Can the United States Impose Trade Sanctions on China for Currency Manipulation?


Anti-China critics argue that the People’s Republic of China (PRC or China) engages in a long-standing and intentional pattern of currency manipulation that artificially devalues the Chinese currency, the Renminbi (RMB or “people’s currency”) versus the USD. The devaluation of the RMB makes Chinese goods less expensive to the U.S. consumer as they need to exchange fewer dollars for the same amount of RMB used to purchase Chinese imported goods. At the same time, U.S. goods are more expensive to the Chinese consumer as they need to use more RMB to exchange for the same amount of USD needed to purchase U.S. goods. This devaluation of the Chinese currency results in China exporting more goods to the United States and the United States exporting fewer to China. This pattern leads to an increase in the U.S. trade deficit with China, which has already reached a massive $319.28 billion in 2015, by the far the largest U.S. trade deficit with any individual trading partner. A trade deficit of this size has many negative consequences for the United States, such as closed factories, lost jobs, and stagnant wages.

China’s currency manipulation is another instance, according to the anti-China critics, of how China conducts international trade to the detriment of the United States. One of the most prominent anti-China critics, newly-elected President Donald Trump, promises to impose punitive tariffs of 45% on all Chinese imports to offset the effects of China’s currency manipulation. Should such a measure become enacted, it would cause shock waves around the world and could possibly plunge the world into a trade war between the United States and China with costly ramifications for every corner of the globe.

This article examines the main arguments that China’s currency manipulation justifies the U.S. imposition of trade sanctions. A detailed legal analysis reveals that China’s currency manipulation violates no legal obligations under the World Trade Organization, hereinafter referred to as “WTO.” As a result, the United States cannot lawfully impose trade sanctions on China consistent with the WTO. If the United States imposes such sanctions, China will likely be able to successfully challenge the sanctions in the WTO and win a WTO decision requiring the United States to withdraw the sanctions. The article then argues that a different set of strategies is needed to deal with China’s sharp tactics in international trade, as exemplified in the United States’ recent strategy in creating mega-free trade agreements such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership.


China, currency manipulation, WTO, TPP, Trans-Pacific Partnership, international trade, trade sanctions, trade deficit, World Trade Organization, Donald Trump, devaluation, RMB, tariffs, trade war



Daniel C.K. Chow (Ohio State University College of Law)



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