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Alibaba’s Jack Ma Says U.S.-China Trade War Could Last 20 Years. Here’s Why America’s Tech Industry Should Worry.

September 19, 2018, 3:13 PM UTC

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The U.S.-China trade war is here to stay. That was Alibaba founder Jack Ma’s bleak message to investors yesterday at the Chinese tech giant’s annual investor conference in Hangzhou. Economic conflict between the two nations will persist long after Donald Trump exits the White House, Ma predicted, and is “going to last a long time, maybe 20 years…. It’s going to be a mess [because] it’s not a trade war, it’s about competition between two countries.”

It’s hard to dispute Ma’s assessment given the tit-for-tat trade moves in Washington and Beijing this week. On Monday, Trump announced new trade duties of 10% on $200 billion worth of Chinese imports, effective September 24, and vowed to hike the rate to 25% next year if the U.S. and China can’t close a trade deal. China retaliated immediately by slapping new duties on $60 billion of American goods.

On Tuesday, Trump tweeted that further action by China would provoke “great and fast economic retaliation” from the U.S., and later repeated his threat to impose 25% tariffs on all Chinese imports. “We don’t want to do it, but probably we’ll have no choice,” he said. Beijing hinted it won’t send negotiators for proposed talks with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.

If Ma is right, the implications are enormous. Until this week, the prevailing view among investors, analysts and global business leaders remained that the U.S.-China faceoff is less a war than a “spat”—an overly dramatic lovers’ quarrel between two parties who know they’re too dependent on each other to ever part. The new view is that maybe the two parties really can’t stand each other, and are willing—determined, even—to reduce their inter-dependence even if that leaves both worse off. On Bloomberg, veteran China watcher Christopher Balding channeled Gwyneth Paltrow: “The trade war should…be reframed as a conscious uncoupling.”

For U.S. tech companies, the consequences of uncoupling with China could be dire. The FANGS—Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Google’s parent Alphabet—won’t suffer. Facebook and Google are blocked in China. Amazon has only sliver of China’s e-commerce market, and Netflix has largely given up on China. But Cisco CEO Chuck Robbins acknowledged this week that a protracted trade war would have a “significant” impact on many of the company’s core products. Cisco, Dell, HP, IBM, Intel, Microsoft and Unisys source over half their products and components from China. And as China runs out of U.S. imports on which to slap retaliatory tariffs, how long before Beijing takes a bite out of Apple?