Cargo trucks drive through a container pool at a seaport in Qingdao in eastern China's Shandong province in this file photo. Canada aims to do more business with China amid a rising wave of protectionism. (Chinatopix via AP) Cargo trucks drive through a container pool at a seaport in Qingdao in eastern China's Shandong province in this file photo. Canada aims to do more business with China amid a rising wave of protectionism. (Chinatopix via AP) 

While protectionist sentiment is on the rise, Canadian businesses are being encouraged to do more with China, which appears to be in stark contrast to the message U.S. businesses are getting from the incoming Trump administration.

The experience of U.S. businesses in China is worsening. The Canadian government and businesses have to be clear on their objectives in dealing with China in order to succeed, as well as be wary and able to recognize when Chinese actions are not necessarily of long-term Canadian benefit, according to Paul Frazer, president of PD Frazer Associates and a Washington-based government affairs consultant on Canada-U.S. relations.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s cabinet shuffle aims at strengthening Canada’s business relationship with China. Meanwhile, president-elect Donald Trump’s tough talk on China has ranged from losses of American jobs to currency manipulation. He has appointed hardline trade representatives to continue to be tough on China.

“I don’t think that what Mr. Trump does with China will necessarily spill over negatively to what Canada would like to do with China,” Frazer said in a telephone interview. Frazer has previously served as minister of public affairs at the Canadian Embassy in Washington, as the consulate general in New York, and in Prague as ambassador to the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

Working with China is a much heavier lift.

— Paul Frazer, President, PD Frazer Associates

But Frazer seems to hold some skepticism about what Canada is trying to accomplish with China. “I’m not sure we have a clear picture of what Canada wants to do with China yet either, or how it’s going to go about trying to achieve specific objectives.”

Frazer has advocated for the Canadian government to blaze its own trail and not simply ride the coattails of the United States in international relations.

Canadian businesses realize that its biggest growth opportunities lie in China; however, the biggest challenge has been the ease with which it can do business in the United States, said Frazer. The United States has the infrastructure, rule of law, and transparency that China doesn’t.

“Working with China is a much heavier lift, as you can imagine,” Frazer said.

‘Buy America’

The rise of the protectionist spectre is not new and “Buy America” isn’t something that has just emerged recently, Frazer said. “It goes back many years and every time it’s proved to be harmful.”

With supply chains deeply integrated across Canada, the United States, Mexico, and globally, the worry is the knee-jerk reaction to stronger calls to embed “Buy America” wherever it can be done. How that could trigger responses of a similar nature in other parts of the world, which can signal a downward spiral of increased protectionism, is something nobody wants to see, said Frazer. This would seriously threaten jobs in both Canada and the United States.

Canadian businesses have been saying that regulations and trade barriers are already hurting export growth, according to the Bank of Canada’s Business Outlook Survey released Jan. 9. “The perception of rising protectionism leads a number of businesses to maintain or build a foreign presence,” the BoC stated.

China won’t be accustomed to dealing with the likes of Trump and this could make it more eager to do business with Canada, albeit on a much smaller scale.

“Where the Canadians will have to be careful is to recognize where they may be taken advantage of, where they’re more a pawn in a bigger game,” said Frazer.

At next week’s World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, Switzerland, China will be front and centre with a “larger-than-ever” delegation headed by president Xi Jinping, “underscoring China’s determination to assume a global leadership role as other major powers are hobbled by domestic infighting,” according to a Bloomberg report. The U.S. presence will be minimal by historical standards.

Canada is in a vulnerable position due to its dependence on exports. The economy has been in the doldrums since late 2014 due to weak commodity prices and flagging export growth.

With the rising cost of production in China, investors may start looking elsewhere the longer it takes to establish greater transparency in regulations and the rule of law.

Some German and U.S. companies believe protectionist sentiment is rising in China. The German automakers have to use local partners to manufacture cars in China.

The most recent American Chamber of Commerce survey, conducted earlier this year, showed that regulatory obstacles are forcing a small portion of U.S. companies to move activities away from China. Eighty-three percent of tech, industrial, and natural resource sector companies are the most downbeat on Beijing’s attitude toward foreign companies. U.S. businesses in China were less profitable in China in 2015 as compared to 2014.

U.S. Politics

A good deal of uncertainty faces Canadian businesses, which are in a wait-and-see mode, according to a Bloomberg interview with John Manley, president and CEO of the Business Council of Canada.

As Trump’s inauguration approaches, the focus is turning to how the administration will function.

Getting things done is not a slam dunk and the Republican Party is not really united, said Frazer. “It’s papered over at the moment because they have a president who brought them to the dance very successfully,” Frazer said.

He also said that due to the natural tension between the White House and Congress, there could be a rocky patch after Jan. 20 as a number of issues are broached—including health-care reform.

“It’s not a parliamentary system,” Frazer said. “It’s not a prime minister with a majority.

“It’s a president who has to rely on the cooperation, collaboration, and the ability to persuade the folks in Congress to do what he would like to see done.

“And they will push back.”

With additional reporting from Fan Yu

Follow Rahul on Twitter @RV_ETBiz

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A vendor picks up a 100 yuan note above a newspaper featuring a photo of US president-elect Donald Trump, at a news stand in Beijing on Nov. 10, 2016. Trump has talked tough on trade — and his policies might actually help China. (Greg Baker/AFP/Getty Images)A vendor picks up a 100 yuan note above a newspaper featuring a photo of US president-elect Donald Trump, at a news stand in Beijing on Nov. 10, 2016. Trump has talked tough on trade — and his policies might actually help China. (Greg Baker/AFP/Getty Images)

Donald Trump talks tough on China and has appointed trade hawks Wilbur Ross and Peter Navarro to key positions in his administration. He has threatened to slap a blanket tariff on Chinese goods and talked directly to Taiwan’s President, previously regarded as a major diplomatic offense.

According to “Road to Ruin” author James Rickards, this is Trump’s way of opening the negotiations with China to reach a mutually beneficial trade relationship.

“[He] is saying to China: ‘Here is where we are going to start, what have you got for us? Are you willing to be more flexible on foreign direct investment, are you willing to treat U.S. companies in China more fairly, are you willing to stop the theft of intellectual property?’ If China makes concessions on these points he can say ‘fine, now my tariff is [lower].’ It’s the art of the deal; people don’t understand that about Trump,” Rickards told the BBC.

However, in any deal, the other party also has some negotiating chips on the table and China, for example, can hurt American companies exporting to China or American companies operating in China.

So who has the upper hand in the negotiations? According to a report by research firm Geopolitical Futures (GPF), the United States would suffer some damages in a trade war but would come out on top in the end.

“China would feel the impact of U.S. protectionist measures more than the U.S. would feel any economic retaliation China has at its disposal,” the report states.

What’s at Stake?

The most important point for both countries is the symbiotic relationship between China the exporter and the United States the importer. Between Chinese workers who produce cheap goods and U.S. consumers who buy them.

According to the U.S. Census, the United States imported $483 billion worth of goods from China in 2015. Since China joined the WTO in 2001, the United States was the top importer of Chinese goods in all but one year.

In an extreme thought experiment, about 15 million Chinese workers in the export sector could lose their jobs if Americans stopped importing from China altogether, a nightmare for the Chinese regime, which depends on employment to keep the people happy and itself in power. 

On the other hand, the United States depends on China for cheap imports. More than 90 percent of all imported umbrellas and walking sticks come from China for example, and 22 percent of all the stuff the United States imports.

Sourcing these products from somewhere else or producing them onshore will be difficult and almost certainly make them more expensive. However, this is a nuisance compared to 15 million unemployed Chinese. 

“U.S. dependence on Chinese goods is a matter of convenience,” states the GPF report.  The analysts say the United States has ample spare capacity in manufacturing to eventually make up for the shortfall.

According to the Federal Reserve (Fed), total industrial capacity utilization in the United States was only 75.1 percent in October of 2016.

“Of course, increasing capacity would not be easy. One caveat is that many of these industry groups have seen their capabilities atrophy after years of dismal performances. But these industries are much like muscles, atrophying in bad times but strengthening in good times,” states the report.

One example is the furniture industry, where Americans bought 17 percent of all sales from Chinese exporters in 2015. U.S. capacity utilization for furniture was only 75 percent during most of the year. If the United States ramped up production to 100 percent in an unlikely scenario, it could make up for all of the Chinese imports, albeit at a higher price. The same principle is true for many other industries from textiles to synthetic rubber and has the benefit that it would decrease American unemployment. 

Monopoly Power

In the discussion about trade with China, we frequently hear that China has a monopoly for Rare Earth Elements (REE), a critical component for many digital products. If push came to shove, China could simply cut exports to the United States like it did to Japan in 2010.

According to GPF, however, this is another classic example of price rather than actual availability. In 2016, China produced 89 percent of global REEs. However, the United States had its own company producing REEs up until 2015, when Molycorp Inc. had to declare bankruptcy because it could not compete with the low Chinese prices.

GPF estimates that potential production by Molycorp would be enough to satisfy U.S. REE demand, again at a higher price than the current ones from China and with a time lag.

“The result would not be a catastrophe and actually would spawn a capacity for REE production in the United States or another country, such as Australia, from which the United States could import,” states the report. 

Retaliation 

What happens if China retaliates and slaps tariffs on American products exported to China?

According to GPF, the last time that happened it didn’t end well for China. When President Obama imposed a 35 percent tariff on Chinese automobile and light truck tires in 2009, China retaliated by slapping a tariff on U.S. chicken meat. 

The U.S. tire tariff’s impact was limited: Imports from China fell by 50 percent until 2015 only to be replaced by South Korean and other manufacturers. This shows the limit on how many jobs can come back to the United States but also demonstrates that the United States is not dependent on China for goods supply.

The same goes for multinational corporations which may have to shift production to other Asian countries should China chose to make life difficult for them. 

The tariffs left their mark on the tire industry in China, however. “China’s capacity utilization in the various tire segments industry has fallen to between 50 and 60 percent. Hundreds of tire factories have closed their doors, and Chinese tire makers are cutting prices to the bone just to stay competitive in the market,” states the report.

And the U.S. chickens? Exports doubled from 2011 to 2016 and total poultry production in the United States increased during the whole period. 

“It is likely that future retaliatory measures would yield similar results: a short-term impact for the U.S. followed by a recovery,” states the report.

Trade Off

Although Apple could shift production somewhere else, it would take time and cost money. Starbucks, which makes 5.7 percent of its global sales in China couldn’t just replace a market of more than a billion consumers. The same is true for Boeing, which earned 13.1 percent of its 2015 revenue by exporting to China, the fastest growing airplane market.

However, there are many Chinese multinationals operating in the United States (for instance, FOSUN) or banking on the United States to become their next big market (Alibaba).

According to the GPF report, both countries would lose in a full-blown trade war, but it is the United States that holds the upper hand. Donald Trump understands this, which is why he is pushing China to get a better deal for America. If China also understands it’s in a weaker position, it will be able to avoid a lose-lose scenario. 

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A Chinese investor watches the U.S. presidential election on his smartphone at a securities company in Beijing on Nov. 9. (WANG ZHAO/AFP/Getty Images)A Chinese investor watches the U.S. presidential election on his smartphone at a securities company in Beijing on Nov. 9. (WANG ZHAO/AFP/Getty Images)

Immediately after Donald Trump became president-elect, the Chinese yuan fell through key support at 6.80 yuan per dollar, the lowest level since 2010.

The market reaction is hardly surprising, as Trump and his advisers have for a long time accused China of being an unfair trader and currency manipulator. They also vowed they would slap tariffs on Chinese goods if China doesn’t play fair in trade.

Trump adviser Peter Navarro says China has an unfair advantage because it follows lower health and safety standards and uses slave labor to keep labor costs competitive.

“If we learned anything from the World Trade Organization and NAFTA, it is that you have to put in stringent rules for worker health and safety protection,” he said, also mentioning China’s export subsidies and currency manipulation.

According to Navarro, if China doesn’t stop these practices, the United States will impose countervailing tariffs on Chinese products. Tariffs would result in fewer exports to the United States and therefore less demand for the Chinese currency.

“When Donald Trump talks about tariffs, they aren’t the endgame. The goal is to use tariffs as a negotiating tool to stop cheating. But if the cheating does not stop, we will impose defensive tariffs,” he said.

What Can Trump Do?

Victor Sperandeo, president and CEO of Alpha Financial Technologies LLC, thinks the United States could cap trade at a certain level, which “will harm China more than the United States. If we buy $500 billion, they have to buy $500 billion,” he said in an email. The United States absorbs 20 percent of China’s exports, worth $483 billion in 2015.

Other commentators think a Trump administration won’t be able to implement very harsh protectionist policies at all, because the traditionally pro-trade Republican Congress would have to consent as well.

“Big tariff increases on Chinese imports are quite unlikely. The focus will instead be on the theft of American intellectual property—something most people in either party would probably agree is a serious problem,” said Mark DeWeaver, author of “Animal Spirits With Chinese Characteristics.”

Chinese trade has been slowing but the trade surplus with the United States is still high (Capital Economics)

Chinese trade has been slowing, but the trade surplus with the United States is still high. (Capital Economics)

Jim Nolt, professor of international relations at New York University, said that even if a Trump administration can pass draconian sanctions, China could selectively retaliate.

“China may act strategically by targeting sanctions against U.S. exporters located in the states or congressional districts of powerful Republicans in Congress,” he said.

China could also hassle the American companies operating in the country, as it has done in the past, with anti-monopoly and other investigations.

Given these complicated details, a Trump administration will have to make some very good deals with China for its managed trade policy to work.

Involuntary Depreciation

While export subsidies, sweatshops, and a lack of environmental standards are common in China, especially in industries like steel and solar, the issue of currency manipulation is not as clear-cut anymore as it was 10 years ago.

Up until 2005, China pegged its currency to the dollar at a rate of 8.27 yuan, despite enormous exports and capital inflows that would have warranted a much higher exchange rate. China kept the rate stable by buying Treasury securities to the tune of $4 trillion, thereby creating an artificial demand for dollars.

After pressure from the United States, China let the yuan rise to a high point of 6.05 yuan per dollar in early 2014. Since then, however, the rate has not really been in China’s hands anymore.

Systemic economic problems and the creation of $35 trillion in bank credit, as well as regime leader Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign, have led to massive capital outflows, estimated to be between $1.2 trillion and $1.5 trillion since the beginning of 2014. These capital outflows were higher than the trade surplus and placed downward pressure on the Chinese currency.

Capital outflows have accelerated again in the fall. (IIF)

Capital outflows have accelerated again in the fall. (IIF)

But rather than embracing this opportunity to let the currency slide and create an advantage for exporters, China sold off $1 trillion of its foreign currency reserves to keep the yuan relatively stable—and therefore give a fake impression of stability. So if anything, China has been manipulating the currency up, not down, for at least the last couple of years.

This type of manipulation continued after the U.S. elections, as Treasury bonds were sold en masse. Prices fell, and yields rose in a highly correlated fashion with the rise of the dollar against the yuan.

Maybe the Chinese want to wait and see what Trump proposes before letting the currency loose completely. Or would they like to show their power, to tell the president-elect they can move Treasury markets at a whim?

“Don’t look for China to ‘dump’ Treasury bonds. That is a widely mistaken notion. The dollar is the only currency big enough to hold Chinese reserves,” said Christopher Whalen, head of research at the Kroll Bond Rating Agency in New York.

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