Chinese Commerce Minister Zhong Shan attends a news conference on the sidelines of the National People’s Congress in Beijing, China, March 11 2018. Picture: REUTERS
Chinese Commerce Minister Zhong Shan attends a news conference on the sidelines of the National People’s Congress in Beijing, China, March 11 2018. Picture: REUTERS

Beijing — Any trade war with the US will only bring disaster to the world economy, Chinese Commerce Minister Zhong Shan said on Sunday, as Beijing stepped up its criticism of proposed metals tariffs by Washington amid fears it could shatter global growth.

After pressure from allies, the US has opened the way for more exemptions from tariffs of 25% on steel imports and 10% on aluminium that US President Donald Trump set last week.

On Saturday, the EU and Japan urged the US to grant them exemptions from metal import tariffs, with Tokyo calling for "calm-headed behaviour".

But the target of Trump’s ire is China, whose capacity expansions have helped add to global surpluses of steel. China has repeatedly vowed to defend its "legitimate rights and interests" if targeted by US trade actions.

Zhong, speaking on the sidelines of China’s annual session of parliament, said China does not want a trade war and will not initiate one.

"There are no winners in a trade war," Zhong said. "It will only bring disaster to China and the US and the world."

China can handle any challenges and will resolutely protect its interests, but the two countries will continue to talk, he said. "Nobody wants to fight a trade war, and everyone knows fighting one harms others and does not benefit oneself."

Trump’s announcement on tariffs underlined concerns about rising US protectionism, which has sparked bouts of turmoil in global financial markets as investors feared a damaging trade spat would shatter an uptick in world growth.

China’s metals industry issued the country’s most explicit threat yet in the row, urging on Friday for the government to retaliate by targeting US coal — a sector that is central to Trump’s political base and his election pledge to restore US industries and blue-collar jobs.

The US is the world’s biggest importer of steel, purchasing 35-million tonnes of raw material in 2017. Of this, South Korea, Japan, China and India accounted for 6.6-million tonnes.

Trade tension between China and the US has risen since Trump took office.

China accounts for only a small fraction of US steel imports but its massive industrial expansion has helped create a global glut of steel that has driven down prices.

The dispute has fuelled concerns that soya beans, the US’s most valuable export to the world’s second-largest economy, might be caught up in the trade actions after Beijing launched a probe into imports of US sorghum, a grain used in animal feed and liquor.

Zhong said US official trade deficit figures had been over-estimated by about 20%, and would be a lot lower if the US relaxed export restrictions on some high-tech goods.

Trump believes tariffs will safeguard US jobs, though many economists say the impact of price increases for users of steel and aluminium, such as the automotive and oil industries, will destroy more jobs than curbs on imports create.

Nonetheless, there is growing bipartisan consensus in Washington, and support within some segments of the US business community, for the US government to counter what are seen as Beijing’s predatory industrial policies and market restrictions on foreign firms.

Diplomatic and US business sources say that the US has frozen a formal mechanism for talks on commercial disputes with China because it is not satisfied Beijing has met its promises to ease market restrictions.