China plays for time in trade war with subtle shift in rhetoric

HONG KONG • Officials in Beijing appear to be toning down their responses to Donald Trump’s tariff threats, amid a slowing economy, a falling stock market and a weakening currency.

Evidence of the shift continued yesterday when the Commerce Ministry held off detailing how it plans to retaliate against the US president’s latest threat to impose tariffs on US$200 billion (RM807.79 billion) worth of Chinese-made goods.

Commerce Ministry spokesman Gao Feng said the government will take “necessary” steps to hit back, but when pressed, he stopped short of repeating a previous pledge to respond with “quantitative” and “qualitative” measures and didn’t outline specifics about which measures China would retaliate with.

To observers, the ever-so-slight change of tone suggests China could be playing for time with the aim of restarting stalled negotiations for a solution that would limit the need to unleash punitive measures that could hurt its own economy. For President Xi Jinping, gathering problems at home and abroad may be prompting a less confrontational course.

“China may be moving gradually from the current tit-for-tat mode of retaliation toward a controlled, selective retaliation,” said Chang Jian, chief China economist at Barclays plc in Hong Kong.

Analysts also point to the US compromise allowing ZTE Corp to resume doing business with American suppliers, reversing a seven-year ban. — Bloomberg