It was 27 years ago when Deng Xiaoping observed that “Saudi Arabia has oil; China has rare earths.”
Talk about a prescient observation. In the early 1990s, China’s then-supreme leader had zero inkling of the iPhones, Tesla cars, drones, robots and high-tech fighter jets yet to come. Yet China’s dominance over these vital inputs is more relevant than ever as the trade war intensifies.
There is a pervasive view that President Xi Jinping’s government has less leverage over Donald Trump’s. Why, then, is Xi the one walking away from a truce? With Trump increasingly desperate for a win, any win, on the global stage, China could get off cheap.
Xi’s team could be misreading the moment. Or putting testosterone ahead of geopolitical peace. A more interesting reading: Beijing reckons it has more cards to play in this game than investors recognized.
In May, Xi made a pointedly-timed visit to a rare earth facility. Though not quite Saudi oil, China’s massive store of elements vital to myriad tech products gives Beijing considerable leverage over Silicon Valley.
It’s but one example of how China may have Trump over a barrel. What other cards are up Xi’s sleeve?
Louis Gave of Gavekal Research just put out one of the more intriguing lists of possibilities. On it: banning rare-earth exports; making life “impossible” for U.S. executives operating in China; devaluing the currency; dumping huge blocks of U.S. Treasury securities; engineering a plunge in global energy prices; sharp drops in orders of goods across the board.
There are a couple of other options. One, dissuading mainland consumers from visiting America. Two, pull a Huawei Technologies on pivotal U.S. companies. This latter step could wreak immediate havoc with the Dow Jones Industrial Average.
Imagine the blow if Xi’s government suddenly closed off Boeing’s access to Asia’s biggest economy. Or if General Motors found its cars parked at Chinese customs. Halting Apple Inc.’s sales would send its own shockwaves through corporate America. Curbing Chinese imports of American soybeans would do the same in agricultural circles.
So far, China has kept retaliatory moves to a minimum. Xi seems to be rolling the dice that Trump will get distracted or impatient and move on to another target—like Japan. His calculation also seems aimed at 2020. Why give away the store to Trump when Americans might elect a less erratic leader?
Weaponizing rate-earths minerals might be Xi’s first real shot across Corporate America’s bow. The U.S. has other sources, of course. If U.S. deposits don’t suffice, companies could turn to Australia, Myanmar, India, Brazil or Thailand. And Trump seems tight enough with Vladimir Putin to score some stock from Russia. But the supply chain disruptions would surely have top CEOs — who tend to be big campaign donors — calling Trump to register their dismay.
It could backfire, too. In 2019, Beijing deprived Tokyo of rare-earth metals and China’s market share has never been the same since. “Unfortunately,” Gave says, “this would give China a ‘feel-good’ boost, but be as productive as landing a mild blow on Mike Tyson’s nose. Such an export ban would undermine China’s long-term production capacity, for the simple reason that rare earths are not that rare.”
The dumping-dollar-debt option could be especially dangerous. Just like an “uncontrolled currency depreciation,” says Michael Hirson of Eurasia Group, selling huge blocks of U.S. Treasuries would “threaten blowback to China’s economy.”
Any surge in bond yields could devastate the American consumer. The shockwaves would quickly zoom from Wall Street to Shanghai. Xi might be hinting at such a move, though, as Beijing buys fewer and fewer Treasuries. At present, China has more than $1.1 trillion of U.S. government securities. Xi seems to think that’s more than enough.
Even so, markets may live in semi-constant fear of a massive bond route bearing Chinese fingerprints. Or any number of ways in which China would ratchet up tensions with Trump and vice versa.
“The path to a potential de-escalating deal is fraught with challenges as both sides dig in, and how markets react will likely help determine the outcome of talks,” say analysts at Fitch Ratings. “Over the longer term, we maintain our long-held view that protectionist trade policy led by the US is likely to persist in the years ahead, marked by cycles of escalation and de-escalation.”
Roughly a week after Xi’s rare-earths pilgrimage, he visited Jiangxi Province, the starting point of Mao Zedong-era 1934-1936 “Long March.” There, Xi called for a new one as Trump’s America does its worst to halt China’s march to the top of the economic rankings.
That hardly sounds like a Chinese leader who’s going to cave to Trump. More like one who’s in this trade battle for the long haul.