BEIJING — Donald Trump could not have been clearer in his election campaign: China is cheating the United States out of millions of jobs, and will be forced to behave through dramatically higher tariffs if necessary.
And the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), an ambitious trade deal involving a dozen Pacific Rim countries, would represent “the death blow” for American manufacturing, according to Trump. The first pledge in his seven-point plan to rebuld the American economy is to withdraw from that deal.
Yet in China and around Asia on Thursday, it was almost as if Trump’s election victory hadn’t happened.
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The powerful lower house of Japan’s parliament went ahead and ratified the TPP, while its stock market rose nearly 7 percent, more than erasing the previous day’s declines. Shares in China rose, too, up more than 1 percent to recoup earlier losses, and the Communist Party argued that the big picture of Sino-U.S. relations wouldn’t change.
“After all, election language is still election language,” the party newspaper , the People’s Daily, said in an editorial that argued that expanding trade relations had proved mutually beneficial to both countries.
“Rational people realize that after decades of development, economic and trade cooperation has become the brightest spot in Sino-U.S. relations.”
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Several Chinese economic and trade experts took a similar view. Following through on a threat to impose tariffs of up to 45 percent on China would be “unrealistic,” said Tu Xinquan, director of China Institute for WTO studies at the University of International Business and Economics in Beijing.
“Trump is a businessman and he’s not that stupid,” he said.
Those sentiments were echoed by experts at Gavekal Dragonomics in Beijing, who argued that tariffs would harm the very people Trump had vowed to defend — working class American consumers — and spark retaliation from China that would hurt U.S. businesses.
“This makes it an empty bluff, one that Beijing has doubtless already seen through,” they wrote in a client note.
The American business community in China, whose massive investments here could be dramatically disrupted by a trade war between the two nations, also pointed out that campaign commentary was not government policy.
“The president-elect will get absolutely nothing done and create much uncertainty if he carries through with his campaign rhetoric on trade and China,” said James Zimmerman, chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce in China. “The president-elect and his team will quickly realize that it’s important to work with China, given that our two economies are more and more interdependent and integrated.”
Such optimistic commentary also emerged from the British business community in the wake of that country’s vote to withdraw from the European Union — the government, some business leaders argued, would not be so stupid as to withdraw entirely from the Single Market. Yet five months later, just such a withdrawal, known as Hard Brexit, looks increasingly likely.
Similarly, some experts insist that Trump’s promises to raise tariffs and launch a fusillade of anti-dumping cases against China — as well as stop any further discussion of the TPP — cannot simply be written off as rhetoric.
“His repeated call for building a wall against Mexico or repeal the Affordable Health Care Act could be tough to carry out,” wrote Deborah Elms, executive director of the Asian Trade Center in Singapore, in a blogpost.
“But his room for maneuver on trade, by contrast, is much greater and could allow him to show results to his supporters within the first 100 days of his administration.”
In Seoul, there was mounting concern that Trump might demand the scrapping and renegotiation of the Korea-U.S. trade deal that took effect almost five years ago — although there was no mention of trade issues in South Korea’s read-out of a phone call between President Park Geun-hye and Trump on Thursday.
“I am with you,” the presidential Blue House quoted Trump as telling Park. “We will all be safe together.”
Government officials have been trying to play down fears about the deal, arguing that Trump would not be willing to take such a grave step with a major military ally.
The Korea Economic Research Institute recently estimated that South Korea would lose $30 billion over the next five years if the U.S. ripped up the free trade deal, with the automobile industry taking almost half the brunt.
Even if Trump doesn’t take that step, analysts in Seoul say a Trump administration will be more protectionist, a huge concern for a country that relies on exports of products like Samsung phones and Hyundai cars.
Hyundai and its affiliate Kia both have car plants in the United States , but they still shipped more than 800,000 vehicles there last year.
In Japan, the government pressed ahead with its plan to ratify the TPP deal. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had been trying to have the Diet approve the deal before the American election, apparently hoping that a pact ratified by the second-biggest member would be harder to re-negotiate. He finally succeeded in getting the approval of the lower house on Thursday afternoon.
The deal is a key part of Abe’s plan to revive Japan’s lackluster economy, and force through structural reforms. TPP was not discussed when Abe held a 20-minute phone call with Trump on Wednesday, aides said, and they said Japan was hoping President Obama could push the deal through Congress before the end of the year.
Abe will meet Trump in New York next week, stopping there on his way to the APEC meeting in Peru.
Junichi Sugawara of the Mizuho Research Institute said Japan was still uncertain what to make of Trump’s campaign pledges on trade.
“There’s no doubt that he’ll pursue policies that are more protectionist,” Sugawara said. “Some people wonder if Trump will propose a bilateral free trade agreement instead of TPP. Japan is looking for clues in the dark.”
In China, the American Chamber of Commerce is also still hoping for the TPP to be approved before Obama leaves office, arguing the deal would set a high bar for trade in Asia and ultimately encourage China to open its own markets and treat foreign companies more fairly, if it wants to join.
Fifield reported from Tokyo. Luna Lin in Beijing, Yuki Oda in Tokyo and Yoonjung Seo in Seoul also contributed reporting.