Easwaran Kanason

Co - founder of NrgEdge
Last Updated: April 9, 2018
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Business Trends

Donald Trump has led the US into an escalating trade spat with China that seems to be growing in size almost weekly. Will there be unintended consequences to its energy industry and strategy?

After China implemented counter tariffs to the US’ steel and aluminium import tariffs, Trump immediately proposed counter-tariffs on US$50 billion of Chinese goods, targeted at high tech products instead of mass consumer goods. He then complained a day late of ‘unfair retaliation’ when China fought back with proposed tariffs on key products from states that supported Trump in the last election, including soybean from the Midwest, the single largest US export to China last year. His solution? Another round of tariffs, this time with a higher target of US$100 billion of exports. China only exported US$170 billion of goods to the US in 2017; this is getting closer and closer to a blanket tariff regime, which could affect goods from smartphones to clothes.

China’s response to the US has been surgically precise, targeting areas that will hurt Trump politically. It hasn’t responded to the latest round of proposed tariffs yet, but if it wanted to, it could turn its eye to US energy exports. The first VLCC carrying US crude to China set sail in February 2018, and the string of LNG export projects on the US Gulf Coast is dependent on China’s soaring LNG demand – projected to double in the next five years – to succeed. According to Standard Chartered analysts, as reported in the Wall Street Journal. “China has become a major market for sales of U.S. crude abroad, accounting for about a quarter of shipments this year. But the U.S. accounts for a relatively small share of China's oil imports - just 4%, the analysts said. That ‘strong asymmetry’ means tariffs are not out of the question. A tariff would not necessarily cause a significant bottleneck for U.S. shale output, but would likely complicate marketing significantly and increase its discount on international markets"

Bloomberg also reports that “the Middle East is emerging as a potential beneficiary of the brewing trade war between the U.S. and China. If China goes ahead with its proposal to slap a 25% tariff on polyethylene and liquid propane, which were among 106 American goods targeted, buyers in the Asian nation may look elsewhere for alternatives to pricier U.S. supplies. And the energy-rich Middle East with plenty of petrochemical supplies looks well-suited to meet the substitution requirements. The region is already China’s biggest source for polyethylene - one of the most commonly used plastics in the world - and can further boost exports to the country along with another major seller South Korea, according to Goldman Sachs Group. In particular, Iran stands out as a likely beneficiary as the Persian Gulf nation can sell the gas at a discount to regional contract prices, said FGE consultant Ong Han Wee. “Iran is an attractive alternative,” he said. “Chinese companies will have to diversify their supply sources more toward Iran."

Trump says that ‘trade wars are easy to win’ but a negotiated settlement in the near future seems more likely than an outright ‘win’.

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