(Bloomberg) -- The next month will be crucial in signaling whether U.S. President Donald Trump’s threats to get tough on China over trade turn from rhetoric into reality.
A year into his presidency, Trump has failed to stem growth in China’s trade surplus as an economic upswing in the U.S. fuels imports from the world’s factory floor. Yet the kind of punitive actions threatened during his campaign haven’t materialized, with Trump ordering his administration to study the challenges instead of slapping on tariffs from the get-go. Now, a raft of China-targeted trade decisions are piling up on Trump’s desk as the deadlines for those assessments loom.
The clock is ticking on a decision whether to impose new tariffs on steel imports, while initial reports on aluminum and solar panels are due this week. China -- which has flagged "all necessary measures" should a trade war unfold -- is also making its case. In a telephone call last week with Trump, President Xi Jinping highlighted "positive changes" in getting North Korea to resume negotiations over its nuclear weapons program and urged a "constructive approach" to resolving disputes and opening up each other’s markets.
"The possibility is what we feared last year happens this year," said Michael Spencer, global head of economics at Deutsche Bank AG in Hong Kong. "Outside of the geopolitical sphere, trade-related fears are probably the biggest external risks we face, since the whole cycle in Asia is currently still very export orientated.”
Such risks were further fanned when China reported that its trade surplus with the U.S. widened last year to $275.8 billion, according to Bloomberg calculations based on customs administration data. Trump told Xi in the call that the growing U.S. deficit with China isn’t sustainable, the White House said in a statement.
Trade tensions between the world’s two-biggest economies have flared anew since last month, when the U.S. national security strategy branded China a "revisionist power" and China resisted harsher sanctions on North Korea.
In a speech last month, Trump bracketed China alongside Russia as a U.S. rival seeking “to challenge American influence, values, and wealth.” The accompanying strategy document mentioned China more than 30 times, including in accusations of unfair trade practices. China’s official Xinhua News Agency hit back against the plan, saying it perpetuated a “you win, I lose” mentality that jeopardized the U.S.’s own interests.
On Thursday, China’s Ministry of Commerce spokesman Gao Feng questioned the objectivity and credibility of a U.S. list of "Notorious Markets" for fakes that cites China’s Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative released the list this month, citing e-commerce giant Alibaba’s Taobao online marketplace for a high volume of reported counterfeiting and piracy.
Yet so far it’s largely been bickering rather than a full-blown confrontation. And most analysts continue to believe that Trump’s need for China’s help in dealing with the threat of North Korea will be enough to limit hostilities to trade skirmishes. Yet not everyone is convinced.
"In the first weeks of 2018 many are still catching up to the reality of shifting deep forces in U.S.-China economic relations," the Rhodium Group wrote in a note. "Many in China think this is a rough patch and will blow over. It won’t."
If there is to be a ratcheting up of tensions, Trump’s first State of the Union address on Jan. 30 would provide an opportunity to lay out actions that the administration plans to take in the coming year on trade issues, said Jacob Parker, a vice president at the U.S.-China Business Council in Beijing.
As for other potential flash points, these are some key dates to watch:
Jan. 22Trump to receive a Commerce Department report on whether foreign aluminum imports are harming U.S. national security, potentially starting the clock on specific action within 90 days. Trump received a similar report Jan. 12 on steel, again with 90 days to mull actions such as tariffs, quotas or talks with foreign producers.
Jan. 23 - 28Montreal hosts talks to revamp the North American Free Trade Agreement between the U.S., Mexico and Canada. This sixth round is critical for a breakthrough to avert the risk that the trade deal collapses. A breakup may signal a more combative approach to trade in Trump’s second year as president.
Jan. 26Trump is due to decide whether to take action on cheap solar panel imports to protect the U.S. manufacturing sector. The U.S. International Trade Commission has found that cheap foreign-made solar products are hurting domestic producers.
Late JanuaryThe U.S. ITC is expected to give a final ruling on whether American industry has been hurt by Bombardier’s sales of passenger jets, as Boeing Co. alleges. If the ITC sides with Boeing, duties on Bombardier C Series jets would become permanent.
End JanuaryThe Trump administration could announce action on China’s intellectual property practices before his month-end State of the Union speech, according to industry publication Inside Trade. This could also be delayed -- an investigation into China’s alleged IP theft and forced technology transfers isn’t due until later this year.
Early FebruaryTrump is expected to make a decision on whether to impose tariffs on imported washing machines. The U.S. ITC has recommended imposing graduated tariffs over three years on a quota basis.
©2018 Bloomberg L.P.
With assistance from Kevin Hamlin, Michael Heath