Trade and tech war clouds loom

After the exit polls on May 19 predicted a landslide victory for the National Democratic Alliance, the stock market in Mumbai gave a euphoric salute, and the index broke its previous record. But across the Asia Pacific, from Hong Kong and Shanghai, to Singapore, Seoul and Sydney, the markets were down. Since the middle of April, stocks in the Asia Pacific region have collectively lost 2.6 trillion dollars in value (equivalent to India’s national income). Mumbai’s Sensex is still having a party but it cannot remain immune from this Asiatic fear factor for too long. Of course, India’s domestic determinants like the new government’s economic agenda will partly offset the regional pessimism. What is the source of the Asia stock markets’ nervousness? It is the ongoing, and now escalating, trade war between the United States and China.

President Donald Trump alleged that China was artificially subsidising metal production to the detriment of American industry and jobs. The Chinese retaliated by slapping import duties on American imports like soybean and automobiles.

It started more than a year ago when the US abruptly slapped import duties on Chinese steel, and aluminum from a bunch of countries, including allies. President Donald Trump alleged that China was artificially subsidising metal production to the detriment of American industry and jobs. The Chinese retaliated by slapping import duties on American imports like soybean and automobiles. Experts and analysts on the sidelines wrongly assumed that this was mere shadow boxing, and sanity would soon return. Instead the “trade war” as it is now called is escalating.

The US has increased import duty from 10 to 25 per cent on almost 200 billion dollars of Chinese imports. It promises to extend the increased tariffs to another 350-billion-dollar worth of imports, which means pretty much all of China’s exports to the US. President Trump had also tweeted last year that “trade wars are good and easy to win”, revealing his intent. The US has widened the ambit of action against China, by alleging that Chinese joint venture companies steal American intellectual property. Last year the US blocked all tech and chip making companies from doing business with ZTE. More recently, such action has been extended to another Chinese giant, Huawei. Its Chief Financial Officer was arrested in Canada, presumably at the behest of US authorities. The concern is the same, that Huawei can’t be trusted with protection of American patents, and it also poses a security threat to the Western world due to deliberate trapdoors in its 5G hardware.

Of course, none of these allegations are proven. One consequence of this is that Google has announced that it will no longer support the Android operating system on Huawei phones. China is contemplating removal of American GPS from all Chinese phones, to be replaced by China’s equivalent satellite positioning system. The tech cold war has just begun.

China bashing plays well in domestic politics. Many of Trump’s advisors may be drawing the wrong lessons from the Plaza Accord of 1985 in which Japan was browbeaten to strengthen its currency, voluntarily reduce exports to the US and reduce the bilateral trade deficit. That was during the peak of Japan bashing in America. It played well in domestic politics and earned President Reagan two terms. But China is not Japan.

There was hope that Chinese and American officials will meet away from the media glare, and sort things out amicably and announce some sort of a face-saving trade deal. But hopes of that are fast receding. Next month’s meeting between the Presidents of US and China seems unlikely. There is enough tit-for-tat material on both sides for this war of attrition to go on for some time. China bashing plays well in domestic politics. Many of Trump’s advisors may be drawing the wrong lessons from the Plaza Accord of 1985 in which Japan was browbeaten to strengthen its currency, voluntarily reduce exports to the US and reduce the bilateral trade deficit. That was during the peak of Japan bashing in America. It played well in domestic politics and earned President Reagan two terms.

But China is not Japan. It is a much bigger economy, with a very different political system, and is not dependent on the US for military aid and protection (unlike Japan). In any case, the Chines are fully aware of the Japanese precedent, and will not fall into the same trap. Japan never really fully recovered from the debacle of the Plaza Accord.

For its part, the Chinese know that they control 95 per cent of production of rare earths, required for the production of high-end chips. It could simply block sale of rare earths to American companies. China has also developed its own chip design industry, which can be ready in a few years to take on the might of Intel, Qualcomm and others. For many years, it banned the use of Google, Facebook, Twitter, Gmail and the like, thereby ensuring the thriving growth of its own versions of social media software (like Baidu and WeChat). Alibaba is a formidable rival to Amazon, and is also a de facto bank. So, it is not as if the Chinese will be taking the tech cold war lying down, or lying low.

India has a substantial trade surplus with the US, and cannot afford to lose out that market. It may be forced to take sides in the US-China standoff, much like it has had to do with Iran oil. Even when India and Iran agreed to a rupee trade to bypass dollars, it was not acceptable to the Americans. So, India also needs to brace itself for collateral damage from the tech and trade war.

The other weapon in China’s hands for a tit-for-tat is to flood the world bond market with the sale of American treasury bonds. It has a total foreign exchange pile of nearly 4 trillion dollars which are mostly in the form of US treasuries. A big selloff will cause bond prices to plummet and can cause serious harm to the US fiscal situation. In doing so, it will also hurt the Chinese since the value of their holding will fall faster than their earnings in the selloff.

The tit-for-tat related to trade wars of this nature has no winners. American consumers will face higher prices since they would be shut out of cheap Chinese products. Taxpayers will hurt since they will have to bail out American farmers (like soya producers). Maybe taxes have to rise. Investors will lose since Wall Street may crash. The trade war may have short term political benefits in the re-election of President Trump, but this is at great cost. India has a substantial trade surplus with the US, and cannot afford to lose out that market. It may be forced to take sides in the US-China standoff, much like it has had to do with Iran oil. Even when India and Iran agreed to a rupee trade to bypass dollars, it was not acceptable to the Americans. So, India also needs to brace itself for collateral damage from the tech and trade war.

(The writer is an economist and Senior Fellow, Takshashila Institution)