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US-China trade war: a new Long March?

To date, the US-China trade war has had a clear winner and a clear loser. The first is President Donald Trump, who has -- as so often -- seized the initiative, communicated aggressively and thus controlled the news agenda. The loser, or rather losers, is everyone else: most importantly and most practically, the global economy; but also those, like this column, who thought it was all a storm in a tea cup that would quickly blow over.

The White House has made the early running with its aggressive actions against Chinese businesses and, in particular, Huawei. And it has landed some telling blows against the mainland's leading telecoms group, its technology sector generally and also some other of Beijing's strategic priorities: see this new piece of scoutAsia research for the potential impact of tariffs on China's attempt to ramp up biofuel production.

The balance of power may be about to shift, however. At the start of this week, President Xi Jinping pointedly visited a "rare earths" facility to underline China's dominant position when it comes to this group of 17 special metals that have a range of high-tech applications. Not only does China sit on most of their known ore deposits; over the past few years it has also managed to attract much of their downstream processing and manufacture to the country, with a lot of production relocating from Japan. 

No slouch at propaganda himself, Mr Xi declared the start of a "new Long March", exhorting his fellow cadres to prepare for a painful but necessary struggle against the US and its tariffs. The not-so-hidden threat was that if China chooses to ban future exports of rare earth metals it could potentially disrupt some strategic US industries and products, including in the defence sector.

Then there are electric cars, where China already makes up half the global market, and the lithium batteries that power them, where again China now has the leading market share worldwide -- see this recent deep dive from the FT. 

So while the headlines may suggest that the US would "win" any trade war against a less-developed and export-dependent China, the reality is much more complicated. While the underlying truth is that in absolute terms a trade war has no winners, the point I am trying to make is that even in relative terms the US may have at least as much to lose as China -- and maybe more.

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