China is warning about the possible impact of a trade war with the United States, even as the world’s two biggest economies take steps to map out relations under the administration of President Donald Trump.
Speaking at an annual news conference Wednesday, at the end of high-level political meetings in Beijing, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang talked up the benefits of good relations between the two countries. He said he was optimistic about ties, but also warned a trade war would hurt American businesses first.
"We do not want to see any trade war breaking out between the two countries. That would not make our trade fairer and would harm both sides,” Li said. “Our hope on the Chinese side is that no matter what bumps the China-U.S. relationship hits, we hope it will continue to move forward in a positive direction."
Chinese state media this week have been releasing a steady drumbeat of opinion pieces and editorials supporting that view. Some even going so far as to highlight the personal benefits Trump’s business empire would reap through better economic relations with China.
One opinion piece in the Communist Party-backed Global Times highlighted the huge business interests Trump’s commercial empire has in China and Beijing's recent and unprecedented “preliminary approval” of more than 30 Trump trademarks. The approval of so many trademarks at once - covering business ventures such as golf clubs, hotels and restaurants - has surprised analysts.
Much like Li did in the press conference Wednesday, the Global Times article argued that American businesses would suffer if there was a trade war. It also added a not so subtle threat: “Trump’s position as U.S. president would not offer his business immunity from a trade war with China and would be impacted just as other U.S. enterprises if Sino-U.S. relations were to suffer.”
The piece ended by arguing that one tough test of Trump’s political wisdom will be how he manages following through on his pledge to put “America First” while avoiding setbacks in U.S.-China relations.
On the campaign trail and since his election, President Trump’s blunt criticisms of China have unnerved leaders in Beijing. Trump has talked and Tweeted about a wide range of issues from trade to the South China Sea, as well as Beijing’s handling of North Korea.
But it is his threats on the campaign trail to label China a currency manipulator and to impose huge tariffs on Chinese goods that worry Beijing the most. So far, he has not followed through on either of those pledges, but the U.S. Treasury will issue a semi-annual currency report in April.
That continues to unnerve Beijing despite recent signs that the two sides are beginning to engage.
Reports this week have suggested that Trump and Xi could meet in early April in Florida. On Saturday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will make his first trip to Beijing.
In an interview with CNBC earlier this week, Acting Assistant Secretary of State Susan Thornton said Tillerson’s visit would help set up the relationship going forward and lay out a framework for issues on which Washington wants to see progress.
And one of the key issues for that visit that she highlighted in that interview was fairer trade.
“While we have a very important economic relationship with China, it hasn't been a level playing field vis a vis U.S. companies and U.S. interests,” Thornton said. “We are going to be insisting that there be fair trade measures that be put in place and that be observed and implemented.”
Concerns about the lack of a level-playing field for American businesses in China and the impact of trade on U.S. jobs persist. Last year, the United States trade deficit with China was $347 billion, down only slightly from the previous year.
At his press conference, Li pledged that China would continue to open up its economy and argued that American companies and others were already seeing benefits.
“We may have different statistical methods, but I believe whatever differences we may have, we can always sit down and talk to each other, and work together to reach consensus,” Li said.
China’s premier also added that statistics show that trade and investment between the two countries created over one million jobs in the United States last year.