Trump’s stunning decision to escalate trade wars with China and Mexico signals a turning point for U.S. policy

President Trump’s plan to slap new tariffs on Mexican imports, weeks after escalating his trade war with China, leaves the United States fighting a multi-front campaign that threatens more instability for manufacturers, consumers and the global economy.

The president’s bombshell announcement that he would impose 5 percent tariffs on Mexican imports, with the possibility of raising them to 25 percent if Mexico doesn’t stop migrants from crossing into the United States, left some economists fearing there were few limits to Trump’s appetite for trade conflict.

“In our view, if the U.S. is willing to impose tariff and non-tariff barriers on China and Mexico, then the bar for tariffs on other important U.S. trading partners, including Europe, may be lower than we previously thought,” Barclays economists said in a research note. “We think trade tensions could escalate further before they de-escalate,” Barclays added.

Adam Posen, president of the Peterson Institute for International Economics, called Trump’s move against Mexico a turning point for financial markets and the U.S. economy.

In global markets Friday, investors spooked by new tariff threats sought safety in German government bonds and the Euro rather than their customary dollar-denominated havens. This “seems to me an indicator that the concerns about the U.S. are rising,” Posen said.

The president’s latest move rocked business leaders who were already scrambling to reshape supply chains to avoid fallout from the U.S. confrontation with China. The added uncertainty may paralyze executives who can’t be sure their next supply chain location will be any safer than their last.

“A lot of companies feeling pressure to get out of China are looking at Mexico if they want to serve the US market, Vietnam if they’re more focused on Asia,” said William Reinsch, a former Commerce Department trade official. “Trump’s action yesterday scrambles all those plans.”

In one example of a company caught in the crossfire, GoPro of San Mateo, Calif., last month announced it would move manufacturing of some of its cameras from China to Mexico, so that it could stop paying tariffs to import them to the United States — tariffs resulting from the U.S. trade war with China. Weeks later, GoPro now faces new tariffs to import those goods from Mexico. The company declined to comment Friday.

As U.S. companies race to find new tariff-free places to manufacture, so far few have reported returning production to the United States, despite the president’s stated aim of using trade policy to help bring jobs back home. Many are still seeking alternative locations overseas, where labor is cheaper.

Trump said he would impose the new tariffs because the Mexican government wasn’t doing enough to stem the flow of migrants, many of whom travel through Mexico from Central America. Some White House officials who support Trump’s approach believe the threat of tariffs is the only way to get the attention of Mexican leaders.

The Mexican government tried to defuse the tension Friday, saying the two sides would meet in Washington on Wednesday for high-level talks.

If no solution is found, Mexico is certain to impose retaliatory tariffs on U.S. goods, with likely targets including U.S. pork, beef, wheat and dairy products, said Former Mexican diplomat Jorge Guajardo.

Some prominent Republicans, including Senate Finance Chairman Charles E. Grassley, raised concerns that the new tariffs could threaten a trade agreement the Trump administration clinched only months ago with Mexico and Canada, to replace the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement.

Others said the about-face treatment of Mexico would damage Trump’s ability to negotiate trade deals it is pursuing with other partners, including China and Europe.

“You can’t negotiate a trade agreement with someone and then turn around and whack them,” said Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a Republican economist and former Congressional Budget Office director.

In late March, Trump threatened to shut the entire southern border to curb illegal immigration, but backed down a week later after an outcry. That has left some wondering how seriously they should take the latest tariff threat.

If Trump follows through with new tariffs on Mexico, it would hurt U.S. economic growth and increase the possibility of the Federal Reserve reversing course and cutting interest rates this year, economists said.

The drag to the US economy could be meaningful, especially if the tariffs reach 25%,” the upper limit that Trump has set, Bank of America Merrill Lynch economists wrote Friday. Even if the tariff remains at 5 percent, the effective cost could be higher because many parts cross the border several times as products are assembled, and the tariff must be paid upon each crossing into the United States.

U.S. automakers will be among the principal casualties. Last year, the United States imported roughly $350 billion in merchandise from Mexico, including about $85 billion in vehicles and parts, according to the International Trade Administration.

A full 25 percent tax “would cripple the industry and cause major uncertainty,” according to Deutsche Bank Securities.

“The auto sector – and the 10 million jobs it supports – relies upon the North American supply chain and cross border commerce to remain globally competitive,” said Dave Schwietert, interim president of the Auto Alliance, an industry group. “This is especially true with auto parts which can cross the U.S. border multiple times before final assembly.”

“Widely applied tariffs on goods from Mexico will raise the price of motor vehicle parts, cars, trucks, and commercial vehicles – and consumer goods in general — for American consumers,” the industry group said. “The potential ripple effects of the proposed Mexican tariffs on the U.S. North American and global trade efforts could be devastating.”

Consumers could pay up to $1,300 more per vehicle if the tariffs are implemented, according to Torsten Slok, chief economist for Deutsche Bank Securities.

Retailers, technology companies and textile manufacturers also will be hurt. U.S. mills now ship yarn and fabric to Mexico, where it is turned into apparel and exported back to American retailers. Last year, the U.S. textile industry exported $4.7 billion in yarn and fabrics to Mexico, its largest single market.

“Adding tariffs to Mexican apparel imports, which largely contain U.S. textile inputs, would significantly disrupt this industry and jeopardize jobs on both sides of the border,” said Kim Glas, president of the National Council of Textile Organizations.

The new dispute with Mexico came as the U.S.-China trade conflict continued to deepen.

China on Friday announced it would establish a blacklist of “unreliable” foreign companies and organizations, effectively forcing companies around the world to choose whether they would side with Beijing or Washington.

The new “unreliable entities list” would punish organizations and individuals that harm the interests of Chinese companies, Chinese state media reported, without detailing which companies will be named in the list or what the punishment will entail.

Chinese reports suggested the Commerce Ministry will target foreign companies and groups that abandoned Chinese telecom giant Huawei after the Trump administration added Huawei to a trade blacklist this month, which prohibited the sale of U.S. technology to the Chinese company.

At a time when Western corporations have cut back executive travel to China after authorities detained two Canadians on national security grounds in December, the new blacklist sent another shock wave through the business community.

“I think foreign and especially U.S. firms now have to worry that China is creating a new ‘legal pretext’ to at least impose exit bans on foreign individuals who make this new list, if not worse,” said Bill Bishop, the editor of the Sinocism newsletter, referring to the Chinese practice of not allowing designated foreigners to leave China.

Aside from the new blacklist, China in recently days also escalated threats to stop selling the U.S. so-called rare earths — 17 elements with exotic names like cerium, yttrium and lanthanum that are found in magnets, alloys and fuel cells and are used to make advanced missiles, smartphones and jet engines.

Analysts said it could take years for the United States to ramp up rare-earths production, after its domestic industry practically disappeared in the 1990s. Roughly 80 percent of U.S. imports of the material come from China, according to the United States Geological Survey.

The People’s Daily, the Communist Party’s official mouthpiece, carried a stark warning for the United States this week in an editorial about rare earths: “Don’t say we didn’t warn you.”

That commentary surprised China experts because the People’s Daily, which often signals official positions with subtly codified language, uses that phrase sparingly: It famously appeared before China launched border attacks against India in 1962 and Vietnam in 1979.

To China, All’s Fair in Love and Trade Wars

The standard line from President Donald Trump and those who support his get-tough approach toward Beijing is that because China sells more to the U.S. than the other way around, Washington has the upper hand in its game of tariffs. “China buys MUCH less from us than we buy from them,” Trump recently tweeted, “so we are in a fantastic position.”

The intrusive Chinese state has all sorts of levers to control the economy and society, and in an environment that lacks rule of law, officials can pull them at their pleasure. They also have far more targets to aim at than the trade data suggest. Many American companies have substantial operations within China that are tremendously important to their bottom lines. General Motors and its partners, for instance, sold more than 3.6 million vehicles in China last year, almost all of them manufactured locally. Starbucks operates more coffee shops in China than in any other market aside from the United States. These businesses are vulnerable to government-inspired nefariousness, from product boycotts and state-press smear campaigns to regulatory investigations

The Chinese have employed such tactics in the past. In 2017, for instance, China’s government waged an undeclared war against South Korean business over a dispute regarding an American missile-defense system. When Seoul rebuffed Beijing’s demands that it cease deployment of the system—which the Chinese considered a threat to their security—China tried to compel the South Koreans by pressuring their companies and economic interests.

A primary target was Lotte, a Korean conglomerate with interests in candy, hotels, retail, and other businesses. Lotte committed the crime of providing land for the missile system. The Chinese government whipped up nationalist ire against the company through the state-controlled media. One op-ed in the Global Times, a newspaper run by the Communist Party, entitled “Lotte’s Development in China Should Come to an End,” thundered that “showing Lotte the door will be an effective warning to all the other foreign forces that jeopardize China’s national interests.” Protests erupted in front of supermarkets owned by the Korean group, while inspectors ordered outlets closed after supposed violations. Sales plummeted, and Lotte eventually exited from the business. That wasn’t all. Chinese shoppers also shied away from Korean-branded cars and cosmetics. Korean pop stars were denied entry visas; group tours to Seoul for big-spending Chinese travelers were canceled.

Canada is enduring such treatment right now. Angered that Canadian authorities (at the behest of Washington) arrested the chief financial officer of the Chinese telecom giant Huawei Technologies, Beijing blocked Canada’s exports of pork and canola, pinching the country’s agricultural sector. China has taken this step even though it isn’t in its own economic interest, since its domestic pork industry has been ravaged by swine flu. Similarly, in 2012, Chinese quarantine officers began impounding Philippine bananas amid a flare-up over contested claims in the South China Sea.

 

The U.S. Wants to Ban Huawei. But in Some Places, AT&T Relies On It.

U.S. officials have told telecommunications executives around the world to steer clear of Huawei Technologies Co., calling the company a national-security threat, but that hasn’t prevented AT&T Inc. T 0.72%from using the Chinese company’s equipment in Mexico.

While AT&T has kept Chinese equipment out of its domestic networks, industry executives say the U.S. company uses Huawei’s gear to run a large part of the wireless network in Mexico, where the electronics giant is as welcome as any other supplier.

Huawei boxes sit atop cellphone towers across Mexico, where AT&T is the No. 3 provider in terms of wireless subscribers. The Dallas company inherited much of its Mexican gear through acquisitions, though executives say it also has used the Chinese supplier to upgrade its 4G network in recent years.

“We are the most significant vendor in this country,” Cesar Funes, a Huawei vice president in Mexico, said in an interview. “We respect, of course, headquarters’ discussions with their governments. We just continue supplying them what we are asked to supply.”

“When we upgraded our Mexico network to 4G LTE, we replaced Huawei in our data core network with equipment from the same suppliers we use in the United States, because it gave us consistency in design and scale in purchasing,” the spokesman said. “We expect to harmonize our networks in the same way when we upgrade to 5G in Mexico.”

Huawei competes with Sweden’s Ericsson AB and Nokia Corp. of Finland to equip cellphone network operators. Most large telecom companies keep two or more suppliers in the mix to maintain leverage in future negotiations.

.. Huawei is the world’s top telecom supplier, according to market analyst Dell’Oro Group. Its success abroad has alarmed American officials who fear that telecom executives won’t be able to avoid using Chinese producers, especially in countries with close economic ties to the U.S.

Today’s 4G networks are linked across borders, but future 5G networks could make national boundaries even less relevant. Mr. Strayer said newer cell-tower equipment will be more than “dumb” conduits for information, leaving a broader swath of cellphone networks vulnerable to potential snooping.

AT&T entered Mexico in late 2014 after the Mexican government enacted legislation to enhance competition in a famously concentrated telecom market. The Dallas company pieced together a wireless company by snapping up two smaller players, Iusacell and Nextel Mexico, inheriting a dense network of machinery bought from Huawei, among other suppliers.

.. AT&T doubled down on Huawei over the next four years as it upgraded the infrastructure it acquired to support 4G service. A senior AT&T executive in 2016 told an industry publication that the supplier’s performance was “excellent.” The company has estimated the price of replacing the Huawei electronics it has in Mexico and found the cost prohibitive, according to a person familiar with the matter.

.. The Chinese company, which also makes cellphones, has spent years raising its profile in Mexico. It had its brand name splashed across jerseys for the popular soccer team Club América—until the AT&T logo took its place. When AT&T’s Mexican headquarters moved into a glassy tower finished in 2016, Huawei moved into a satellite office a floor away to stay close to its client.
.. AT&T has bet that a Mexican middle class can boost its future profits. The company invested more than $7 billion, including the $4.4 billion spent to acquire Nextel and Iusacell, over the past four years to improve its network there.

U.S. Can Destroy Huawei

Catch-up is how economists explain the success of China and other fast-growing developing economies. Not having to invent the wheel, the microchip or the theory of continuous improvement is a distinct advantage over having to invent them.

This is not a small part of the Huawei story. Its rise in 32 years to be the world’s largest telecom-equipment manufacturer and the second largest maker of smartphones is a story of catch-up—of learning from the West, but also stealing from the West. Or to put it more politely, Huawei has taken advantage of the fact that Beijing is not interested in enforcing the intellectual-property rights of foreigners under Chinese law.

An early Huawei router design was shown to have been filched from Cisco, right down to copying the typos in the instruction manual. This week a U.S. criminal indictment piggybacking on a successful private lawsuit by T-Mobile shows persuasively that Huawei stole the design of a robot, known as Tappy, for testing the durability of cell phones.

Nobody in his right mind thinks these episodes are exceptions. Nobody even needed these episodes to suspect that Huawei’s spectacular success has not been the product entirely of its own ingenuity and hard work (though these have been considerable). U.S. and other Western companies also vigorously “learn” from each other right up to the limit prescribed by our patent laws. In China, there is no limit. Stealing is regarded as a national development strategy and patriotic duty. The U.S. indictment alleges that Huawei even offered bonuses to employees who successfully purloined a competitor’s trade secrets.

This might seem clever, but it points to a problem for China’s own development—and not only because it antagonizes trade partners. China wants higher-order technology and investment from the West. It won’t come if trade secrets aren’t honored and enforced. China’s own firms cannot develop to their potential, at home or globally, if their own intellectual property isn’t secure even as they are distrusted abroad as agents of Chinese spying.

Which brings us to the growing tranche of U.S. legal actions directed at Huawei. We might prefer that prosecution of its chief financial officer, Meng Wanzhou, now awaiting extradition from Canada, were over something other than violating U.S. sanctions on Iran. But the U.S. is nonetheless positioning itself to destroy China’s shiniest success story, as it almost did ZTE until Donald Trump relented in a last-minute olive branch to Xi Jinping.

If Ms. Meng is extradited and convicted, she can be given a stiff prison sentence. The U.S can impose heavy fines on her company for sanctions-busting as well as for unrelated technology convictions. The long arm of U.S. law can seize Huawei assets and threaten key employees—including founder and CEO Ren Zhengfei—with arrest if they set foot outside China. Washington can turn up the pressure on other nations to exclude Huawei equipment from their networks. Perhaps most damaging, it can stanch Huawei’s access to still-vital U.S. building-block technologies.

In U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, Mr. Trump has a general who probably would be happy to command such a war. Mr. Xi’s government might respond by stirring up patriotic froth in China’s media. Beijing might start seizing U.S. businesspeople as hostages, as it already has done Canadian businesspeople in apparent response to the Meng extradition fight. If so, look out below.

The Trump administration tends to exaggerate how much U.S. prosperity and security depend on getting tough over China’s trade practices. Our national strength is overwhelmingly made at home.

On the other hand, if China wants to go down this road, it might as well unfurl a banner declaring itself North Korea writ huge—a country that intends to thumb its nose at international norms, a pirate nation living by blackmail and theft. Six years ago this column was spanked by foreign-policy types for saying a tad too bluntly that stealing was an activity that “unites the private and public selves of Chinese officials.” But it’s true. For the sake of its own development, China needs to start separating business from the state, and holding its companies to some cognizable standard of lawfulness.

So here’s a question: Do you trust both sides to manage this conflict? Washington should be able to mete out technology sanctions, arguably necessary to protect U.S. security and military advantage, without throwing the entire economic relationship out the window. It can uphold our laws and prosecute Huawei for clear violations without trying to bury China’s entire output of exported iPhones, coat hangers and flat-screen TVs in tariffs.

For its part, getting into a full-scale economic war over practices that Beijing knows are indefensible and need to change would be an exceedingly poor decision by China’s maximum leader, Mr. Xi. Unfortunately, poor decisions have been a métier, off and on, of China’s Communist Party over the past 70 years.

We should not kid ourselves about the risks. Not all risks can or should be avoided, however.