Hanging tough: US President Donald Trump is already threatening to institute more trade tariffs. Picture: REUTERS
Hanging tough: US President Donald Trump is already threatening to institute more trade tariffs. Picture: REUTERS

Beijing/Washington — The US and China exchanged the first salvos on Friday in what could become a long trade war, slapping tariffs on $34Bn worth of each others’ goods and giving no sign of willingness to start talks aimed at reaching a truce.

Duties on a range of Chinese goods imported into the US took effect on Friday and were immediately countered by measures from China, with Beijing accusing the US of triggering the "largest-scale trade war".

The escalating fight between the world’s two biggest economies meant it could "take economic and political pain to get these two parties to the table", said Scott Kennedy, head of China studies at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

President Donald Trump is already threatening additional rounds of tariffs, possibly targeting more than $500bn worth of Chinese goods — roughly the total amount of US imports from China in 2017.

It will take weeks or months for the US trade representative to review and possibly activate any new rounds of punishment.

"The key questions during that time are what will happen to financial markets, how will US voters react and will China’s economy start to wobble," Kennedy said.

Erin Ennis, the senior vice-president of the US China Business Council, said there was a danger that the two sides would dig in on trade sanctions without a clear strategy for resuming negotiations.

Intellectual property practices

While US companies in China agree with Trump’s complaint about Chinese intellectual property practices, Ennis said they did not think tariffs would push China into submission.

China’s commerce ministry said it was forced to retaliate, meaning imported US goods including cars, soya beans, and lobsters also faced 25% tariffs.

Some of Trump’s fellow Republicans in the US Congress lashed out at his actions.

"Tariffs not only hurt our farmers, ranchers and airplane manufacturers, but they also harm every American consumer. We should be working with our allies to isolate China rather than escalate a trade war," said senator Jerry Moran, who represents the agriculture-heavy state of Kansas.

China’s soya meal futures fell more than 2% on Friday afternoon before recovering most of those losses amid initial market confusion over whether Beijing had actually implemented the tariffs, which it later confirmed that it had.

Friday’s long-expected China tariff volley fuelled fear that a prolonged and escalating battle would hurt global trade, investment and growth, while also damaging US farm exports and potentially driving up food prices in China.

For example, US-based consumer electronics company Sonos noted in an initial public offering on Friday that its performance "may be materially harmed" by trade restrictions.

"Trade war is never a solution," Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said at a news briefing with Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov in Sofia before a summit with 16 central and eastern European countries.

"China would never start a trade war but if any party resorts to an increase of tariffs, then China will take measures in response to protect development interests," he said.

There was no sign of renewed negotiations between US and Chinese officials in the run-up to Friday, business sources in Washington and Beijing said.

The dispute has roiled financial markets including stocks, currencies and the global trade of commodities from soya beans to coal in recent weeks.

China lodged a case with the World Trade Organisation against the US, its commerce ministry said on Friday.

White House Council of Economic Advisers chairman Kevin Hassett said in an interview on Fox Business Network on Friday Trump was "going to deliver better [trade] deals". He said that, for now, "he’s called the bluff of other countries that have basically been abusing" American companies and workers.

Importers of American retail goods hit by higher Chinese duties were reluctant to pass the costs on to consumers for now.

An analysis of more than four dozen targeted American products showed that prices were little changed on Friday afternoon from earlier in the week. The products, which are sold on Chinese e-commerce platforms, ranged from pet food to mixed nuts and whisky.

Ford Motor said on Thursday that, for now, it would not hike prices of imported Ford and higher-margin luxury Lincoln models in China. However, German car maker BMW said it was unable to "completely absorb" new Chinese tariffs on imported US-made models and would raise prices.

American stocks shook off the tariffs, which investors said had been well anticipated and priced in.

The SP 500 rose to a two-week high on Friday, partly buoyed by strong US jobs growth. However, investors said that a significant escalation in tension would cause worries to set in.

Companies seeking product exclusions from tariffs on Chinese goods imported into the US will get 90 days to file such requests, the US Trade Representative’s office said on Friday.

Chinese state media slammed Trump’s trade policies and on Friday likened the US president’s administration to a "gang of hoodlums".

China’s commerce ministry called the US actions "a violation of world trade rules" and said that it had "initiated the largest-scale trade war in economic history".

Trump has railed against Beijing for intellectual property theft, barriers to entry for US businesses and a $375bn US trade deficit with China.

A China central bank adviser said the planned US import tariffs on $50bn worth of Chinese goods — $34bn plus a planned follow-on list worth $16bn — would cut China’s economic growth by 0.2 percentage points, the official Xinhua news agency reported on Friday.

China’s tariff list is heavy on agricultural goods such as soya beans, sorghum and cotton, threatening US farmers in states that had backed Trump in the 2016 US election, such as Texas and Iowa.