Why China could win the trade war

With technology transfer at the heart of the trade dispute between the US and China, Asian observers give their views on what the Xi-Trump meeting will ultimately mean for China.
Why China could win the trade war

In the run-up to this weekend's summit meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and US President Donald Trump, opinion over who will truly win the trade war is polarised.

Hopes are building that a truce -- if not a peace -- might yet be in sight, even if things have to get worse before they get better as tariff rises already threatened are enacted.  

But one view is that, for China, what doesn't kill you could ultimately make you stronger.  

Speaking at the MIPIM real estate event in Hong Kong this week, Ronnie Chan, chairman of local developer Hang Lung, predicted that "the biggest loser" in the end would be Washington.

"Trump said he will make it unbearable for the Chinese. He’s going to eat his own words because China can bear the pain," Chan said.

On trade alone, there is more for China to lose because it has a huge surplus ($30 billion a year) with the US. "So technically, China will run out of ammunition before the US,” he said.

But on the other hand, Chan said, China has other things it can do, including becoming increasingly self-sufficient on technologies it currently relies on the West for.

"By restricting China’s access to sharing technology, it is forcing China to develop their own technology faster. Is that the US's objective?" asked Chan.

In the short term, the US will claim victory. "Trump will get his tweet or his newspaper article that says 'we have won'," Chan said. "Fine, go ahead and win. China will gain in other ways, in non-tariff benefits. The attitude is ‘we will lose, but so will you.”


The situation is perhaps a bit more nuanced than Chan’s comments might suggest. That is certainly the view of other investors in Asia, including Timothy Tsui, director of Hong Kong single family office Arbutus. He is sceptical of the suggestion that China can become self-sufficient: “Can it really? I remember a senior executive at Tencent said a while back that China still has a long way to go in terms of technology,” he told AsianInvestor.

If China was so self-sufficient, Tsui said, “the stoppage of exports of specialised chips to Chinese technology companies by the US would not have created a near bankruptcy for a Chinese corporation,” citing Fujian Jinhuam, a company accused of stealing US technology and the subject of a US export ban.

China still has a lot of work to catch up on the technology side, said Tsui, citing the example of electric vehicles as well as the integrated circuits used in mobile phones.

"Currently Tesla has the strongest and most powerful car battery on the planet. I haven’t heard of a Chinese company coming out with a car that can be safe and can drive a range of 400-plus kilometres. Tesla has that and all its technology is based in the USA," he said.

"Also, chips for mobile phones are still manufactured in the US or by Samsung and I haven’t heard of a Chinese chip manufacturer being placed in mobile phones yet," Tsui added. "This is not a thing you can just throw money at; it’s an R&D problem."

Other specialist investors contacted by AsianInvestor noted the progress being made by China and the fact that there were other players besides the world's biggest and second-biggest economies. 

Francois Perrin, portfolio manager for the China Environmental fund at East Capital in Hong Kong suggested China is well on the way to developing its own technologies, including for electric cars: “BYD (a car company based in Xi'an) is already producing more electric vehicle batteries and electric vehicles than Tesla,” he told AsianInvestor.

“We continue to see China ramping up innovation and driving the cost down," he said, calling the equivalent US technology "relatively expensive.”


In some specialist areas, China still needs US expertise, said Perrin. “In terms of offshore wind turbine development, for example, the Chinese will need foreign players, because US and European companies are more advanced in terms of their deep offshore capability.”

But if the US refuses to share its technology, then Perrin suggests Europe will plug the gap of technology transfer.

What's more, there is scope to take the lead to some extent if the US administration continues to push back on green issues. 

“This is the Trump paradox: a turnaround by the US policymakers on environmental industries would structurally weaken the US players through the next cycle,' he said. "Chinese environmental leaders are set to benefit the most from this.”

“The Chinese government will ensure that within every clean technology, the leading domestic players will occupy a strategic and dominant position at a global level in their next growth phase. Any weaknesses in terms of competition coming from the US will foster the dominance of Chinese companies in these technologies,” Perrin said.


With US tariffs widely expected to rise from the existing 10% to 25% on the first two tranches of $250 billion of imports from China, commencing in January 2019, there is also a consensus view developing that there will be a long hold placed on any further tariffs.

State Street Asia’s global macro strategist Ben Luk told AsianInvestor he saw a “ceasefire’ as the best outcome, with the US holding firm on tariffs but not raising the threshold.

Alicia Garcia Herrero, chief economist for the Asia-Pacific region at Natixis, agreed: “It seems increasingly clear that even if an agreement were to be reached, it would be more of a truce than a final settlement of the trade war."

"The US and China have become strategic competitors and will continue to be so for the foreseeable future,” she said.

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