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Overblown claim on new China trade deal

Published:Friday | May 12, 2017 | 12:00 AM
In this April 25, 2017 file photo, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross takes a question during the daily press briefing at the White House in Washington.

Heralding a new United States-China trade agreement, US Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross puffed a bit too hard in describing its greatness.

"It was pretty much a Herculean accomplishment to get this done," Ross said in describing a trade plan involving US beef and liquefied natural gas exports to China. "This is more than has been done in the whole history of US-China relations on trade."

That would be a tall order, given a history that encompasses President Richard Nixon's 1972 visit to China, which ended a two-decade freeze between the two countries and laid the groundwork for the United States' largest trading relationship. US-China exchanges of goods last year totalled nearly US$579 billion, nearly one-sixth of all US trade.

In addition to its provisions on beef and liquefied natural gas, the trade deal lowers long-standing barriers on the operation of US financial firms in China, allows the import of cooked poultry from China, and will send US delegates to a Chinese forum on building infrastructure in Asia and Europe.

Ross declined to say exactly what he meant by his characterisation at a Thursday briefing. But trade experts questioned its magnitude, and the limited agreement on 10 items joins a list of tectonic shifts between the world's two largest economies.

ECONOMIC SHOCK

Another is China's entry into the World Trade Organization in 2001, an event that caused a surge in Chinese exports to the United States and created an economic shock that caused the loss of more than one million factory jobs, according to research by economists David Autor, David Dorn and Gordon Hanson. President Donald Trump has made closing the US gap with China - it totalled US$347 billion last year - one of his major policy goals.

Trade experts were quick to point out that the agreement, which largely focuses on agricultural goods, energy and financial products, does nothing for US manufacturers, long a source of tension in the relationship with China.

"These are modest moves which by themselves will not have much effect on the US economy," said David Dollar, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and former US Treasury Department official.

- AP