China's Xi holds fire as US President Trump poses unprecedented threat on trade

China's plans for reciprocal tariffs of US$3 billion (S$3.94 billion) on products from pork to wine represent a tiny fraction of its US imports.
China's plans for reciprocal tariffs of US$3 billion (S$3.94 billion) on products from pork to wine represent a tiny fraction of its US imports.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

BEIJING (BLOOMBERG) - After US President Donald Trump fired the first shots in what may be an extended trade war, Chinese President Xi Jinping made clear he's going to wait before unleashing his country's formidable arsenal in response.

China's plans for reciprocal tariffs of US$3 billion (S$3.94 billion) on products from pork to wine represent a tiny fraction of its US imports.

Crucially, the Commerce Ministry said those were in response to Mr Trump's steel and aluminium tariffs, and said it has a plan to act further on the planned levies on US$50 billion worth of Chinese imports that his administration announced on Thursday.

Mr Xi has a lot at stake in his next move. Fresh off securing the power to rule indefinitely, he must look strong to reassure his 1.4 billion citizens that China won't back down to a global challenge.

At the same time, he wants to avoid an escalation that could tank China's debt-laden economy and undermine the Communist Party's legitimacy.

That means measures that will hurt Mr Trump politically rather than inflict more damage on the global economy.

After all, while Mr Xi could stay in office for life if he wants, there's a chance Mr Trump might not even finish his four-year term.

"They will want to squeeze and squeeze and squeeze until it gets so loud that the administration is willing to do a deal that doesn't hurt China too much," said Mr James McGregor, China chairman of the consultancy APCO Worldwide, which advises foreign companies.

"They will strategically go after important industries, important companies, important trade groups so that their representatives in Washington raise hell."

For Mr Xi, a key question is whether Mr Trump is simply looking for applause lines at campaign rallies or if the moves represent a fundamental shift in US-China ties.

Sectors subject to Mr Trump's tariffs include aerospace, information and communication technology and machinery: all areas that Mr Xi's government has identified as key to China's development strategy.

Chinese officials have repeatedly said they want to resolve disputes through dialogue, even though they're ready to fight a trade war.

Mr Xi has a daunting list of domestic structural economic problems to tackle, ranging from slowing growth to property bubbles to high leverage in state-owned enterprises.

Further complicating matters for Mr Xi are shifts in Mr Trump's team, including the ouster of Mr Rex Tillerson as secretary of state and General H.R. McMaster as national security adviser.

His replacement, Mr John Bolton, has called for revisiting US policy toward Taiwan - a red line for Beijing.

"A lot depends on how the Chinese are reading this," said Mr Dennis Wilder, former senior director for Asia at the National Security Council during the George W. Bush administration.

Mr Xi may send stronger signals to Washington if he assesses that US is taking a harder line on China, Mr Wilder said, adding that scenario is "domestically more dangerous" for him.

Mr Xi has a plethora of tools to deploy. China can tie up imports in red tape at the border, slap export taxes on goods heading to the US and put tariffs on crops like sorghum and soybeans grown in some politically important farming states.

China can also make like difficult for US companies, including blocking the likes of Boeing Co and Cisco Systems Inc from accessing a procurement market it says is worth 3.1 trillion yuan (S$644.28 billion).

Even without those harder measures, stocks took a beating on Friday. Equity indexes from Tokyo to Shanghai tumbled more than 3 per cent after the S&P 500 Index fell 2.5 per cent, the most in six weeks.

Boeing dropped more than 5 per cent, while Cisco Systems dropped 2.8 per cent.

So far, China has signalled it can take more pain than Mr Trump.

Mr Cui Tiankai, China's ambassador in the US, said on Thursday: "If people want to play tough, we will play tough with them and see who will last longer."

Even so, some analysts think China will wave the white flag. Recent statements from Premier Li Keqiang and Mr Liu He, Mr Xi's top economic aide, indicate that China is ready to open up the services sector, address US concerns on technology transfer and do more to protect intellectual property, according to Mr Larry Hu, chief China economist at Macquarie Securities Ltd in Hong Kong.

"China's policymakers have made it clear that they are not ready for a full-blown trade war," he wrote on Friday. "Therefore, the most likely outcome is that China will concede."

Mr Xi's big advantage for the moment is complete control over the government and state-owned companies that dominate China's economy.

Moreover, many American companies will also be looking to fight the Trump administration because they see the Chinese market as more important than the US, said APCO's McGregor.

US companies "are beholden to shareholders, not to the United States," he said. "Globalisation has untethered multinationals from having to look after the United States, and China knows that."