Trump’s Latest False Claim About the U.S.-China Trade Deficit

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The total U.S. trade deficit with China in goods and services in 2023 was about $252 billion, the lowest it has been in 14 years. Former President Donald Trump was way off when he falsely claimed that the U.S.-China trade gap is about four times as high.

“Right now, we have the largest deficit we’ve ever had with China, like over a trillion dollars,” Trump said in an interview for Fox News’ “The Will Cain Show,” which was posted online June 3. “Think of how bad that is. Too much. You can’t sustain that.”

Trump made the claim when talking about his relationship with Chinese President Xi Jinping. “He respected me,” Trump said, claiming that “they don’t respect” President Joe Biden “at all.”

While Trump portrays bilateral trade deficits as a negative, many economists do not believe that they necessarily are. For example, Robert Z. Lawrence and Yeling Tan, the lead authors of a strategic brief for the Global Future Council on International Trade and Investment, said the ideas that “trade deficits are bad” and “[b]ilateral trade between countries should be balanced” are misconceptions.

Regardless, Trump was wrong about the size of the imbalance in exports and imports between the U.S. and China — and he wasn’t even close, as the chart below shows.

The U.S. had a trade deficit with China in goods and services of roughly $252 billion in 2023, according to revised figures the Bureau of Economic Analysis released June 6. The deficit in goods trading was about $279 billion for the year, but that was partially offset by a roughly $27 billion surplus in the trading of services — which can include travel, transportation, finance and intellectual property.

In fact, last year’s total trade gap with China was lower than it was in each year of Trump’s presidency. It also was the lowest since the $220 billion deficit in 2009.

BEA data going back to 1999 show that the highest total U.S.-China trade deficit in goods and services was about $378 billion in 2018 — when Trump was in office. In 2022, the deficit was $366 billion, the highest figure among Biden’s three years in office.

The former president has been exaggerating the U.S. trade deficit with China, and other countries, for years, dating to the 2016 campaign and in justifying his trade policies when in office. He used to regularly claim that the deficit with China was $500 billion, which also was incorrect. His latest assertion that the deficit is “over a trillion dollars” is even further off the mark.

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