US/China – The Gloves Are Off

The delay in the Phase 1 trade deal review (initially slated for Sat 15 Aug) will come as a disappointment though it was reported that it did not reflect any substantive problem with the trade deal, but rather to give China more time to increase purchases of US goods.  China’s reported desire to include TikToK and WeChat restrictions to the discussions may have also played a part.  The Phase 1 review delay followed by President Trump’s order for ByteDance to divest TikTok’s US operations within 90 days and ending of a waiver allowing US companies to continue selling goods to Huawei, ratchets up tensions another notch.

It is abundantly clear that ahead of US elections in November the gloves have come off.  More is yet come and next steps may involve sanctions against more Chinese companies and eventually even Chinese banks.  China’s reaction continues to be measured, which suggests the broader impact on risk appetite will remain contained for now.  China wants to retain foreign investment and has continued to enact measures to open up to such investment.  Reciprocating sanctions on US companies in China would go against this path and seems unlikely to take place unless tensions worsen further.

However, it is not clear that China’s actions will remain measured. The US administration is set on pushing more sanctions on Chinese individuals and companies in what has become a whole of government approach. This is something that has broad based bipartisan support within the electorate.  The risk of crossing certain red lines, perhaps (though still unlikely as Trump sees this as a key success of his Presidency) by scrapping Phase 1 or perhaps by sanctioning Chinese banks by cutting them out of the USD liquidity and payments system and/or by some sort of military escalation in the South China Sea, could yet lead to a much more significant reaction from China and a more severe impact on global markets.

The likely path however, is that the US administration will try to keep Phase 1 alive even as China is far behind its targets on imports of US goods; according to PIIE through the first 6 months of the year China’s purchases of US goods were 39% (US exports data) or 48% (Chinese imports data) of their year-to-date targets.  Given the gap, in part due to Covid, but also due to initially ambitious targets, the delay in the Phase review should not be a big surprise.  The US may be wiling to give China some room to try to move towards reaching its targets, but the gap will not be easy to bridge.  Regardless, US/China tensions will be an ever present part of the landscape in the months ahead of US elections and markets may not remain as sanguine as they have been so far.

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