China slams US ‘blackmailing’ as Trump weighs higher tariffs

Holding an open door to talks while threatening worse consequences represents yet another increase in tension in the months-long standoff

By BLOOMBERG

BEIJING • China warned the US against “blackmailing and pressuring” it over trade as the Trump administration mulls trying to force officials back to the negotiating table through threats of even higher tariffs.

President Donald Trump’s officials are considering more than doubling planned tariffs on US$200 billion (RM820 billion) in Chinese imports, people familiar with the deliberations said. The US had threatened an additional US$200 billion with levies of 10%, a level the administration may raise to 25% in a Federal Register notice in coming days, one of the people said.

At the same time, representatives of US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Chinese Vice Premier Liu He are having private conversations as they look for ways to reengage in negotiations, according to people who spoke about the deliberations on condition of anonymity.

Holding an open door to talks while threatening worse consequences represents yet another increase in tension in the months-long standoff between the world’s two largest economies over commerce.

While the conflict nominally centres around the US’ US$375 billion annual goods trade deficit with China, it has morphed into a chapter in the nations’ broader strategic rivalry.

China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said it will fight back should the US further increase tariffs. “If the US takes measures to further escalate the situation, we will surely take countermeasures to uphold our legitimate rights and interests,” spokesman Geng Shuang said at a regular press conference yesterday.

He said China has always believed that the disputes should be resolved through talks and communications, but the dialogue should be based on “equality and respect as well as established rules and credibility”.

In a sign the trade standoff is reverberating through Chinese politics, the Politburo signalled on Tuesday that policymakers will focus more on supporting economic growth amid risks from a campaign to reduce debt and the dispute with Trump. The communique, which followed a meeting of the country’s most senior leaders led by President Xi Jinping, said the campaign to reduce leverage will continue at a measured pace while improving economic policies to make them more forward-looking, flexible and effective in the second half.

The public comment period on the US tariffs aimed at US$200 billion ends on Aug 30 after public hearings on Aug 20-23, according to the US Trade Representat ive’s off ice.

Announcing a higher tariff is required ahead of the hearings and will send a signal that the Trump administration is upping the pressure on China to make serious concessions.

Chinese equities and the yuan extended losses yesterday afternoon, gaining downward momentum as concern over possible higher US tariffs overwhelmed optimism about Beijing’s pledge to support economic growth. The yuan fell against a tradeweighted basket of currencies to a level that’s near the lowest on record, suggesting policymakers are allowing further weakness.

Trump directed trade representative Robert Lighthizer to raise the tariff rate to 25%, the people said, adding that the change isn’t final yet and may not go forward after a public review.

Officials have cautioned that a specific timetable, the issues to be discussed and the format for talks aren’t finalised, but added there was agreement among the principals that more discussions need to take place. Chinese officials haven’t yet commented on the prospects for resuming talks.

While American and Chinese officials have hinted at the possibility of restarting talks in recent weeks, it’s been almost two months since they last held high-level negotiations.

No Deal
“China and the US have had several rounds of consultations and reached important consensus, but regrettably the US did not fulfil its obligations,” Foreign Minister Wang Yi said on Monday. “Nor did it make concerted efforts with China.”

The next wave of US tariffs was set to kick in as soon as yesterday, with the possible imposition of duties on another US$16 billion of Chinese imports. The implementation could be delayed for weeks as the administration works out the details of which products it will target. Officials in Beijing have vowed to respond with the same amount of tariffs on US products.

One person familiar with the internal deliberations said the US is trying to secure certain concessions and if China agrees, it is possible the US would back off additional tariffs.

Complicating Mnuchin’s efforts is a harder line taken by Lighthizer, who has jurisdiction over the US’ 301 investigation that sparked the tariffs.

That case concluded China was stealing American technology and tariffs were needed to offset the damage.

The two sides held three rounds of formal talks, beginning with a delegation to Beijing led by Mnuchin in May. After Liu visited Washington later that month, the nations released a joint statement pledging to reduce the US trade deficit with China, among other things. But within days, Trump himself backed away from the deal, saying talks would “probably have to use a different structure.”