LAUNCESTON, Australia (Reuters) - U.S. President Donald Trump claims that his tariffs on trade are “working big time”, but this ignores signs that the best hope the United States had for boosting exports to China is being crushed as Beijing clamps down on energy imports.
One of Trump’s stated aims in launching tariffs against Chinese imports was to lower the trade deficit between the United States and China, which is in the region of $375 billion a year.
The Trump administration has imposed tariffs on $34 billion of annual trade with China, with $16 billion more due to be implemented in coming days. China has matched the $34 billion and proposed charges on $60 billion more.
In a potentially massive escalation, Trump has threatened to impose tariffs on over $500 billion of Chinese goods - virtually all of China’s annual exports to the United States.
(Graphic: U.S.-China trade balance: tmsnrt.rs/2M0lXyW)
“Tariffs are working big time,” Trump said in a tweet on Sunday. “Every country on earth wants to take wealth out of the U.S., always to our detriment. I say, as they come, tax them.”
The latest Chinese response included proposed tariffs on liquefied natural gas (LNG). The fuel now joins crude oil, certain refined products and coal on the list of U.S. imports that may be slapped with duties of up to 25 percent.
In some ways, the addition of LNG to the list is symbolic. It’s already clear that Chinese companies have dramatically scaled back their purchases of U.S. energy products.
China imported about 313,000 barrels per day of U.S. crude in the first six months of 2018, according to vessel-tracking and port data compiled by Thomson Reuters Oil Research and Forecasts. At about $70 a barrel, this was worth just below $4 billion, giving a potential annual trade of around $8 billion.
That may sound like small change in the overall context of U.S. trade with China. But crude oil represented one of the few areas where China could have realistically increased its purchases from the United States.
China was also the biggest market for U.S. crude producers, representing about 16 percent of total exports, while for China, U.S. imports were a measly 3.5 percent of the total. It’s likely that U.S. crude exporters will be able to find other buyers, but they may have to offer discounts or other incentives to build market share.
While U.S. crude exports to China appear to have held up in August, with about 342,000 bpd expected to arrive, they seem set for a slump in September. So far, about 203,000 bpd have been booked for arrival next month, according to vessel-tracking data, and the window for more cargoes to be added is closing, given it takes at least three weeks for a tanker to make the journey from the Gulf of Mexico to China’s east coast.
Unipec, the trading arm of China’s largest refiner Sinopec, has suspended crude imports from the United States, Reuters reported on Aug. 3, citing three sources familiar with the situation.
It is not clear how long the temporary halt will last, but one of the sources said Unipec has no new bookings of U.S. crude until at least October.
LNG was another product where the United States had real potential to boost exports to China, something Trump touted before launching his trade war.
China has overtaken South Korea to become the world’s number two importer of the super-chilled fuel behind Japan. Rapid growth is likely to continue as Beijing continues to implement anti-pollution measures largely aimed at reducing the burning of coal.
China’s imports of U.S. LNG were about 1.9 million tonnes in the first seven months of year, according to vessel-tracking data, representing just 6.9 percent of total purchases of 27.6 million tonnes.
August’s imports are likely to be around 150,000 tonnes, with two vessels heading from the United States to China, roughly matching the two cargoes offloaded in both June and May, but well below this year’s peak of seven, in January.
No cargoes at all have yet been booked for September, raising the possibility that China’s imports of U.S. LNG will drop to zero, even though any tariff action still has to be implemented.
Similar to crude oil and LNG, coal was another area where Trump could have made a difference to U.S. exports to China.
China isn’t a major buyer of U.S. coal, importing mainly high-grade coking coal used in steel-making.
However, with the price of Australian thermal coal reaching 6-1/2 year highs, above $120 a tonne, U.S. exports of this type of fuel used in power stations would have been competitive.
Instead, U.S. coal exports to China appear to be trending lower, with about 336,000 tonnes booked for arrival on four vessels in August - down from the peak this year of 505,300 tonnes on seven ships in April, and also below the average of 365,000 tonnes for the first seven months of the year.
As yet, no cargoes for September delivery have been booked, although this may change since some coal is exported from Long Beach in California, meaning it has a shorter journey time of around three weeks to reach China.
Overall, what the vessel-tracking data is showing is that Chinese imports of U.S. energy are heading lower, even ahead of potential tariffs.
The opinions expressed here are those of the author, a columnist for Reuters.
Editing by Kenneth Maxwell