Tag Archives: Geopolitical Risk

September – Trade Outlook

Trade Wars: Why the US must think before it acts

There are times when it is helpful for a nation’s leaders to think carefully about the consequences of their statements. North Korea tested an H-bomb capable of being fitted to an Inter-continental ballistic missile on the 3rd September. Without any exaggeration, this is a momentous time for the world’s security. North Korea is playing with both China’s will to intervene substantively and the US’s will unilaterally to start a major war on the Korean peninsula. China is keen to avoid any action that will result in a stream of refugees coming across the border from North Korea. The US, despite statements from President Trump that any aggression by North Korea will be met with “fire and fury” will be reluctant to avoid full-scale conflict because of the risk of retaliation.

So this has become a Trade War. On the 3rd September, President Trump tweeted, “The United States is considering in addition to other options, stopping all trade with any other country doing business with North Korea.” This is a bold statement targeted, of course, at China which accounts for around 85% of North Korea’s trade value. Since Steve Bannon’s statement in August 2017 that the US is effectively fighting a trade war with China, the statement could be interpreted as simply a desire to take on China’s relationship with North Korea and its trade surplus with the US at the same time.

President Trump should be wary what he wishes for. Apart from China, North Korea’s top ten trade partners (imports and exports) include, Russia, India, the Philippines, Singapore, Chile, Germany, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Switzerland and Mexico. China itself exports around $US 2.8bn into North Korea and other countries are substantially smaller. Russia, for example, imports just $US 68m and India some $US 54m. For many other countries the amounts are in the low millions. However, if the President’s words are to be taken at face value, then all of these countries should be included. Taken together and including China, these countries accounted for nearly 48% of the US’s total trade of $US 3.9 trillion in 2016 (Figure 1).



Figure 1:          Value of US trade for North Korea’s top 22 trading partners ($US bn)

Source:            Equant Analytics, 2017

Of greater interest is the sectors that would be affected by trading with countries that “do business” with North Korea. Mexico is a major player in the US’s electronics, automotive and machinery and components sectors and, of course, in oil. But its trade with North Korea is small, as is the trade of many other countries with North Korea. It makes sense to look just at China and how its key sectors are interwoven into strategic sectors for the US (Figure 2).

This chart in itself depicts the frustration that the US has with China’s dominance of its trade. US supply chains, are irretrievably interwoven with China. For example, many of the imports from China in Electrical Equipment and Machinery are intermediate manufactured goods, nevertheless, these goods are part of other supply chains, for example in automotives or aerospace.


Figure 2:          US trade with China in non-oil strategic sectors ($US million 2016)

Source:            Equant Analytics, 2017

 Quite apart from any impact that the decision to stop trading with all those nations that have trade with North Korea, there is a sense in which any sanctions, or sanctions-like move, is counter-productive. North Korea, it seems, already has nuclear launch capacity and this is not a new phenomenon. The trend started in 2008 in nuclear-related dual-use goods and, during the process of Kim Jong Un’s accession, imports of propulsion equipment started to increase (Figure 3).


Figure 3           Value of North Korea’s trade in selected dual-use goods, 1996-1997, $USm)

Source             Equant Analytics, 2017

There are already signs that North Korea is winning the deterrence war. Their calculation is that both China and the US are “paper tigers”: they can bluster, but in the end there is little that they can materially do. There are no clear diplomatic or military answers – all have unimaginable consequences and are therefore likely to be avoided if possible. Accepting North Korea as a nuclear power will be a tough pill for the US to swallow and again is unlikely without some form of diplomatic ‘victory.’

But what is absolutely clear is that economics solutions may well be equally as unimaginable. Loose words in military terms may increase the risk of miscalculation and war as a result. Equal discipline should be applied to the use of language in economic and trade terms. Ending trade with countries who do business with North Korea is impractical and would be an act of assured economic destruction for the US itself. Maybe this is the ultimate deterrence against a trade war with China as well; weaponizing trade cannot be the way forward.

“The Weaponization of Trade: the great unbalancing of politics and economics,” by Rebecca Harding and Jack Harding will be published on the 25th October by London Publishing Partnership. Click here to find out more and to pre-order a copy.

July – Trade Outlook

Three charts to show why the South and East China Seas matter

Japan does not officially have an army, it has a Self Defence Force. So, when it starts sending warships into the South China Seas in an attempt to keep China’s territorial claims in check, it is clear there is a problem. Its Izumo helicopter carrier’s presence is to provide the assurance to the region that it is willing to move into a more proactive military role in the interests of regional security at a time when US interest is at best only focused on North Korea, and at worst, waning. While the US nominally retains its commitment to the “Freedom of Navigation Operations” (Fonops) to provide a base for regional security, its military operations are taking a lower key and not being publicised as they were under the Obama regime. As the US appears to look away, China continues to build and protect what it deems its sovereign and economic rights. China can play a long game without using its military muscle, but the very fact that it is demonstrating its regional influence reinforces the perception that tensions in the region are dangerous.

The region matters to world trade flows and to its energy security. The importance of the South and East China Seas cannot be understated. It is not just a source of geopolitical tension, it is also a major trading route. The countries in the region’s US$ 10.7tn trade accounted for just over 54% of world trade in 2016. More than this, the countries in the South and East China seas account for just over 40% of world oil trade (Figure 1). Any risk of disruption or threat of instability should make markets and commentators alike feel nervous as a result, not just because of the spill-over effects into the global trade system but also because of the region’s strategic importance.


Figure 1:  Share of world oil trade for countries in the South and East China Seas area 2016
Source:  Equant Analytics 2017

The region matters to China as well. Trade with the other countries in the South China Seas account for some 51% of China’s trade (Figure 2)

Figure 2:   China’s trade with nations and Hong Kong in the South and East China Seas
Source:  Equant Analytics, 2017

Hong Kong is China’s biggest trading partner in the region at more than twice the value of trade compared with Japan, its second largest trading partner. The regional partners, Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam in particular, are important contributors to regional supply chains in electronics and machinery & components meaning that their regional fortunes are intertwined. As China has gone through its economic reform programme of the past few years, it is these regional partners who have had to adjust. But any political instability in the region threatens trade flows within the region as well as between the region and the rest of the world. This impacts China just as much as it does other countries and as a result, China will be keen to ensure that there is no escalation of tensions beyond rhetorical ones simply because it is in its own strategic interest.

China’s strategic interest is evident in the East China Seas through its relationship with North Korea. As sanctions have become more stringent, China’s share of North Korean trade has increased (Figure 3). The momentum projections suggest that this may well stabilise over the next few years but at over 85% of North Korea’s trade, China has a strong strategic leverage over Pyongyang.

Figure 3:   Percentage share of North Korea’s trade accounted for by China (1996 – 2021)
Source:  Equant Analytics, 2017

The US and China have engaged in talks since their Summit in April, not overtly about North Korea – but about trade. Why? President Trump explained this in a tweet on the 11th April: “I explained to the President of China that a trade deal with the US will be far better for them if they solve the North Korean problem!” In other words, trade is a strategic tool to gain influence over North Korea. An explicit “trade war” between the two countries was avoided because of the post Summit “100 day plan” and although the deals struck since then have been modest, they have the effect of diverting global attention away from the region.

The perception of geopolitical risk in the South and East China Seas is not new. In the South China Seas the disputes are territorial and between countries; the role of the US has been to keep the trade route that it represents open in the economic strategic interests of the world. The risks in the East China Seas and Korean Peninsular are as much about strategic influence as they are about trade.

However, a deliberate armed conflict is unlikely as the example of North Korea and the “trade deals” with China show. It is simply too important to the US and the world, in terms of energy security, in terms of trade flows, in terms of economic interests and more generally in terms of national interest and power. Increasingly, the disputes in the region are centred around strategic influence. Trade, or the threat of disruption to trade is the means by which any conflict will be fought: it is a bargaining chip. China knows this and holds increasingly more of the cards as the US looks away.