The Sino-American tit-for-tat trade standoff

George N. Tzogopoulos China Plus Published: 2018-04-07 15:09:03
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By George N. Tzogopoulos

When Donald Trump was elected President in the US, Sino-American relations could not but enter a period of relative uncertainty. Trump’s pre-election rhetoric and his unclear policies on several fronts – including trade – raised serious questions. The two meetings with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping in both the US and China certainly contributed to a better understanding between the two sides enhancing dialogue initiatives. Despite the good climate Trump’s ‘America First’ agenda has not been abandoned though. This has been apparent in the recent weeks.

Soybeans and Banknotes of US Dollar [Photo: VCG]

Soybeans and Banknotes of US Dollar [Photo: VCG]

In particular, the US President is targeting China by introducing some new tariffs. It all started with an announcement on potential tariffs against US imports of steel (25 percent) and aluminum (10 percent) at the beginning of March (US Section 232). On 22 March a presidential proclamation suspended tariffs for Argentina, Australia, Brazil, South Korea, Canada, Mexico and the European Union. It thus became evident that the main objective of Trump was to curb imports from China. 

On the very same day, the US President went further and decided to do a Section 301 trade action aiming at reducing the trade deficit with China. The initial calculation was an amount of 60 $billion. In addition to punitive tariffs, Trump directed US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer to challenge China’s technology licensing programs at the WTO. In his relevant talk Lighthizer accused China for having ‘a policy of forced technology transfer’ and for ‘cyber theft’. 

Even before the recent introduction of tariffs by Washington, Beijing had warned against counter-measures to safeguard its interests. So, it is not surprising that it had responded firmly. The initial reaction took place on 1 April when the Customs Tariff Commission of the State Council decided impose a tariff of 15 percent on 120 items of products imported from the US. According to China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs this was a response to the Section 232 measures and not the Section 301 investigation.

Subsequently, a tit-for-tat trade standoff began. 24 hours after the Chinese retaliation the Trump administration identified 1300 Chinese exports that could be targeted. And on 4 April the Chinese administration announced the imposing of additional tariffs of 25 percent on 106 American products worth of circa 50 $billion. A few days later Trump showed some signs of softening his style by tweeting: ‘President Xi and I will always be friends, no matter what happens with our dispute on trade’. Nonetheless, it remains unclear what the next steps will be. 

Perhaps the decision of Trump to target China is reflecting his will to partly act in line with his pre-election rhetoric As Time magazine observes: ‘this is an election year in the US and Trump wants supporters to see that he’s keeping his promises to get tough on China and trade deficits’. But the US President is unpredictable and therefore no scenario – even that of a trade war – should be excluded. Against this backdrop China is formulating its policies. In so doing, it has already filed a request for consultation under the WTO dispute settlement framework with the US regarding the Section 232 measures that slap tariffs on steel and aluminum imports. It has also done so concerning the Section 301 investigation against it. 

There is no question that no one would benefit by a trade war as well as instability, uncertainty and protectionism in economic affairs. For the time being, it is China’s nuanced retaliation approach that seems more likely to bring the situation back to normalcy by possibly leading the US administration to reconsider the long-term impact of its punitive practices. A Brooking study suggests that ‘the Chinese have done their homework about the geography of both the US production system and its divided politics’. In other words, they have managed to involve local and regional economies and jobs in their response paving arguably the way for a pushback to Trump by both Republicans and Democrats in Congress. 

While the majority of trade between China and the US has not been affected yet, the time is right for fair consultations and good will. China will not initiate a trade war and its door to negotiations will be always open. The steady development of Sino-American commercial ties is critical not only for the two countries but for the world. 

(Dr George N. Tzogopoulos is an expert in media and politics/international relations as well as Chinese affairs. )

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LU Xiankun Professor LU Xiankun is Managing Director of LEDECO Geneva and Associate Partner of IDEAS Centre Geneva. He is Emeritus Professor of China Institute for WTO Studies of the University of International Business and Economics (UIBE) and Wuhan University (WHU) of China and visiting professor or senior research fellow of some other universities and think tanks in China and Europe. He also sits in management of some international business associations and companies, including as Senior Vice President of Shenzhen UEB Technology LTD., a leading e-commerce company of China. Previously, Mr. LU was senior official of Chinese Ministry of Commerce and senior diplomat posted in Europe, including in Geneva as Counsellor and Head of Division of the Permanent Mission of China to the WTO and in Brussels as Commercial Secretary of the Permanent Mission of China to the EU. Benjamin Cavender Benjamin Cavender is a Shanghai based consultant with more than 11 years of experience helping companies understand consumer behavior and develop go to market strategies for China. He is a frequent speaker on economic and consumer trends in China and is often featured on CNBC, Bloomberg, and Channel News Asia. Sara Hsu Sara Hsu is an associate professor from the State University of New York at New Paltz. She is a regular commentator on Chinese economy. Xu Qinduo Xu Qinduo is CRI's former chief correspondent to Washington DC, the United States. He works as the producer, host and commentator for TODAY, a flagship talk show on current affairs. Mr. Xu contributes regularly to English-language newspapers including Shenzhen Daily and Global Times as well as Chinese-language radio and TV services. Lin Shaowen A radio person, Mr. Lin Shaowen is strongly interested in international relations and Chinese politics. As China is quite often misunderstood in the rest of the world, he feels the need to better present the true picture of the country, the policies and meanings. So he talks a lot and is often seen debating. Then friends find a critical Lin Shaowen criticizing and criticized. George N. Tzogopoulos Dr George N. Tzogopoulos is an expert in media and politics/international relations as well as Chinese affairs. He is Senior Research Fellow at the Centre International de Européenne (CIFE) and Visiting Lecturer at the European Institute affiliated with it and is teaching international relations at the Department of Law of the Democritus University of Thrace. George is the author of two books: US Foreign Policy in the European Media: Framing the Rise and Fall of Neoconservatism (IB TAURIS) and The Greek Crisis in the Media: Stereotyping in the International Press (Ashgate) as well as the founder of, an institutional partner of CRI Greek. David Morris David Morris is the Pacific Islands Trade and Investment Commissioner in China, a former Australian diplomat and senior political adviser. Harvey Dzodin After a distinguished career in the US government and American media Dr. Harvey Dzodin is now a Beijing-based freelance columnist for several media outlets. While living in Beijing, he has published over 200 columns with an emphasis on arts, culture and the Belt & Road initiative. He is also a sought-after speaker and advisor in China and abroad. He currently serves as Nonresident Research Fellow of the think tank Center for China and Globalization and Senior Advisor of Tsinghua University National Image Research Center specializing in city branding. Dr. Dzodin was a political appointee of President Jimmy Carter and served as lawyer to a presidential commission. Upon the nomination of the White House and the US State Department he served at the United Nations Office in Vienna, Austria. He was Director and Vice President of the ABC Television in New York for more than two decades.