Whether or not US President Donald Trump and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, agree to another truce at the upcoming G20 summit in Osaka, the Sino-American conflict has already entered a dangerous new phase. Though a negotiated settlement or a managed continuation of the status quo are possible, a sharp escalation is now the most likely scenario.
NEW YORK – The nascent Sino-American cold war is the key source of uncertainty in today’s global economy. How the conflict plays out will affect consumer and asset markets of all kinds, as well as the trajectory of inflation, monetary policy, and fiscal conditions around the world. Escalation of the tensions between the world’s two largest economies could well produce a global recession and subsequent financial crisis by 2020, even if the US Federal Reserve and other major central banks pursue aggressive monetary easing.
Much, therefore, depends on whether the dispute does indeed evolve into a persistent state of economic and political conflict. In the short term, a planned meeting between US President Donald Trump and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, at the G20 Summit in Osaka on June 28-29 is a key event to watch. A truce could leave tariffs frozen at the current level, while sparing the Chinese technology giant Huawei from the crippling sanctions that Trump has put forward; failure to reach an agreement could set off a progressive escalation, ultimately leading to the balkanization of the entire global economy.
JAW-JAW OR WAR-WAR?
. On the trade front, the US wants China to buy more American goods, reduce tariff and non-tariff barriers, open more financial and service sectors to foreign direct investment, and commit to maintaining currency stability and transparency with respect to foreign-exchange data.
On technology, the US is demanding that China strengthen intellectual-property protections, cease making the transfer of technology to Chinese firms a condition of market entry for US (and other) companies, and crack down on corporate cyber espionage and theft. A temporary deal could include any of the above, with the US offering medium-term (through the end of 2020, and possibly longer) exemptions to Chinese tech firms that use US components, semiconductors, and software. This would leave Huawei severely constrained, but not dead in the water.
The second possibility is a full-scale trade, tech, and cold war within the next 6-12 months. In this scenario, the US and China would adopt rapidly diverging positions after failing to successfully restart negotiations (with or without a truce). The US would follow through with import tariffs – starting at 10% but increasing to 25% – on the remaining $300 billion worth of Chinese goods that have so far been spared. And the Trump administration would pull the trigger on Huawei and other Chinese tech firms, barring them from purchasing components and software from US companies.
China, meanwhile, would take steps to protect its economy through macro-level stimulus, while retaliating against the US through measures that go beyond tariffs (such as expelling American firms). Huawei might survive within the Chinese market, but its growing global business would effectively be crippled, at least for the time being.
Beyond trade and technology, this scenario also implies increased geopolitical and military tensions. The possibility of some type of conflict over the East and South China Seas, Taiwan, North Korea, Xinjiang, Iran, or Hong Kong could not be ruled out.
Finally, in the third scenario, China and the US would fail to reach a deal on trade and technology, but they would forego rapid escalation. Instead of plunging into a total trade and technology war, the two powers might ratchet up their conflict more gradually. The US would impose new tariffs, but keep them at 10%, while renewing only temporarily exemptions that allow Huawei and other Chinese firms to continue purchasing key US-made inputs, while retaining the option of pulling the plug on Huawei at its discretion. Negotiations could continue, but the US would essentially hold a veto over Huawei’s bid to develop 5G and other key technologies of the global economy. Given that Trump could suddenly pull the plug on the company whenever it suits him, China’s leaders would probably abstain from blatant full-scale retaliation, but would still intervene to minimize the economic damage.
THE GOLDILOCKS OPTION…
The third scenario is the most likely for now, because China is playing a waiting game until November 2020, to see if the US elects a more even-keeled president. Even with a truce, therefore, any negotiations that are relaunched after the G20 summit will probably drag on indefinitely, with no real signs of progress. In the meantime, the Trump administration will want to apply additional pressure on China, while keeping its options open. Better, then, to start with a 10% tariff on that remaining $300 billion worth of exports. The US could always hike the rate to 25%, but at the risk of raising the costs of goods that many of Trump’s own lower-income voters rely on.
Where does that leave us? If both Xi and Trump find the third scenario attractive, neither will be willing to meet halfway on a deal. That makes the second scenario – a full-scale trade and technology war – the most likely outcome, given that a controlled escalation is inherently unstable.
As matters stand, the probability of a deal eventually being reached is low (my colleagues and I put it at just 25%). Still, we will know more after the G20 summit later this month. If Trump and Xi fail to broker a truce or a temporary agreement regarding Huawei, the US will probably follow through with 10% tariffs on the remaining $300 billion worth of Chinese exports. We will then be in the initial stages of the third scenario.
On the other hand, if Trump and Xi hold a friendly meeting and agree to a truce, the US will probably withhold new tariffs, and we will be in the early stages of the first scenario. This would make the probability of the two sides reaching a deal slightly higher. But a lurch to the third scenario – a precipitous escalation of the current confrontation – would still be more likely, followed eventually by a descent into a full-scale conflict. Where it will end is anyone’s guess, but an escalating trade and tech war is, in my view, more likely than an eventual deal.