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Trump’s trade rants against China are so 2005

Donald Trump has fired up his base of supporters with the accusation that China’s stealing American jobs and gaming its currency to stoke exports.

“They are a manipulator, grand master level,” the Republican US presidential candidate said in a speech at the New York Economic Club last month. He vows to impose punishing trade tariffs of up to 45 per cent if China doesn’t change the predatory practises he sees.

Such fiery rhetoric is powerful, but the characterizations are dated — by about a decade.

This year shows the US now has far more to fear from an economically hobbled China, where growth is the weakest in decades. In January, the prospect of a Chinese hard landing contributed to a sell-off in stocks in America and around the world. China’s stabilisation, through pumping up domestic demand and shifting away from its historic reliance on exports, put a floor under the global economy and markets.

China’s efforts to wean itself off of exports were visible in the latest data released on Wednesday, which showed public investment and consumption were key pillars to the country’s stable 6.7 per cent growth last quarter. China’s services sector now accounts for more than half of its US$11-trillion economy, while exports are shrinking.

“Donald Trump’s views on China do seem stuck in a time warp,” said David Loevinger, a former China specialist at the US Department of the Treasury and now an analyst at fund manager TCW Group.

China no longer appears the mercantile superpower that Trump represents. That was more applicable back in 2005, when the country’s current-account surplus was still swelling and before it loosened a long-held currency peg to the dollar.

The surplus is now less than 3 per cent of gross domestic product, compared with the peak of near-10 per cent in 2007. The IMF predicts a continued drop to just 0.8 per cent by 2021. And rather than actively drive down its currency, China has drawn down foreign exchange reserves to stem its slide and limit destabilising capital outflows.

As Trump bashed China, he sought deals with its government-owned energy firm State Grid

Western trading partners, including the US, have abundant evidence for criticising China over dumping steel on the global market, its glacial financial-market reforms and corporate-debt binge.

It’s tougher to characterise China as a currency manipulator. True, its currency has weakened 3.7 per cent this year. Yet the yuan has appreciated by more than 22 per cent since China abolished its currency peg in 2005.

In the increasingly unlikely event of a Trump administration that slapped punitive tariffs on China, the move would court a devastating trade war that would hurt both economies, TCW’s Loevinger said.

While the US continues to have a gaping goods-trade deficit with China, its exports of services to the country are growing rapidly, reaching US$42 billion in 2014 and making it the US fourth-largest services export market, according to the US China Business Council. Between 2006 and 2014, services exports to China grew more than 300 per cent.

China is also an increasing source of investment capital for the US, as its companies and households seek to diversify their holdings at least in part to the world’s No. 1 economy.

As No. 2 — and No. 1 when it comes to global growth contribution — the damage from Trump-style tariffs to China would cause pain felt round the world. It would be highly contractionary, deflationary and wipe hundreds of billions off China’s GDP, according to Kevin Lai, chief economist for Asia excluding Japan at Daiwa Capital Markets in Hong Kong.

A trade war with China could hamper US access to an economy that’s increasingly consumer driven. Retail sales in the country climbed 10.4 per cent in the year through September compared with 2015, a pace that would see them more than doubling by 2023. The gains are vastly outpacing manufacturing, which rose 6 per cent by the same measure.

“His remarks about the yuan being undervalued and the Chinese stealing US manufacturing jobs were headlines from the long past,” Cao Heping, a professor at Peking University’s school of economics, said of Trump.

Clinton has said she will take tougher action against “unfair trade practises like when China dumps cheap steel in our markets.” At the same time, she drew a contrast in June with Trump, whom she said “wants to start a trade war with China.” She went on: “We went down that road in the 1930s. It made the Great Depression longer and more painful.”

Yet unlike the mid-2000s, when China grew at double-digit rates thanks primarily to export-fuelled growth, the current Chinese economy is far more balanced.

“Trump’s ideas about China sound old to me,” said Alicia Garcia Herrero, chief economist for Asia Pacific at Natixis SA in Hong Kong. “But it is also in the world’s interest that China resolves its long-standing issues to lift productivity even at the cost of lower growth. That is healthier for the world in the medium run.”