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  April 13th, 2018 | Written by

Did China Blink?

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  • China said Xi’s promises were a description of the next stage in the country’s economic restructuring.
  • Xi: Those who start a trade war would not benefit from it.
  • China issued a market reform document five years ago that they never materialized.

Did China just blink in the incipient trade war with the United States? The headlines would suggest so, but it seems few people really believe that.

The Chinese themselves, of course, deny that President Xi Jinping’s promises to open Chinese markets and provide greater protections for intellectual property was a blink. State-run media in China said Xi’s promises were simply a description of the next stage in the country’s economic restructuring and reform. He also threw in a jab at those who start a trade war, presumably referring to the US and Trump, saying they “would not benefit from it.”

“China’s reform and opening up is entirely autonomous, and it is gradually expanding and progressing according to its own timetable and road,” People’s Daily said in a commentary published Tuesday.

Some experts say Xi’s speech was to signal the US that they are interested in talks, in a way that allows him not to lose face domestically, while buying some time and denying that he was yielding to US pressure. Others are skeptical that Xi is serious about economic reform, pointing out that China issued a document five years ago saying it would issue major market reforms, but that they never materialized.

President Donald Trump appeared to be grateful for China’s response, tweeting:

But if Xi’s promises don’t come about, or move slower than Trump wants, the trade war may be back on again. As William Reinsch of CSIS pointed out, there are many things that can go wrong in a trade war. For one, “Since trade is based on global supply chains, ‘hurting’ China inevitably means hurting ourselves as well.”

While Trump has  been focused on goods tariffs, trade wars don’t have to be limited to that. China can restrict the activities of US companies in China, block US service providers, and interrupting supply chains.

Trade wars can also escalate beyond trade. “China could refuse to cooperate with us on geopolitical issues like North Korea,” wrote Reinsch, “it could unload a substantial portion of the US Treasury notes it holds, sending the dollar down and interest rates up and roiling financial markets.”

As far as the public relations of a trade war is concerned, “the Chinese already have an edge” in the court of public opinion, according to Reinsch, “because they have painted themselves as the injured party…”

Another danger comes with the uncertainty that Trump has foisted on the world economy, fomenting fear among investors. “He has created so much uncertainty,” according to Reinsch, “that investors and companies are likely to hold on to their money and wait to see what happens, deferring the kind of economic activity that will stimulate more growth.”