Trade tensions between the US and China continue to escalate. Illustration: iStock
Trade tensions between the US and China continue to escalate. Illustration: iStock

In an attempt to stem China’s “economic aggression,” US President Donald Trump signed a memorandum imposing large-scale trade sanctions on China, including restrictions on Chinese direct investment and possible tariffs worth US$60 billion on Chinese imports. The tariffs have also been slapped under Section 301 of the US Trade Act of 1974 that deals with intellectual property policies and practices.

Speaking at the White House on Thursday, Trump said the tariffs were part of an effort to restore fairness in the global market, noting that China imposes a 25% tariff on US cars while the US duty on Chinese cars was only 2%. “They charge us, we charge the same thing,” he said. By imposing such punitive tariffs on Chinese imports, Trump has shifted public attention from the United States’ domestic problems to the trade dispute with China to garner more public support at home.

However, a trade war may not necessarily be a bad thing for China, because despite being the main target of anti-dumping and anti-subsidy protectionist measures over the past decades, China has become the world’s largest manufacturer and exporter, and the second-largest economy. A trade war declared by the US is also unlikely to stop China from becoming a stronger economic power.

A review of the changed strengths of China and the US over the past decades can help people judge the outcome of a trade war between the two largest economies. International Monetary Fund data show that when the US first launched a Section 301 investigation into Chinese exports in 1991, its current-price gross domestic product was $6.17 trillion, 14.86 times China’s $415.6 billion, while the United States’ GDP in 2017 was $19.74 trillion, about 1.52 times China’s nearly $13 trillion.

Besides, as the rate of contribution of domestic demand, especially domestic consumption, to China’s economic growth has considerably increased in recent years, a China with a healthier and stronger economic foundation is more capable of winning a trade war that it is forced into by another country. Last year, consumption contributed 58.8% to China’s GDP growth, while capital formation’s contribution was 32.1% and that of net export of goods and services only 9.1%.

So what kind of countermeasures China should take if the Trump administration declares a trade war?

First, China’s response should follow the principle of precision strike. Since the trade war is not between China and the American people, but between China and Trump and his protectionist-minded administration. China should first take measures to deal a blow to the industries in the US states that helped Trump win the 2016 presidential election and those states whose political leaders are still backing him in this year’s mid-term election.

The trade war is not between China and the American people, but between China and Trump and his protectionist-minded administration

Second, China’s countermeasures should not be limited to goods trade; they should extend to the financial sector, including underselling the United States’ Treasury bonds and undermining the US stock market. Since the stock market’s strong performance has been trumpeted by Trump as proof of the success of his economic policy to impress US voters over the past year, China should take strong measures to make Trump feel the “pain” in this area.

As a matter of fact, one trade dispute after another has pushed the US stock market toward a dangerous situation. The 2% or higher Consumer Price Index in the US since the end of 2016 is an important reason that the US Federal Reserve has been expeditiously tightening its monetary policy, and further rigorous tightening may result in the bursting of stock-market bubbles. The imposition of large-scale punitive import tariffs will increase inflation pressures further in the US, leading to accelerated rate hikes by the Fed, which will increase the possibility of the US stock market suffering a hard landing.

Third, China should not confine the countermeasures to pursuing solutions under the disputes settlement mechanism of the World Trade Organization. Instead, it should take bolder measures, such as considering a legal move to possibly remove the US from the world body for instigating trade disputes time and again by violating WTO rules. A stern warning, if not removal, from the WTO could force the US to exercise self-restraint.

And fourth, China’s actions should extend beyond the economic field, to political and other areas, where the US needs China’s support and cooperation.

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