Trump says trade wars are 'easy to win' as tariff anger spreads

President Donald Trump delivers a statement on the terrorist attack in Manchester during a meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, in the West Bank City of Bethlehem. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
President Donald Trump delivers a statement on the terrorist attack in Manchester during a meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, in the West Bank City of Bethlehem. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

New York - President Donald Trump pushed back against a wave of criticism against steel tariffs, with a tweet saying, 'trade wars are good and easy to win.'

Trump is facing anger from manufacturers and trade partners in China and Europe after announcing tariffs of 25% on imported steel and 10% on aluminum for "a long period of time." The formal order is expected to be signed next week.

“When a country (USA) is losing many billions of dollars on trade with virtually every country it does business with, trade wars are good, and easy to win,” Trump said in an early morning tweet on Friday.

Trump hasn’t given the details of the planned action, including whether any products or countries would be exempted.

The planned tariffs, justified on the basis that cut-price metals imports hurt both American producers and national security, now raises the prospect of tit-for-tat curbs on American exports and higher prices for domestic users. While the practical impact may yet turn out to be limited, the political environment for global trade has just taken a turn for the worse.

Asian stocks on Friday built on losses seen in the US the previous day, with shares in Hong Kong, Japan, China, Australia and South Korea weaker. Separately, the yen spiked and Japanese assets slumped after Bank of Japan Governor Haruhiko Kuroda discussed the timing of a possible exit from its stimulus policy in parliament.

The official response in China, the world’s largest steel producer, was muted. Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying merely said in Beijing Friday that China urges the US to follow trade rules.

Industry insiders were less restrained. The US measures “overturn the international trade order,” Wen Xianjun, vice chairman of the China Nonferrous Metals Industry Association, said in a statement. “Other countries, including China, will take relevant retaliatory measures.”

Li Xinchuang, the vice chairperson of China Iron and Steel Association, called the move “stupid.”

US allies, seeing their industries threatened, responded with bafflement and dismay. Some also panned the idea that metals imports pose a threat to national security.

“Steel and aluminum imports from Japan, which is an ally, do not affect US national security at all,” Japan’s Trade Minister Hiroshige Seko told reporters in Tokyo on Friday. “I would like to convey that to the US when I have an opportunity.”

Canada - the biggest foreign supplier of steel to the US - said the measures were unacceptable while the European Union vowed to “react firmly” with World Trade Organisation-compliant countermeasures in the next few days. Australian Trade Minister Steve Ciobo called the move “disappointing” and said his country is seeking an exemption.

The punitive measures would level the unfair playing field that has persisted for years, and make it easier for American companies to expand and hire workers, Trump said.

US companies from beer brewer MillerCoors to candymaker Hershey, which use aluminum for manufacturing and packaging, said operations would be hurt by the tariffs.

“We buy as much domestic can sheet aluminum as is available, however, there simply isn’t enough supply to satisfy the demands of American beverage makers like us,” MillerCoors said in a tweet. “American workers and American consumers will suffer as a result of this misguided tariff.”

Soybean response

A US move on tariffs risks provoking retaliation, particularly from Beijing. China has already launched a probe into US imports of sorghum, and is studying whether to restrict shipments of US soybeans - targets that could hurt Trump’s support in some farming states.

While China accounts for just a fraction of US imports of the metals, it’s accused of flooding the global market and dragging down prices.

What Bloomberg economists say:

“China’s total exports of steel and aluminum are equal to about 0.5% of GDP, most of that from steel,” said Bloomberg’s Chief Asia Economist Tom Orlik. “Relative to fears from Trump’s campaign trail rhetoric, in which he threatened an across-the-board 45% tariff on all imports from China, these measures are extremely limited.”

Trump announced the tariffs despite lobbying of his administration by foreign governments, and while Chinese President Xi Jinping’s top economic adviser is in the country on a mission to defuse tensions.

The impact of the step hinges in part on which nations will be affected, said Alex Wolf, senior emerging markets economist at Aberdeen Standard Investments in Hong Kong who previously worked at the US State Department.

“It’s not much ado about nothing, but until we see the final scope of the tariffs and the response from global trading partners it’s hard to say it’s the start of a tit-for-tat trade war,” he said.

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