their
output, employment, and wages. Nevertheless, they assert that Chinese economic
and trade policies are not the cause of the bilateral trade imbalance or net job loss in
the manufacturing sector. Most economists contend than an appreciation of China’s
currency would not have a significant impact on creating jobs in the U.S.
Energy Issues, by Hal Harvey, M.S., p, 15.
105 EIA, International Energy Outlook, 2006, p. 93.
manufacturing sector. They maintain that appreciation would largely shift
manufacturing production to other low-wage countries, not to the United States. In
general, trade and the trade deficit with China has not prevented the United States
from achieving full employment in recent years.
China maintains a number of inefficient and distortionary policies, such as
government financial support of SOEs, industrial policies intended to promote the
development of pillar industries, and an undervalued currency (a de facto export
subsidy). Economists note that although subsidies on exports can negatively affect
import-competing domestic firms and workers, they also benefit consumers and users
of imported inputs who can obtain such goods at lower prices than under the
conditions of free trade. In effect, this improves the U.S. terms of trade because it
means a given level of U.S. exports can obtain more imports. On the other hand, the
use of subsidies by China lowers its terms of trade and promotes inefficiencies in the
economy. Even if Chinese subsidies produce net benefits to the U.S. economy, many
U.S. policymakers oppose their use because they do cause some U.S. firms and
workers to suffer. Public perceptions that some countries are not playing by the rules
of trade may impact their support (and that of their government representatives) for
further trade liberalization on a bilateral on multilateral basis. Some trade practices,
such a failure to protect IPR, hurt both the U.S. and Chinese economies.
China traditionally has focused on low-end, labor-intensive manufacturing,
much of which did not compete directly with U.S. firms. However, China is
attempting to move into more advanced production and hopes to become globally
competitive in a number of industries, such as autos and information technology.
This has raised concerns that China may pose the kind of competitive challenge to
major U.S. industries that Japan posed during the 1980s. Although it is difficult to
accurately predict how advanced China’s economy will become, it currently lags
significantly behind the United States. The divergent experience of the U.S. and
Japanese economies since the 1990s suggests that the competitive threat from China
is questionable, especially considering the extensive economic challenges China
faces in the years ahead.
Chinese purchases of U.S. Treasury securities have helped the federal
government fund its budget deficits and therefore have helped keep U.S. interest rates
down. At the same time, China has become the second-largest foreign holder of
these securities, and some analysts contend that this status gives China economic
leverage over the United States. But any attempt to harm the U.S. economy by
unloading these holdings would likely cause comparable harm to the Chinese
economy. Similar arguments are made regarding China’s attempts to purchase U.S.
companies. However, analysts contend that it would not be in China’s economic
interest to purchase U.S. companies if it did not intend to operate them profitably.
In general, given the growing importance of the U.S. economy to China’s economic
growth, policies to destabilize the U.S. economy would destabilize China’s economy
China has become one of the most polluted countries in the world, and this
poses a problem for the United States to the extent that environmental degradation
is a global problem. Many analysts contend that China’s massive energy needs and
challenging pollution problems offer significant opportunities for U.S. companies.
Similarly, the recent rise in price of many commodities has been attributed, in part,
to China’s rapid growth. While this helps U.S. commodity producers, on balance it
may reduce America’s terms of trade with commodity-exporting nations.
In the long run, whether China’s growth is good or bad for the U.S. economy
will ultimately depend on its effect on the terms of trade — whether China’s growth
raises relative prices for U.S. exports or imports. This is an open question. Since the
1980s, the U.S. terms of trade have shown no upward nor downward trend. But even
if China’s growth did lead to a decline in the U.S. terms of trade, the gains of
continued trade would still exceed welfare levels attainable under a scenario where
the United States withdrew from world trade.
Thus, from an economic perspective, describing China’s economic rise or its
economic policies as an economic “threat” to the United States fails to reflect that
China’s growth poses both challenges and opportunities for the United States. As
one U.S. trade official recently put it: “As China’s economy and our bilateral trade
grow, our trade relationship has become enormously complex, and does not lend
itself to either simplistic characterization or simple policy prescriptions.”106 The
main challenge for U.S. policymakers is to press China to quicken economic and
trade reforms, and to fully transform itself into a market-based economy. The United
States on a number of occasions has provided technical support to China on such
areas as rule of law, IPR protection, pollution control, and banking and currency
reforms. The expansion of such programs into other areas could help induce China
to quicken economic reforms, especially if Chinese officials believe that doing so
will not lead to political upheaval. The United States can also use the dispute
resolution mechanism in the WTO to ensure that China fully implements its WTO
commitments. The United States used this process to resolve a case with China over
its discriminatory tax polices favoring domestically-made semiconductors. It
recently brought a similar case involving auto parts. It is currently considering
bringing a WTO case against China over its failure to protect IPR.
106 Statement of Timothy Stratford, Assistant U.S. Trade Representative for China Affairs,
before the Congressional Steel Caucus, June 14, 2006.