Indonesia Worried About Being Added to Trump’s Trade Hit List

(Bloomberg) -- Indonesia is worried about being targeted by Donald Trump in a wider protectionist push, as trade tensions between the U.S. and China continue to escalate, a senior minister said.

The Southeast Asian nation’s large trade surplus with the U.S. may invite further scrutiny by the Trump administration even as the spat between the world’s two biggest economies offers potential gains to Indonesia, Planning Minister Bambang Brodjonegoro said. A prolonged dispute may also weigh on Indonesia’s current account deficit, foreign inflows and currency, he said in an interview in Jakarta on Tuesday.

World markets were rattled this week as China and the U.S. announced tit-for-tat tariffs on hundreds of goods, adding to concerns about potential spillover effects for countries across Asia. Indonesia, which last year ran a trade surplus of $10.7 billion with the U.S., was previously included in a probe ordered by Trump into countries suspected of abusing the trade relationship. The country’s access to a U.S. preferential trade program is currently under review.

Indonesia Worried About Being Added to Trump’s Trade Hit List

“Indonesia and China have similarities, only at a different scale. Both of us create a deficit for the U.S. side,” Brodjonegoro said. “Now the question is, how can we approach the U.S. so that Indonesia will not be part of their idea of trade protectionism and how can we take advantage of potential declining Chinese exports to the U.S.”

Intensive Lobbying

Indonesian officials are "intensively” lobbying the Trump administration to remain part of the Generalized System of Preferences, Brodjonegoro said. The program is designed to promote economic development by allowing duty-free entry for thousands of products from designated beneficiary countries. Earlier this year, the U.S. indicated it would remove India from the program.

“We are still discussing, lobbying, making sure that we will be safe from this kind of treatment," Brodjonegoro said. “I cannot say it’s positive but we haven’t heard negative things, so far. But you never know,” he said, citing the case of India.

The uncertainty over trade relations with the U.S. comes as Indonesia seeks to boost exports to help curb its current account deficit, often cited as a key vulnerability for Southeast Asia’s biggest economy. The deficit was 2.6% of gross domestic product in the first quarter, above the central bank’s projection of a 2.5% average for the year.

“We know the escalation of this trade war could impact the currency. So there will be pressure on the current account deficit, our portfolio inflows and in the end our currency,” Brodjonegoro said.

Rate Cuts

The current-account data and trade war concerns have seen the rupiah give up gains made in recent months, and was at 14,440 against the dollar on Wednesday after weakening to a four-month low a day before. The currency is down about 2.6% over the past month to be among the worst performers in Asia.

The market volatility may prompt the central bank to delay interest-rate cuts, Brodjonegoro said, speaking days before Bank Indonesia’s monetary policy decision on Thursday. A majority of economists expect the bank to keep its benchmark rate unchanged at 6 percent.

“We might have to wait a little bit for any relaxation of the interest rate,” Brodjonegoro said. “The central bank and the government need to look at the volatility in the global market. I don’t think reducing the rate would be helpful given the volatility.’

President Joko Widodo is expected to be confirmed as the winner of the April 17 election when official results are announced next week. As he prepares for a second five-year term in office, he’s moderated his growth ambitions, forecasting expansion of as much as 5.6% in 2020. While that would be the fastest pace since 2013, it’s well below the 7% Widodo targeted ahead of his first term five years ago.

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