Once Upon A Time: Looking for a U.S.-China Trade Narrative

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Once in a while, it’s fun to look at headlines and themes of international trade stories without getting into the substance. Call it light reading for the weekend in an area that is usually boring and overly techno-legal for most folks.

A recent series of decisions made by Beijing and Washington easily lend themselves to such a skin-deep analysis. These actions are, I would argue, merely business as usual in the international trade area. Nothing much to see, move along. I certainly have not been blogging about this “news,” aside from passing along a story or two on Twitter (FYI @chinahearsay).

I have the luxury of complete editorial control, though. Bloggers’ older, more professional cousins in the media sadly do not usually have such control, and when Mr. Editor tells them to go write a story about the latest trade announcement, the answer must be “Sir, yes sir!”

Sometimes a trade decision is only important to people in a particular industry, or marginally interesting to people in related service sectors (e.g. trade lawyers or consultants). Seriously, how many folks really care about additional duties put on narrow categories of steel or nylon? Consuming such news is an acquired taste.

But work is work, and our friends in the media need to at least dress up the news in a familiar narrative, something easily understood to anyone cursorily scanning the news on their Blackberry in the morning. Even better, a flashy headline that supports that narrative with aggressive language can be added by an uber-helpful editor at a later stage of the writing process.

So what has washed over the transom lately? A couple of highlights from this month:

  • U.S. duties on Chinese steel pipe

This anti-dumping case was decided earlier this month. It was noteworthy in the amount (one of the largest AD decisions ever) but not much else.

Because the decision came just days before Hu Jintao was scheduled to visit Washington, that coincidence became the main narrative. The Sydney Morning Herald used this headline: “US Slaps Duties on Pipe Imports Ahead of Hu Visit” even though the second paragraph of the article downplayed any connection to Hu’s visit: “. . . the timing was driven by the US statutory calendar for dealing with trade injury cases.”

Lesson: if the trade story is boring but a high-profile bilateral event is occurring contemporaneously, by all means fold that in and make the event the dominant narrative.

As usual, the press dutifully reported the “other side’s” perspective. AFP released this story, “China Condemns US Duties on Steel Pipe,” which could have been written by an intern on autopilot.

Second Lesson: with bilateral trade, there are always two sides, and conflict sells newspapers.

  • China duties on nylon imports

This anti-dumping case was wrapped up last week. Unlike the steel pipe case a few weeks ago, it was singularly unimportant to anyone besides concerned manufacturers and related industries. I wonder what the spin on this one will be?

I probably shouldn’t use Voice of America as an example of a mainstream news agency, but hey, what’s the difference between VOA and Xinhua in the grand scheme of things?

The VOA’s story on this was “China Levies Punitive Duties on U.S. Chemical Imports.” I like the use of “punitive,” which ratchets up the conflict narrative a bit, even though every single anti-dumping or subsidy/countervailing duty could be referred to as punitive in nature.

Even better, the VOA article folded in another U.S.-China trade issue. Were they suggesting a connection between the two? You be the judge:

Beijing’s actions come a day after the U.S. Commerce Department launched an investigation into allegations that Chinese aluminum products get unfair government subsidies and are being sold at below-market prices.

Gee, just one day later? That can’t be a coincidence! Sounds like a trade war to me.

This is the dominant narrative, of course, the looming trade war. Any new decision by the U.S. Department of Commerce or China’s Ministry of Commerce can be dressed up as a signal of the coming tradepocalypse, and any offhand remark by an official of these agencies can rise to Delphic importance.

The “tensions are mounting” narrative was on display in this Associated Press article, “US, China Announce Anti-dumping Steps, Possibly Adding to Trade Tensions.” You see, we don’t know whether it will add to trade tensions, but you never know, right?

It might be that these actions will “possibly reviv[e] strains over trade and currency that had eased in recent weeks,” or perhaps “reignite strains over U.S. complaints about China’s currency controls.” No one is saying that we’ll be looking at a Red Dawn scenario within a matter of weeks, but again, you never know what the future will bring.

Shanghai Daily got into the “looming trade war” act with an article about the most recent steel pipe decision. The headline “Pipe Duties May Worsen Row” says it all, but if that was too subtle, the first paragraph helpfully adds that the decision “might escalate trade rows between the two countries.”

Bloomberg went full meta-analysis on Thursday, trying to tie everything together with an article (headline: “China Starts Dumping Probes Into U.S. Optical Fiber, Chemical”) that was ostensibly just reporting on the China nylon and optical fiber investigations.

But the bigger narrative rounds out an otherwise boring story quite nicely, so the article contains choice bits of perceived conflict:

China, the world’s biggest exporter, started two anti-dumping investigations today and levied tariffs on some nylon products, as it escalated trade spats with the U.S. and the European Union.

They also throw in the usual reax from an economist:

“Sino-U.S. trade disputes are intensifying mainly because the U.S. is grappling with high jobless rate and is struggling for economic recovery,” said Hu Yifan, chief global economist at Citic Securities Co. in Hong Kong.

And even some discussion of the still-looming fight over the RMB:

“We appreciate that Commerce is seriously looking at the currency allegation and we hope that they will move forward and initiate on it very soon,” said Gilbert Kaplan, a lawyer at King & Spalding LLP in Washington.

I end on that note with our old friend Gilbert Kaplan, who as a practicing trade lawyer would never have made that comment unless he has clients on that side of the issue – the statement reeks of advocacy. Nothing against Mr. Kaplan on this, but it does make the Bloomberg writer look even worse.

So there you have it, the basic narratives out there these days on the trade front. For any issues that crop up in the next few months, feel free to skim through those headlines and not waste your time. Chances are that the content will be cookie-cutter restatements of the above.