Trump’s Dangerous China Trade Gambit

Update 9/17/18: The Trump administration has announced a 10% tariff on $200 billion in Chinese imports that will rise to 25% at the end of the year. U.S. consumer will bear the brunt of what is essentially a tax passed on to consumers with higher prices.

China has said they will not negotiate if tariffs were imposed. Expect retaliatory Chinese tariffs and a raft of new restrictions on U.S. businesses as Trump escalates his trade war.

Revised list of U.S. tariffs via USTR website.

China has said they will not negotiate if tariffs were imposed. Expect retaliatory Chinese tariffs and a raft of new restrictions on U.S. businesses as Trump escalates his trade war. 

A dangerous new phase in Trump’s trade war is about to begin when the $200 billion in U.S. tariffs on Chinese goods comes into effect soon. Everything from electronic components to auto parts and textiles will be affected, though notably U.S. consumer goods including toys, cell phones, and pharmaceuticals were left off the list. Someone in Trump’s orbit must have realized that the consumer backlash on these items would mean a Republican hit in the midterms.

While this may look like a giant game of chicken, neither Trump nor Xi is likely to swerve anytime soon. Some China policy advisors have come to the conclusion that Trump’s true intention is to weaken China, not negotiate in good faith towards resolving long simmering trade tensions. A segment of hard-liners in Beijing always interpret U.S. policy as a direct threat to Chinese interests. They’re often wrong, but this time they may be on to something.

Leaked, off-the-record comments made by Trump during an interview with Bloomberg, as reported in The Star, suggest that Trump is only interested in win-lose scenarios. He reportedly said that he has no interest in conceding anything to Canada in ongoing NAFTA trade talks and Canadian negotiators seem to agree, noting a complete lack of flexibility on the U.S. side. Talks with Canada have since broken down.

That’s a death blow to constructive negotiations.

Trump’s refusal to offer concessions does not bode well for U.S.-China economic relations. The latest round of trade talks broke down after two days without any plan to renew discussions, and the first tranche of U.S. tariffs kicked in on $16 billion worth of goods.

While Trump thinks “trade wars are easy to win”, he is becoming ever more isolated not only from facts, but from his advisors in general. His own narcissism, on full display in excerpts from Bob Woodward’s new book “Fear: Trump in the White House” suggest nothing and no one can change his penchant for causing chaos if left to his own instincts. There are only so many times an order can be ignored or a paper can “go missing” from his Oval Office desk.

Add to that the misinformation bubble tightening around him and his warped perceptions are likely to lead to even more problems. His chief economic advisor, Larry Kudlow, recently told him that the Chinese economy is looking weak, giving false feedback that either Trump’s actions are already bearing fruit or now is an opportune time to pressure Beijing.

Xi Jinping is not likely to back down in the face of an aggressive U.S. push on trade. Quite the opposite. As China’s military build-up in the South China Sea illustrates, their rhetoric of a “peaceful rise” and “biding one’s time” has come to an end. 

Despite economic difficulties, and there are many, from decades of easy money, loose financial oversight, and rising debt, China’s leaders have been exceptionally adept at managing through difficult periods. The entire financial system is commanded by the Communist Party. The renminbi, despite early signs of increased convertibility, is not freely traded. Exports, as a total percentage of China’s economic activity, remains relatively low and trade with Europe and the rest of Asia are unlikely to be affected by the latest eruption from another of Trump’s late night Pennsylvania Ave. rants. 

China’s economy is still largely insulated from the worst of what a sustained trade war might inflict on its economy. A slowdown in trade with the U.S., at least in the short-term, is unlikely to cause significant pressure. This trade war may actually accelerate China’s transition to a more consumer-oriented economy while other countries/regions, including the EU, Australia, and Japan, gain greater market share.  

The real stakes here are a lasting break-down between two of the world’s largest economies that goes far beyond tariffs. 

Normally foreign policy issues including security and trade, are addressed separately. Trump has consistently blamed China for impeding progress on North Korean denuclearization and then linked that to his tariff policy. With increased CFIUS reviews, a necessary effort to reduce potentially damaging Chinese government interference in the U.S., the hardliners in China are likely to conclude that nothing is to be gained from constructive negotiations across an ever widening number of important bilateral and multilateral issues. 

No one doubts that China has been abusing the international trading system for years at the expense of U.S. companies. Intellectual property theft, market restrictions, counterfeiting of drugs, and a host of important issues need to be addresses, but a trade war is one of the least effective ways to accomplish these goals. Tariffs are simply the wrong tool for the job.

Once negotiating trust is lost, the dangers of misperception rise exponentially. Everything Trump does now may be seen as directed at Xi’s hold on power and China’s system of government. An external threat is an easy cause to rally around and China has no shortage of nationalistic tendencies at the moment. If relations become polarized there’s nothing easy about walking back form the edge towards the negotiating table again. 

Wall Street’s GoldmanSachs, JPMorgan and UBS are all warning that a wide-ranging trade war will lead to a bear market as corporate earnings and investment take hits they cannot easily ignore.

As U.S. consumer prices rise and companies lose export markets, Trump will no doubt think he’s winning. The November mid-terms will show whether the nation agrees with him or not.