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Boeing a prime target in the event of US-China trade war

Tom Mitchell
An Air China Boeing 747-400 aircraft transporting China's President Xi Jinping taxis for departure from Hong Kong's international airport on July 1, 2017.
Tengku Bahar | AFP | Getty Images

At the second and last meeting of Donald Trump's much-hyped business advisory council in the spring, the US president asked more than a dozen US chief executives if the Treasury department should formally declare China a "currency manipulator" and impose punitive tariffs on Chinese imports.

"None of them thought it was a good idea," said one person who attended the meeting on April 11. Within 24 hours, Mr Trump had publicly backed away from his threat to start a trade war between the world's two largest economies.

No US company breathed a bigger sigh of relief after Mr Trump's currency manipulator bluff than Boeing, which was represented on the president's council by its former chairman and chief executive James McNerney.

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Last week, the US aeroplane maker released its latest market forecast for China. The forecast reveals just how big a bullet Boeing dodged in April — and also just how hollow Mr Trump's China trade-war threats are likely to prove if he considers America's broader economic interests.

Four of the world's nine biggest narrow-body aeroplane fleets are operated by Chinese carriers. Boeing predicts that over the next 20 years China-based airlines will spend $1.1tn on more than 7,200 new aeroplanes, accounting for one-fifth of global demand.

For Boeing, the China market looms even larger. Since 2013, one out of every four Boeing deliveries has gone to a Chinese carrier, a bigger share than any other country or region.

"When you think of growth you think of China," Randy Tinseth, the Boeing vice-president who oversees its global sales strategies, said at a briefing last week in Beijing.

"We haven't seen anything like the rate of expansion [of China's aviation industry] before. The growth here over such a long period of time is unprecedented."

Many of the statistics underpinning Boeing's bullish China forecast are remarkable.

For all the warranted concern about the country's rising debt levels and ever slower annual economic growth rates, it is easy to forget just how big the pay-off will be for a range of industries if the ruling Chinese Communist party can navigate some admittedly daunting financial and economic challenges.

The real prize is not China's economy overtaking that of the US economy in size, but ultimately becoming four times larger assuming that 1.4bn Chinese eventually enjoy individual wealth levels equal to 325m people in the US. That is the ultimate goal of President Xi Jinping's "Chinese dream".

In the aviation sector there are just 250 commercial airports in China and 750 in the US. Only 10 per cent of all Chinese people have a passport, compared to roughly 40 per cent in the US. And Boeing predicts that by 2020 there will be more middle-class consumers in China than there are people in the US.

For many observers, Boeing's booming China business makes it a likely casualty in any Sino-US trade war just as bilateral tensions are on the rise.

In July, Mr Trump rejected an offer by Beijing to reduce the capacity of its steel industry, telling his advisers that he preferred to impose punitive tariffs on Chinese steel exports.

As one aviation executive puts it, in the event of a Sino-US trade war "Boeing would be the meat in the sandwich".

There are, however, some good reasons to believe that Mr Xi's administration would not automatically target Boeing for retribution.

As Mr Tinseth observed: "If you're going to be in this market you're going to have partners here."

All of Boeing's planes have China-made parts in them. Chinese aviation executives also crave US technology and know-how.

That comes from joint ventures such as Boeing's only overseas finishing facility for its 737 narrow-body planes, which will begin operations next year in Zhejiang province.

It would be far better for China's larger economic interests if Mr Xi diverted orders of, say, US agricultural commodities to other countries rather than wounding a commercial partner as valuable as Boeing.

It would also be consistent with the Chinese president's reputation as a man who thinks through the consequences of his actions.

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