China slams Trump’s ‘flip-flop’ on tariffs as trade spat worsens

Trump’s announcement seems to tear up an agreement reached only 10 days ago


WASHINGTON • China hit back at US President Donald Trump’s plan to push ahead with tariffs on US$50 billion (RM200 billion) of Chinese imports despite a recent truce in the trade fight, saying it damages America’s standing.

If the US insists on unilateral measures, China will respond accordingly, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told reporters in Beijing yesterday. The White House said in a statement on Tuesday that a final list of imported goods to be targeted will be released by June 15, and levies imposed “shortly thereafter”.

“Every flip-flop in international relations simply depletes a country’s credibility,” Hua said. Earlier, the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reported that the trade talks between the two countries scheduled for June 2 in Beijing may be derailed by the fresh threat from Washington.

Off-Again, On-Again Dispute
The announcement by Trump — which seemed to tear up an agreement reached only 10 days ago in Washington — is the latest twist in a trade dispute between the US and China that has rattled financial markets for months and could threaten the broadest global upswing in years, according to the International Monetary Fund.

A team of US officials was scheduled to arrive in Beijing on Wednesday to discuss the broad outline of the next round of talks, but if the two sides failed to reach agreement on what would be discussed, the trip — led by Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross — could be cancelled, the WSJ report said.

Asian equities slid yesterday as the renewed tension over trade added to concerns over Italy’s political turmoil for investors.

While the trade dispute poses a risk to China’s economic outlook, the two countries will likely find common ground, said Robin Xing, chief China economist at Morgan Stanley. He expects China will buy an additional US$60 billion to US$90 billion of American goods over several years as it seeks to address Trump’s criticisms over the trade surplus.

“The two parties can reach a deal by China increasing imports,” Xing said yesterday in a Bloomberg Television interview from Beijing. “De-escalation over time through negotiation remains our base case because we see areas where China and the US can find some middle ground to make some mutually beneficial progress, for example to meet China’s own demand for upgrading consumption.”

Trump has vacillated in recent weeks on how hard to push Beijing over issues such as tariffs and intellectual property (IP). The dispute began in March, when his administration first threatened to slap tariffs on as much as US$50 billion in Chinese shipments to punish Beijing for violating American IP rights.

Trump’s latest u-turn was greeted with dismay in the Chinese state media, though pledges to retaliate were muted.

“The world faces an extremely mercurial White House administration,” an editorial in China’s Global Times tabloid read. “The Chinese government has the ability and wisdom to handle such situations.”

China to Retaliate?
“With so many head-spinning reversals on trade from the US in recent weeks, we suspect the Chinese negotiators and the markets have started to tune out the noise and focus on the substance,” Tom Orlik, Bloomberg’s chief Asia economist in Beijing, wrote in a report. “So far, there’s not much of that in evidence. Even if there were, our analysis suggests bilateral tariffs wouldn’t move the dial on China’s growth.”

After Trump’s initial tariff threat, Beijing promised to retaliate in kind to any duties. Trump then upped the ante, threatening to slap tariffs on an additional US$100 billion in Chinese goods. But the US has yet to publish a list of targeted products for the US$100 billion, and the White House statement on Tuesday made no reference to the second potential tranche of duties.

The US tariffs threat has been widely opposed by industry leaders and some members of Congress. They warn the duties could end up raising costs for American consumers, devastating farmers and hurting other exporters if China proceeds with retaliatory duties.

US Chamber of Commerce president Thomas Donohue said using tariffs against China “puts all the burden on American companies and consumers”.

At the same time, Trump is under pressure from Congress to stay tough on China, especially when it comes to Chinese telecommunications-equipment maker ZTE Corp. Last week, the president said he would allow ZTE to stay in business if it pays a US$1.3 billion fine, shakes up its management, and provides “high-level security guarantees”.

China pressed the US to give ZTE a break after the Commerce Department cut off the company from US suppliers to punish it for allegedly lying to American officials in a sanctions case. Republican Senator Marco Rubio and other lawmakers from both parties have criticised Trump’s leniency toward ZTE, arguing that doing business with the company presents a risk to national security.

When Trump announced the initial plan to impose tariffs on Chinese goods, he also instructed the Treasury Department to draw up new curbs on investment in the US by Chinese companies.

The Treasury has presented its findings to the president, but its conclusions are yet to be made public.

The White House’s latest move signals the more hawkish wing of Trump’s trade team is trying to amplify its hard line, after Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said this month that any talk of a trade war was suspended for now.

Mnuchin Repudiated
“Mnuchin’s ‘trade war on hold’ comments look to have been repudiated,” said Derek Scissors, a China analyst at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. “It may be the administration has shifted somewhat to appease the Congress on the lifting of the ZTE sanctions.”

The White House also said on Tuesday the US plans to continue litigation at the World Trade Organisation for China’s IP practices.

In a further indication of the Trump administration striking a tougher tone before the negotiations later this week, the White House issued a separate statement running through its major grievances over China’s trade practices from forced technology transfers to automobile import tariffs.