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Chinese steel association slams Trump’s ‘stupid’ protectionism, but trade war viewed as unlikely
A worker walks through a warehouse at the Han-steel plant in Handan in China's northern Hebei province in April 2016. (Wang Zhao/AFP/Getty Images)
BEIJING — China’s Iron and Steel Association slammed what it called a “stupid protectionist move” from President Trump to impose import tariffs, but experts said the impact on China would be limited and the government was not about to start a trade war over the issue.
China is the world’s dominant steel producer but only accounts for 2 percent of U.S. imports. Trump’s decision to slap 25 percent tariffs on steel imports, and 10 percent on aluminum, won’t have a big impact here, experts said, although it certainly wasn’t welcomed.
The China Iron and Steel Association was quoted by Chinese media as calling the decision “stupid,” but the group’s vice secretary general, Li Xinchuang, said the impact on China would not be big.
“Nothing can be done about Trump,” he told Reuters. “We are already numb to him.”
Asia stock markets followed their U.S. counterparts lower on Friday, with Japan’s Nikkei-225 index down more than 2.25 percent in late morning trade, and South Korea’s KOSPI index down nearly 1 percent, with steel makers in both countries among the hardest hit.
By contrast, Shanghai’s main share index was only 0.3 percent lower.
Wei Jianguo, a former Chinese vice commerce minister, said Trump’s announcement ran counter to World Trade Organization rules and hurt Sino-U.S. relations.
“China does not want to see a trade war with the United States. But if Trump insists, China is not afraid of it,” Wei said.
“China will actively protect its own trade interests,” he said, pointing out that China imports a huge amount of U.S. goods, including Boeing planes, agricultural products and IT products.
A glut of steel from China has fueled global oversupply, but Lu Zhengwei, chief economist at Industrial Bank in Shanghai, said China had already been working to cut overcapacity in its steel industry, so Trump’s decision came too late to have much of an effect. China’s steel exports fell 30 percent last year.
Nevertheless, China is also not insensitive to the symbolism of the move, is aware that Trump’s rhetoric has targeted China and is wary of further trade measures, experts said.
“China has to respond and fight for every inch of its own interests, otherwise, it will find it hard to handle more trade adjustments from the U.S. side,” Lu said. “Of course China is able to take revenge, however the result we are expecting is negotiation between both sides.”
In a statement issued Thursday, China’s Commerce Ministry expressed “grave concern” about a U.S. trade policy report that accused Beijing of moving away from market principles and pledged to prevent it from disrupting global trade. But there was no immediate response to the decision on tariffs.
Andrew Polk, a founder of the Trivium consultancy in Beijing, said Trump’s decision would not have much of an effect on China’s economy, and predicted China’s reaction would be more rhetorical than real.
“I don’t think this is the start of a trade war,” he said, predicting a similar reaction to Trump’s decision to slap tariffs on solar panels, effectively saying: “We don’t like this, but we’re going to downplay it and not really do anything.”
Rob Carnell, head of Asia-Pacific research at ING in Singapore, said China might join, or hide behind, other nations and trading blocs, such as Canada, the European Union, Japan and South Korea, in retaliating to the U.S. move.
“If the European Union and Canada start to work through the WTO, they will be waiting a long time for a resolution, so we are more likely to see tit-for-tat retaliation,” he said.
That would not be good news for the global economy, he said.
Trump’s announcement came as one of President Xi Jinping’s right-hand men, Liu He, was in Washington trying to calm trade tensions.
Tao Wenzhao, former director of the U.S.-China Institute at the China Academy of Social Sciences, said the overall climate in relations between the two countries has not been great recently.
“Still I wouldn’t say this is the starting point of a U.S.-China trade war,” he said. “China wishes to defuse the tensions that are present between the two countries through communication, as seen by the visit by Liu He.”
Shen Dingli, vice dean of the Insitute of International Affairs at Fudan University in Shanghai, said China had benefited from years of subsidizing state-owned industries and could not really complain if the United States investigated those practices. In the end, he said, China would “definitely give in.”