China's first salvo in Trump trade war is a winning shot

A worker walking through a warehouse at the Han-steel plant in Handan in China's northern Hebei province.PHOTO: AFP

SYDNEY (BLOOMBERG) - Has Beijing brought a knife to a trade war gunfight?

That's certainly the way it looks at first glance. Plans to slap levies on US$3 billion of US goods affect about 2 per cent of China's imports from the country, compared to the roughly 10 perc ent of trade in the opposite direction that will be penalized under the US's plans to impose tariffs on US$50 billion of goods from China.

The restrictions will barely be noticed in China itself. There'll be a 25 per cent levy on pork imports from the US, but that trade represented just 165,736 metric tons last year - about 13 per cent of China's offshore pork intake, and 0.3 per cent of consumption that runs to about 55 million tons a year.

A 15 per cent tariff will be levied on fruit, nuts, wine and ethanol, which together amount to another US$1 billion or so a year, while the same rates will be levied on, respectively, aluminum scrap and steel pipe.

In dollar terms, the restrictions on recycled aluminum will probably be the most significant - but considering that China has been trying to eliminate most imports of non-ferrous scrap anyway, they'll largely be accelerating an ongoing process rather than reversing any trend.

Bigger categories of imports such as soybeans (US$13.8 billion), cars and auto parts (US$13.6 billion), aircraft (US$12.6 billion) and integrated circuits (US$8.7 billion), have largely been spared.

If you take that as a sign of weakness, think again. As Gadfly and others have argued, the likeliest outcome of a trade war is that participants blow themselves up rather than inflict damage on the enemy. By imposing a few largely cosmetic penalties that hit hardest on industries - agriculture and primary metals - that have supported President Donald Trump's trade policies, Beijing is firing a warning shot but not truly going on the offensive.

A worker walking through a warehouse at the Han-steel plant in Handan in China's northern Hebei province.PHOTO: AFP

Structurally, China is in the stronger position, with exports to the US (mobile phones, clothing, computers, toys) that are much more dominant as a share of American imports and hit directly at the hip pockets of consumers.

Keeping its powder dry while posing as the real free trader in the dispute will put Beijing in a strong position for the diplomatic battle that lies ahead. That's what should really worry Washington.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

David Fickling is a Bloomberg Gadfly columnist covering commodities, as well as industrial and consumer companies. He has been a reporter for Bloomberg News, Dow Jones, the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times and the Guardian.