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Vietnam Won the US-China Tariff War

Monthly imports from Vietnam have been rising steadily on a year-over-year basis since June 2020, and the year-to-date figures show they doesn’t appear to be leveling off anytime soon.

Data from the U.S. Census Bureau shows that for March, the most recent monthly tally available, U.S. imports from Vietnam were $8.80 billion, up sequentially from $6.76 billion in February and reflecting a 70 percent spike from $5.18 billion in March 2020. The February total saw $6.76 billion in imports, a sequential dip from $7.66 billion in January, but a 12 percent increase from $6.03 billion in February 2020. And January’s $7.66 billon in imports was a sequential increase from $6.92 billion in December 2020, which also represented a 20 percent jump from December 2019. As for 2020 monthly compares from the same year-ago tallies in 2019, most months saw increases except for March and May 2020, when imports from Vietnam were down from 2019 figures.

A look at the available data from the Census Bureau showed that imports from Vietnam have shown steady year-over-year growth since 1994 when imports reached $50.5 million from zero the year prior, the numbers indicate. However, it wasn’t until 2019 when total imports spiked 36 percent to $66.63 billion from 2018’s $49.16 billion that the monthly import figures began an upward trajectory that has yet to slow down.

In 2018, many apparel companies were already in a multi-year process of moving production away from China amid rising labor costs. Some looked to India, while others eyed Vietnam.

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The start of the U.S.-China trade war on July 6, 2018, when the U.S. under the Trump administration imposed a 25 percent tariff on $34 billion of Chinese imports, further accelerated anywhere-but-China sourcing. That was the first in a series of tariffs that has only escalated via multiple tranches in the months that followed. Former President Trump tabled a 25 percent tariff on $300 billion of Chinese imports in June 2019. That didn’t last long as the U.S. slapped an additional 10 percent tariff on $300 billion worth of Chinese imports two months later starting Sept. 1, 2019.

For apparel production, Asian countries that saw gains included Vietnam, India, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Cambodia. Companies also looked elsewhere for production, such as Turkey.

One question looming on the horizon is whether the U.S. Trade Representative will at some point impose new tariffs on goods from Vietnam. The USTR has determined that Vietnam’s practices related to currency valuation had harmed U.S. commerce. The USTR in January decided to hold off on new tariffs for now, just before the Biden administration took over, but that could change at any moment.

For now, the main loser seems to be China. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, imports from China in 2018 totaled $539.24 billion, a 7 percent increase from $505.17 billion in 2017. Following the imposition of tariffs, 2019 imports from China fell 16 percent to $451.65 billion from 2018’s tally. And in 2020, imports fell again by 4 percent to $435.44 billion.

Because of the impact from the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, data from 2021 as the year progresses will help determine what will be the trend for imports from China in the months ahead. For the three-month tally from January to March 2021, imports totaled $113.37 billion, representing a 49 percent gain from the comparable 2020 period of $75.90 billion when China was hard hit by the pandemic, but just a 7 percent increase from $105.84 billion in the same 2019 period.

So far, the Biden administration is keeping Trump’s tariffs in place. The USTR delivered Biden’s 2021 Trade Agenda to Congress in March, recognizing China’s trade policies as harming U.S. workers, threatening America’s technological edge and weakening its supply-chain resiliency, not to mention undermining national interests. For now, the key priority for Biden appears to be focusing on rebuilding the U.S. economy and fighting the coronavirus pandemic. On March 12, he signed a $1.9 trillion Covid relief bill into law, which was welcomed by retail trade groups the National Retail Federation and the American Apparel & Footwear Association.