If the U.S. Boycotted all Chinese Goods, What would Happen?

Tensions are increasing between the U.S. and China over the South China Sea, trade imbalance, human rights, and military buildups. Trump’s China tariffs were the beginning salvo in trade wars between the two Countries, and it is easy to see all trade collapsing within a few years. Here’s our current level of dependence on China, and what might happen if we initiated a full boycott.

There is much finger-pointing with respect to current U.S.-China trade relations

The good news is that we are almost entirely energy and food self-sufficient, and on our way to a clean energy future. The bad news is that we are almost entirely dependent on China for the manufacture of clothing and to a large degree on electronics. That is the backdrop of a possible boycott of Chinese goods in the future, either as sanctions for human rights abuses and aggression in the South China Sea, a correction to unfair trading practices, or an outright war between the two nations. Here is a point by point assessment of what would happen to supplies of critical U.S. goods in such a scenario:

Energy-Just about the time that oil and natural gas are being demonized by clean energy advocates, one realizes that they are a valuable domestic resource (and export) if produced and used wisely (with minimal methane release and possibly carbon capture or conversion to hydrogen). If war breaks out, it will be interesting to see how “clean energy” comes to bear (you could see drones being run effectively on batteries, not so much jets and tanks…which will run on hydrogen at best). China is quite dependent on coal, and natural gas lean (they may need to import from Russia). The U.S. will need to take back photovoltaic and wind charger tech it released to China (with possible manufacture in the Western Hemisphere) if it wants to be the world leader in renewables. Advantage U.S.

Percent of product currently imported by the United States (fda.gov,2019),(tradingeconomics.com,n.d.),(cargroup.ord,2019),(Piacenza,2017),(Vatz,2013),(gao.gov,2019)

Food-The United States has a gigantic grain belt, and a diversity of crops which can easily feed itself, with plenty of leftover for export. When you include Canada and Mexico, North America is in even better shape food-wise. China has 4x more people, and would struggle to feed itself without imports (especially grain). The numbers show, however, that the U.S. still imports a fair amount of food, much of it from Europe and Mexico. I believe that speaks to the “diversity” of the American diet…fine French wine, Spanish cashews, Greek feta, Mexican veggies. The U.S. is in the enviable position that it COULD feed itself but it CHOOSES to share food with others, for obvious lifestyle and political advantages. Advantage U.S.

Clothing- Clothing and fabric, once a U.S. strength, is now almost entirely made overseas, with China making almost 40% of the product. The U.S. still provides much of the raw material however, in the form of cotton and wool. Clothing is neither a critical material nor is it hard to manufacture elsewhere, so if things got dicey between the U.S./China, you could imagine textile factories relocating to Latin America or SE Asia. For the moment, this is big $$$ for China. Advantage China

U.S. Import/Export relationship with various Countries (showing trade imbalances)(census.gov,2021)

Transportation- Currently, 48% of U.S. autos are imported, and the thing holding up the U.S. auto market seems to be pickups and a few not-so-great sedans. Not to worry though, as Tesla and others have a chance to “remake” the U.S. auto industry ala clean air vehicles (mostly EVs). The Japanese and Koreans seem to be investing heavily in hydrogen vehicles (nice because that is a better fit for the truck market). China and India are late entries into the auto market, and are not yet major players (that could change). Cars and trucks though, are far from the only transportation devices. The U.S. and Europe enjoy the domination of the aircraft markets, while Europe, Japan, and S. Korea make many of the mass transit vehicles. Advantage U.S.

Electronics-Yes, the U.S. “imports” much of its electronics product, but much of it is still designed and owned by U.S. companies and their allies (mostly Taiwan, S. Korea, and Japan). Chip-manufacture is a strength of Taiwan (TSMC) and South Korea (Samsung), while the U.S. (Intel) manufactures only about 12% of the world’s demand. China is gaining but not yet on par with these countries. There is concern that a Chinese invasion of Taiwan would disrupt the supply of TSMC chips, slowing manufacture of Iphones, cars, computers, jets, etc. (since China does not have the immediate know-how to run TSMC). TSMC and Intel are building new plants in the U.S. to address the “chip shortage” (Intel with some proposed government “infrastructure” funds). Trump got the ball rolling last year with restrictions on exports to China’s leading semiconductor manufacturer. What is also concerning is China’s recent gains in telecommunication and military technology, not to mention their love of espionage, censorship, and not sharing things. To regain the advantage, the U.S. must stop “sharing” tech, eliminate Chinese “spying”, and relocate Chinese manufacture stateside or to friendly countries, possibly Latin America and the safer SE Asian countries out of China’s sphere of influence. Advantage: Toss-Up (Stokes, 2021),(Swanson,Zhong,2020)

The source of US imports (by percentage) for 2018 (worldbank.org,2018)

Minerals/Metals-The U.S. also has closed many of its mining operations (often for economic or environmental reasons) and thus imports about 60% of critical minerals/metals. Some of this is a kind of non-issue, as things like steel and coal are becoming less critical, while other things are found only in certain parts of the world where the U.S. conveniently has friends. Examples would be copper in Chile/Peru and lithium in Australia. True that China/Russia collectively produce the most aluminum by far, but deposits in India, Canada, and Australia could make up for that. “Rare Earth” metals are increasingly important in high-tech manufacture (where China currently has the advantage) but Canada/Australia again could close the gap. Don’t forget too that the continental U.S. and Alaska still have plenty of minerals, should they have the political will to reopen the mines. Advantage: Toss-Up

Military/Weaponry-The U.S. makes nearly all of its military hardware/weaponry domestically, and is also an exporter. I believe China does the same. You can understand why, as this is one area where neither country wants to trust anyone else. It is believed that China has the advantage in missiles (at least those aimed at targets close to China) while the U.S. still has advantages in ships, aircraft, and ICBMs. The latter advantages are lessening now that China is doing a historic military buildup. China also seems to be building an advantage in satellite destabilization, biological weaponry, and sonic weapons. The United States would have the advantage in strategic alliances, along with a defensive geographic advantage in an all-out war, if not a geographic advantage in a China-sea war. It is believed that the U.S. must position more hidden missiles in friendly South China Sea countries (Philippines, SE Asia, Indonesia, Japan) to be able to successfully fight a South China Sea war. Also, the U.S. is currently too vested in tank, ship, and aircraft strengths, when it needs to convert to more drone/missile/sub warfare. Advantage: Toss-Up

The growing trade imbalance with China…should we be worried?

In conclusion, you might begin by jokingly saying “gee…I hope we never go to war with Canada, Mexico, and Japan as we are collectively many times more dependent upon them than we are on China”. Nobody really worries about our large dependency on China for clothing (easily moved elsewhere) but the dependency on Chinese electronics and minerals is rather alarming, given their increasing importance in the evolution of high tech and weaponry. In the critical food and energy sectors, the U.S. has more than enough to be self-sufficient, if necessary (while the Chinese don’t). The U.S. still maintains a lead in microchips and the design/ownership of electronics enterprises (if you include their allies), for the moment. Important also is the “race for the North Pole” to gain critical mineral/energy resources. Though Russia leads in that category, the U.S./Canada/Norway/Denmark collectively control at least half those resources, and China basically zilch. The mantra of the U.S. might be “you have the lead…don’t blow it”, since recent events have made other countries wonder if the U.S. still had the advantage in leadership. In particular, Donald Trump began shooting us in the foot by weakening NATO and SEATO, and imposing tariffs on European goods. The U.S. is in a great position to impose economic sanctions for countries that don’t behave (human-rights abuses or invading other countries) since it controls so much of the world’s product. The American/European/Japanese “brand” is currently in demand worldwide, and for the moment it is widely available. We need to relocate mining and electronics to friendly countries, and it’s hard to see why Trump would demonize Mexico when they’re such a big part of our solutions. Tariffs on China make a certain amount of sense, as do sanctions if they cannot meet our reasonable standards of conduct.

Scott lives in the SF Bay Area and writes confidently about Engineering, History, Politics, and Health

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