Politifact: Trump inflates size of U.S. trade deficit with China

President Donald Trump has long bemoaned the United States’ trade deficit with China, and he ratcheted up pressure on Beijing by announcing tariffs on up to $60 billion worth of imported Chinese goods.

It turns out the numbers he cited on U.S.-China trade are well off the mark.

The U.S. deficit with China in goods trade has grown substantially over roughly two decades. The deficit in 1990 was $10.4 billion. It grew to $83.8 billion in 2000 and swelled to $273 billion in 2010, according to the U.S. International Trade Commission.

In 2017, the value of Chinese goods imported to the United States ($505 billion) exceeded U.S. goods exports to China ($130 billion) by roughly $375 billion. Americans racked up billions in purchases of Chinese-made goods, such as communications and computer equipment, kitchen appliances, and shoes.

Based on trade in goods, Trump’s $500 billion figure is off by $125 billion.

When you factor in goods and services, which economists say paints the fuller picture, his claim is further off.

According to data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis, the United States actually ran a surplus in the services trade with China in 2017 — to the tune of roughly $38.5 billion.

When you factor that surplus into the two countries’ overall trade balance, the United States ran a roughly $336 billion deficit with China last year — which means Trump’s figure was off by about $164 billion.

It’s possible Trump may have confused the Chinese deficit with the United States’ overall trade deficit, which was $566 billion in 2017, according to the bureau.

However, it’s also possible Trump used the $500 billion figure as a matter of habit. We rated this claim Mostly False when he said it in 2015.

Our ruling

In 2017, the value of Chinese goods imported to the United States exceeded U.S. goods exports to China by roughly $375 billion. Over that same period, the United States actually ran a $38.5 billion surplus on services trade with China. Overall, in terms of both goods and services, the U.S. trade deficit with China in 2017 was about $336 billion — meaning Trump was off by roughly $164 billion.

We rate this Mostly False.

“Last year we lost $500 billion on trade with China.”

— President Donald Trump during a news conference March 23