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China has ample room to maneuver in US trade talks: analysis

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China has ample room to maneuver in US trade talks: analysis

China's retaliatory tariffs on U.S. imports could expand to include more iron, steel and aluminum products if trade tensions escalate.

In 2017, metals imports from the U.S. to China totaled US$1.72 billion covering 209 groups — including iron and steel, aluminum, and nickel products, according to data from Panjiva Research, a global trade and logistics information data company owned by S&P Global.

Among them, China has announced plans for reciprocal tariffs on scrapped aluminum and 33 types of seamless steel pipes. The sum of the targeted scrapped aluminum and steel pipes were estimated at US$832.3 million and US$36.8 million, respectively, in 2017, according to Panjiva data.

This compares to a total of US$1.04 billion of aluminum products in 20 groups and US$678.3 million in iron and steel in 179 groups imported from the U.S. in 2017.

In addition to scrapped aluminum, China also imported aluminum alloys, including plates, sheets, strip, and foil, as well as aluminum bars.

Tuan Huynh, chief investment officer for Asia Pacific at Deutsche Bank Wealth Management, believed that economies with stronger domestic demand and fiscal regime will weather a deteriorating global economic environment better.

"While the escalation of trade frictions between China and [the U.S.] might affect exports this year, China's government has ample fiscal room to support domestic demand if necessary, especially in the area of infrastructure investment," Huynh said in an emailed response.

Wang Guoqing, head of Lange Steel Information Research Center, agreed that China's strong domestic economy puts it at an advantage in trade talks.

"The domestic environment has improved due to supply-side reforms. Improved profitability across domestic industries, including the iron and steel industry, will support companies' capacity to deal with retaliatory tariffs or anti-dumping investigations globally," Wang said.

The complete list of retaliatory tariffs proposed by the Chinese government consisted of 128 U.S. products worth US$3 billion.

According to two filings with the World Trade Organization on March 26, China is seeking compensation for potential lost trade due to the U.S.' tariffs on steel and aluminum.

Chai Yuan, an aluminum analyst with Chinese state-backed research company Antaike, described China's retaliatory tariffs as an initial move and said that the next steps by the Chinese government will be subject to how the U.S. reacts.

Chai added that domestic companies may increase the use of primary aluminum if the tariffs were imposed and this led to an increase in the price of scrapped aluminum.

"Impacts are limited at this stage. It is more of a move to put stress [on the U.S.] and see how they react," Chai said.

Chai added that Chinese aluminum companies' production capacity would be able to meet domestic needs even if tariffs were expanded to more aluminum products and resulted in a drop in imports of aluminum alloys.

Elliot Hentov, head of policy and research at State Street Global Advisors, believes that China has a number of options to either escalate or conciliate the dispute.

Hentov noted that China could impose more counter tariffs, such as on key U.S. export items like soybeans or aircraft, delay scheduled purchases of U.S. products and services or penalize U.S. business activities in China.

Conversely, China could also commit to purchases of U.S. goods to reduce the trade deficit or allow for greater foreign participation in certain sectors, according to Hentov.