Many jobs in Washington State in the cross hairs of a U.S.-China trade war

Boeing aircraft are among the 128 products China’s Ministry of Commerce has targeted for possible higher tariffs as the United States and China spar over trade.
Boeing aircraft are among the 128 products China’s Ministry of Commerce has targeted for possible higher tariffs as the United States and China spar over trade. Seattle Times

If President Donald Trump follows through on his trade threats against China, it will open a broad new front in his administration’s war with Washington and California, a new study underscores.

Most of the concern over the president’s escalating trade conflict with China has centered on the fallout for farmers, particularly in the Midwest, a part of the country that disproportionately voted for Trump in 2016.

But an analysis by experts at the Brookings Institution, a non-partisan District of Columbia think tank, finds that the West Coast has far and away the most jobs on the line in the tariff tit-for-tat between the Trump administration and Beijing.

The agriculture industry is only one of several industries that are in China’s cross hairs. Wine, nuts and fruit, are among the 128 products being targeted by China’s Ministry of Commerce, according to the list it released April 2.

So are Boeing aircraft. In King and Snohomish counties, aircraft manufacturers employ more than 70,000 people. Most of them work for Boeing.

Beijing’s tariff threat came after the White House announced in March that it plans to tax Chinese steel and aluminum coming into the United States. In response to China’s tariff threat, the Trump administration said on April 3 that it is considering slapping tariffs on an additional list of 1,300 Chinese products.

Brookings researchers singled out 40 American industries that would be affected by Beijing’s retaliatory tariffs, which together employ 2.1 million people across the country.

Of those, 441,000 – more than 20 percent – are based in Washington state and California. King and Snohomish counties each have about 39,000 jobs that could be affected. Yakima County ranks in the top 25 counties affected.

“The coastal United States, especially the west, is deeply involved, arguably the most deeply involved” in the U.S.-China trade relationship, said Brookings Senior Fellow Mark Muro, the lead author of the study.

Pierce and Thurston counties, which lack agricultural and aerospace jobs, would be less affected. In Pierce County, 1.3 percent of total employment is directly connected to an industry that might be affected by the tariffs. In Thurston County, that number is 0.03 percent.

Los Angeles and San Diego Counties employ thousands of people in aircraft manufacturing, as well as pharmaceuticals. Los Angeles has a large plastics manufacturing sector.

But because of their huge and diversified economies, those jobs, while large in number, represent a relatively small share of overall employment. That may be why the potential impact of tariffs have not drawn the outcry, or at least the headlines, of hog farmers in Iowa or soybean farmers in Illinois.

Politics are another part of the story.

Neither Washington nor California voted for Trump in the electoral college. Both states butted heads with the White House on several contested policies, such as immigration and environmental regulations.

“We’ve tended to default to this thought that Midwest and rural counties are the focal point” of tariffs, Muro said. The president, for example, has promised to “make it up to farmers” in the event they are hurt by Chinese tariffs.

The White House also is slated to hold a meeting this week with members of Congress from agricultural states to discuss trade concerns.

The impact of tariffs in those regions is real, Muro said. In some heartland counties, a third or more of local jobs could be affected by tariffs on soybean, corn, wheat and other farm products.

Still, those industries employ few people compared to the big manufacturing companies that could be hurt. About 14,000 people work in soybeans and their related products. More than 800,000 people work in the aerospace, pharmaceutical and plastics industries,

“What’s forgotten,” in the political discussion, Muro said, “is that, in fact, our big coastal hubs, our urban hubs, have long been deeply involved in highly-valued trade, often through manufacturing, high tech, pharmaceuticals.” Arguably, those are the industries that “are higher value and leaning into the future,” he said.

Muro also pointed out that products like aircraft, automobiles and plastics are typically part of large, complex supply chains, which could multiply any impact from tariffs across a far broader spectrum of jobs. That is not reflected in the Brookings figures.