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COMMENTARY

Trump has put the US and China on the cusp of a new cold war

Many in the business and policy communities feel US may be in this fight for years to come

Washington

PRESIDENT Donald Trump is confident that the United States is winning its trade war with China. But on both sides of the Pacific, a bleaker recognition is taking hold: The world's two largest economies are in the opening stages of a new economic Cold War, one that could persist well after Mr Trump is out of office.

"This thing will last long," Jack Ma, the billionaire chairman of Alibaba Group, warned a meeting of investors on Tuesday in Hangzhou, China. "If you want a short-term solution, there is no solution." Mr Trump intensified his trade fight this week, imposing tariffs on US$200 billion worth of Chinese goods and threatening to tax nearly all imports from China if it dared to retaliate. His position has bewildered, frustrated and provoked Beijing, which has responded with its own levies on US goods.

The diplomatic stalemate has many in the business and policy communities considering the possibility that the United States may be in a protracted and economically damaging trade fight for years to come and wondering what, if anything, America will gain.

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Kevin Rudd, a former prime minister of Australia and an expert on China, said in an interview that 2018 signalled "the beginnings of a war of a different type: a trade war, an investment war and a technology war between the two great powers of the 21st century, with an uncertain landing point." The latest tit-for-tat leaves little room for concessions, at least in the interim, as both countries dig in their heels and China tries to remain strong, despite an economic softening that Mr Trump clearly sees as an opening to force Beijing's hand.

Chinese growth in investment, factory production and consumer spending have all slowed this year, and its economic growth has slowed alongside. The situation is expected to worsen as effects of the escalating US tariffs ramp up.

While the United States made overtures towards China in recent days to talk trade in Washington this month, some officials said they now doubted Beijing would engage again at a high level until after the midterm elections in November, when President Xi Jinping may meet Mr Trump on the sidelines of an economic summit meeting in Buenos Aires.

Mr Trump himself seemed to dangle the prospect that he, and he alone, could broker a resolution that threatened to cause economic pain to companies and consumers on both sides of the Pacific.

"Hopefully, this trade situation will be resolved, in the end, by myself and President Xi of China, for whom I have great respect and affection," Mr Trump said in his statement announcing the tariffs.

Yet it is not clear that either side will see a reason to back down. Aides to Mr Trump say the president believes that the United States has the upper hand on China, with an ability to impose tariffs on a far larger number of goods than the Chinese can match given that America imports far more than it exports. And while the tariffs are unpopular with Republican lawmakers, farmers and manufacturers, his trade approach remains popular with his political base.

The Chinese side has its own political reasons to avoid capitulation. Acceding to Mr Trump would be considered a sign of weakness for Mr Xi, according to analysts.

And they see no sign that China is willing to give up on Made in China 2025, an industrial programme that aims for dominance in robotics, artificial intelligence, and other high tech industries that have been the domain of the United States and Europe and that Mr Trump has identified as a policy initiative that must be stopped.

While Chinese officials have expressed a willingness to get rid of the name Made in China 2025, they have been much more cautious about accepting limits on some of the crucial features of the country's industrial policy, like big loans from state-owned banks at very low interest rates to favoured industries.

Inside the White House, there remains a pitched battle between those who want to make a deal with Beijing and those who are determined to keep piling on pressure to force a more radical change in its trade practices. At the moment, the hard-liners have Mr Trump's ear.

"You would expect the administration to have tabled a negotiating text with a clear set of commitments, but that has apparently not been done," said Daniel M Price, a former trade adviser to President George W Bush. "There are some in the administration who see tariffs as an end in themselves." Mr Price said the Trump administration had done a good job of cataloguing China's abuses: theft of intellectual property, forced transfer of technology from foreign companies, predatory joint venture agreements. But it has failed to marshal a coalition to confront China, instead provoking separate trade fights with the European Union, Japan, Canada and Mexico by imposing tariffs on steel and aluminium and threatening additional taxes on imported cars.

"Doing this without the EU and Japan fully on board as though Chinese unfair trade practices were only a bilateral problem is wrongheaded and certainly less effective," he said. "But it's very hard to galvanise your allies when you impose steel and aluminium tariffs on them and threaten auto tariffs." NYTIMES