BEIJING — If President Trump’s threat of $100 billion in additional tariffs on goods from China was supposed to send Chinese officials scrambling, it failed — at least for now.
China’s initial response to Thursday’s statement from Trump was firm but cool. It did not punch back immediately with new tariff proposals of its own. It did not rush to comment. When officials did respond, they did not mince words.
On Friday evening in Beijing — during a long holiday weekend — a Commerce Ministry official reiterated that China will use “any measure” to fight back and has more “very detailed countermeasures” ready if needed.
“We will not exclude any option,” said Gao Feng, the ministry’s spokesman, adding that Beijing is not currently considering talks with U.S. trade envoys.
“The Chinese way of doing things is like this: We do not pick a fight, but if someone does pick a fight, we will fight resolutely,” Gao told reporters. “The Chinese have always been very serious in handling these matters. We mean what we say.”
In other words, Beijing’s message is it will respond when and how it pleases, it is not scared by Trump.
Trump surprised many on Thursday evening when he ordered his chief trade negotiator to consider imposing tariffs on an additional $100 billion of Chinese products, in an apparent bid to provoke Beijing.
In the hours that followed, markets across the Asia Pacific, including Hong Kong, held steady, China’s Communist Party-controlled press said little and top officials in Beijing were mum.
Around midday in Asia, the Commerce Ministry published a terse statement.
“We have taken note of the relevant U.S. statement,” it read. “On the issue of Sino-U. S. trade, the Chinese position has been made very clear. We do not want to fight, but we are not afraid to fight a trade war.”
Since early March, China and the United States have exchanged ever-escalating threats.
On March 1, the United States announced steel and aluminum tariffs that would hit China to the tune of about $3 billion a year. China responded by imposing similar measures on $3 billion worth of U.S. pork, fruit and other items.
On Tuesday, the White House went ahead with tariffs that target manufacturing technology, arguing Chinese trade practices have unfairly hurt U.S. business.
Not a day later, China fired back with its own threat of $50 billion in tariffs, including levies on soybeans, some aircraft and automobiles, prompting Trump’s next threat.
What has been lost in some of the coverage is that these are still very much threats, not actions. Both sides are puffing out their chests, but both know they have much to lose.
Although China may have more to lose economically, it may be in a better position politically to survive a trade war.
China’s reciprocal tariffs irked Trump because they targeted soybeans and automobiles — goods that matter to red state voters. If China presses ahead with planned 25 percent levies on those products, Trump could be hurt at the polls.
Many U.S. industry groups and even Republican lawmakers have called for the president to take a more cautious approach, warning that a full-on trade war could devastate agriculture and industry.
Chinese President Xi Jinping does not need to worry about upcoming elections. Since he largely controls the media, he can shape when and how Chinese citizens get worked up — or not — over trade. He also has the cash to subsidize Chinese businesses if he must.
In the short term, Trump’s latest salvo gives Beijing space to cast itself as the victim, a rational actor caught in the crosshairs of an irrational and impetuous U.S. president.
“While the U.S. has legitimate complaints about China’s treatment of [intellectual property], by responding with trade sanctions it has allowed China to present the U.S. as the trade aggressor,” wrote Simon Baptist, Asia managing director and chief economist at the Economist Intelligence Unit, in a statement. “A better approach would have been to take action through investment and patent rules.”
In an editorial published Friday, the Global Times, a party-controlled newspaper in China known for its nationalist tone, dismissed Trump’s Thursday evening statement as a sort of presidential temper tantrum.
“It shows he wants to make explosive statements to let off steam,” the paper wrote. “As to whether these ideas can be put into practice and what the consequences will be, those are secondary concerns to him.”
The editorial went on to note China “will never indulge the temper of Washington,” but will instead seek to “manage” it.
In a rare moment of agreement between the ultranationalist Chinese paper and a Republican lawmaker, Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) responded to Trump’s move using similar language.
“Hopefully the president is just blowing off steam again,” he wrote in a statement Thursday. “But if he’s even half-serious, this is nuts.”
Luna Lin in Beijing contributed to this report.