China’s government accused the Trump administration of hurting its credibility by acting erratically on trade and vowed Wednesday to fight back if Washington goes ahead with a threatened tariff hike.
A foreign ministry spokeswoman complained the U.S. decision to renew a threat to raise duties on a $50 billion list of Chinese goods conflicts with an agreement in mid-May aimed at settling that dispute. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said then the conflict was “on hold” after Beijing promised to buy more U.S. goods to help narrow its multibillion-dollar trade surplus with the United States.
The spokeswoman, Hua Chunying, declined to say whether Tuesday’s announcement might disrupt plans for Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross to visit Beijing for talks starting Saturday. The Commerce Ministry didn’t respond to questions about the status of the meeting, but the American Embassy said a delegation of trade, agriculture and treasury officials had arrived in the Chinese capital to make preparations.
Hua gave no indication of whether Beijing planned to act on its own threat to retaliate by raising duties on a $50 billion list of American goods including beef and soybeans.
“Every flip-flop and U-turn of a country will be simply depleting and squandering its own credibility,” Hua said at a regular briefing.
“We do not want a trade war, but we are not afraid of one. We will fight back,” she said. “We will definitely take forceful measures to defend our legitimate interests.”
The White House announcement said it also would impose curbs on Chinese investment and purchases of high-tech exports.
Asian financial markets tumbled on renewed worries about a U.S.-Chinese trade spat. China’s main market index fell 2.5 percent and Japan’s benchmark lost 1.5 percent.
The White House’s latest tariff action focuses on advanced technologies, including those such as robots and electric cars that China has said it wants to develop under its “Made in China 2025” program. The White House said a list of products would be announced June 15.
Trump’s surprise announcement reflects his frustration at criticism of his earlier deal with Beijing, Eurasia analysts said in a report. They said he appears less concerned that he needs Chinese support for his proposed meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
“Trump is going on offense, reverting to his earlier instincts on China and re-empowering the trade hawks in his Cabinet,” Eurasia Group said. “This dynamic makes it likely that both tariffs and investment restrictions will go into effect.”
The American Chamber of Commerce in China said companies are uneasy about the threat of export and investment controls but see them as a possible way to make progress on longstanding complaints about market access and investment curbs.
As a result of Trump’s tariff threat, Washington is in very intense negotiations with Beijing “in a way that we haven’t been for so many years,” said the chamber chairman, William Zarit. He said companies hope Beijing can be persuaded to “level the playing field” by easing curbs on foreign investment and business activity in its state-dominated economy.
“I wouldn’t say we are in favor of, specifically, export controls, investment restrictions,” Zarit said at a news conference. But he said American companies want equal treatment, “and this seems to be one of the ways to do that.”
Also Wednesday, the Chinese Cabinet announced it planned to complete work by July 1 on another measure sought for years by its trading partners — a “negative list” that would make clear what is off-limits to foreign investment, leaving the rest of the economy open.
Foreign companies are frustrated by a system that requires them to wait for Chinese regulators to declare individual lines of business open to them.
Trump has focused on pressing Beijing to narrow its trade surplus with the United States, but Zarit said American companies see other issues as higher priorities.
As Chinese companies expand abroad, the United States, Europe and other trading partners are pressing Beijing to ease controls that keep their companies out of industries including banking, insurance, telecoms and health care.
“China’s success means that it can no longer credibly defend protectionist policies on the grounds that it is still a ‘developing country,”’ the American chamber said in a report Wednesday.
The tariff threat is a “very powerful” negotiating tactic, said Lester Ross, chairman of the American chamber’s policy committee. However, he said tariffs are a tax on American consumers and a blunt tool to address “very complex problems that hamper trade and investment relationships.”
Analysts in the United States suggested the newly confrontational stance also might be aimed at appeasing congressional critics of a deal the Trump administration made Friday that allowed Chinese telecom giant ZTE Corp. to stay in business.
ZTE agreed to remove its management team, hire American compliance officers and pay a fine. That would be on top of a $1 billion penalty ZTE paid for selling high-tech equipment to North Korea and Iran in violation of U.S. sanctions.
In return, the Commerce Department lifted a seven-year ban on ZTE’s purchase of U.S. components that it imposed earlier in May. Trump said last month the ban threatened too many Chinese jobs and he wanted to get the company back in business.
Chinese leaders have promised piecemeal trade-related changes including allowing full foreign ownership in their auto industry by 2022.
However, American companies have “major concerns” about unfair conditions, and the recent moves haven’t done enough to alleviate those concerns, said the American chamber’s Ross.
European companies also complain they are blocked from acquiring most assets in China while Chinese companies are on a global buying spree.