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US-China trade war fears escalate as threats ramp up

The escalating trade confrontation between Washington and Beijing threatened to boil over Friday after President Donald Trump lashed out again and China called on the European Union to join the battle, sending global stocks into the red.

Trump remained defiant and argued the pain of the dispute will pay off in the end, while China said that his administration would only “shoot itself in the foot” if it didn’t back down from the “extremely wrong” threats.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin acknowledged there was a risk of a trade war, but said the intention is to defend US interests and the administration remains willing to negotiate.

But top White House economic advisor Larry Kudlow reversed himself, and warned that the tariff threat is not a negotiating tactic.

Global stock markets were unhappy with the turn of events, as Wall Street dropped more than two percent, following European and Asian markets lower.

In the wake of the decision to impose steep tariffs on steel and aluminum imports, the United States on Tuesday published a list of $50 billion in Chinese goods to be hit by tariffs over what Washington says is widespread theft of intellectual property and technology.

China retaliated by unveiling planned levies on $50 billion worth of major US exports including soybeans, cars and small aircraft.

Trump hit back again late Thursday, instructing trade officials to consider tariffs on an additional $100 billion in imports.

“Rather than remedy its misconduct, China has chosen to harm our farmers and manufacturers,” Trump said, calling Beijing’s reaction “unfair.”

So far, only the tariffs on steel and aluminum have taken effect, but Trump’s latest threats take the dispute to a new level: China cannot retaliate in kind since it only imports $130 billion in US products, meaning it would have to find another way to respond.

Amid widespread concern, and calls for restraint from US businesses and farm states most vulnerable to Chinese retaliation, Trump said Friday the outcome would be worth the short-term risk.

“I’m not saying there’s not going to be any pain,” he told WABC radio in New York, but “we’re going to be much stronger for it.”

Risk of trade war

Speaking on CNBC, Mnuchin said Trump is not aiming to provoke a conflict with China, but he is determined to defend US interests and “there is the potential of a trade war.”

However, he said the White House is willing to negotiate and is in regular contact with Chinese officials. He argued that the situation could be a “win-win” for China and the United States if Beijing opens up its economy.

“I’m cautiously optimistic to work this out,” Mnuchin said, adding that “I think that we can manage this without significant difficulty to the overall economy.”

Earlier in the day Kudlow tried to ease market concerns, saying the latest round of tariff threats were “just a proposed idea which will be vetted” by the US Trade Representative.

Later however he reversed course, telling reporters at the White House that the threats were not a bluff.

“Trump is not just using tariffs as a negotiating card, he’s said that to me,” Kudlow warned.

“Something has to change” on China’s policies towards intellectual property rights.

Slippery slope

China vowed to “fight back immediately and without hesitation,” state media said.

“It is a battle between unilateralism and multilateralism, and between protectionism and free trade as well,” Commerce Ministry spokesman Gao Feng said, according to official news agency Xinhua