When President Donald Trump suddenly hiked tariffs on $200 billion worth of Chinese imports last week, China said it would respond with “necessary countermeasures.” But then it announced a tariff increase on just $60 billion of U.S. goods. China simply doesn’t import enough from the U.S. to match tariffs “tit-for-tat,” hence the $140 billion shortfall in its retaliation. However, China has other aces up its sleeve.
Let the renminbi slip
China’s softening economy coupled with the fallout of increased export tariffs will put downward pressure on its official currency, the renminbi, which is also referred to as the yuan. The central government has tended to prop up the renminbi in recent years to spur China’s transition to a consumption-led economy. However Chen Long, a China economist at consultancy Gavekal Dragonomics, argues it is now in Beijing’s best interest to let the renminbi slide.
“The renminbi exchange rate is one of the most powerful weapons Beijing has in the trade war with the U.S.,” Chen wrote in a report released Tuesday. Chen argues that a weaker yuan would support China’s exporters. While China’s importers would be worse off, the benefits outweigh the costs because China is a net exporter. But, more importantly, a depreciated renminbi could rattle global markets and, consequently, pressure Trump to switch tack.
“If Beijing were not to stand in the way of a 3-5% depreciation in the renminbi, fears would grow that the stuttering Chinese economy was exporting deflation to the rest of world, and global markets—and the U.S. stock market in particular—would likely take fright,” Chen writes, arguing that a “sharp correction” in the U.S. markets could convince Trump that making a swift deal is in his best political interest.
Of all China’s possible means of putting pressure on the U.S., permitting the renminbi to devalue is almost certainly the easiest to implement. All Beijing has to do is wait.
At the same time, if China really wants to up the pressure, says Hannah Anderson, Global Market Strategist at J.P. Morgan Asset Management, “targeting the operations of U.S. businesses is a reasonable strategy,” she says. “In the U.S., lobbying groups and business organizations do carry a certain amount of influence.”
How would China do that?
Take a look at the tactics it’s employed in reprimanding Canada for Vancouver’s role in the arrest of Huawei Technology CFO Meng Wanzhou last year. Shipments of a major Canadian pork supplier were blocked at Chinese ports due to “labeling” issues, while two of Canada’s largest exporters of canola seed have had shipments blocked from China due to alleged pest infestation.
Beijing could subject U.S. companies operating within China to administrative punishments, such as conducting arbitrary audits, enforcing stricter regulations, or slow-walking approvals of necessary permits and licenses. The approach is a nod to the advantage China has over the U.S. when it comes to China-based American businesses. “Operations of U.S. companies in China are a significant portion of the economic revenue that the U.S. as a whole derives from China, but the sales of companies operating abroad isn’t as significant a portion of China’s economic revenues from the U.S. Those mainly come from goods exports,” Anderson says.
Sell U.S. treasuries
Another card in China’s hand: the U.S.’s IOUs. Beijing holds roughly $1 trillion worth of U.S. treasury bonds, making China a major foreign creditor to the U.S. On Monday, the editor-in-chief of China’s staunchly nationalist, state-owned Global Times newspaper, Hu Xijin, tweeted that “many Chinese scholars are discussing the possibility of dumping U.S. Treasuries” as a strategic move in the trade war.
Dumping U.S. bonds could push U.S. interest rates up and disrupt the economy, but many analysts have dismissed the threat of this action. Former U.S. ambassador to China Max Baucus called such a move “too disruptive” while Scott Kennedy, Freeman Chair in China Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), tweeted that “China would just be shooting itself in the foot.” After all, a sell-off of government bonds could weaken the dollar, making U.S. multinationals more competitive.
One analyst Fortune spoke to labelled the hypothetical move as “simply nuts” because if China dumped U.S. bonds it would find itself with a devalued portfolio, fewer bonds to sell later, and a stockpile of U.S. dollars that it would struggle to spend.
And Beijing is not above an out-and-out U.S. boycott. It has exacted economic revenge on foreign nations with such tactics before. In 2017, Beijing banned tour operators from selling group tours to South Korea after Seoul installed a U.S.-operated anti-missile system, which Beijing claimed threatened China’s national security. Chinese tourists’ visits to South Korea dropped 48%, and South Korea’s tourism industry lost an estimated $4.5 billion in revenue last year.
Beijing hasn’t banned U.S. package tours but, reportedly, Chinese sentiment is turning against the U.S. anyway. According to Ctrip International, China’s largest online travel agency, the U.S. was the ninth most popular destination for Chinese tourists during this year’s Labor Day holiday, down from fifth last year. “The U.S. really needs to be very careful if it wants to attract affluent travelers,” Ctrip CEO Jane Sun said.
Boycott policies are often stoked by nationalist propaganda and, since the new tranche of tariffs came into effect last Friday, China’s state media has upped its nationalist rhetoric. The Global Times has referred to the trade dispute as a “people’s war” and the People’s Daily posted a photo to its Weibo feed of a Chinese flag with the words, “Talk – fine! Fight – we’ll be there! Bully us – delusion!”
Nationalism is hard to control, however. In 2012, consumers boycotted Japanese products as Beijing and Tokyo contested ownership of the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. Crazed patriots rioted in Beijing, attacking Japanese shops and causing millions of dollars in damage. Baucus, the former U.S. ambassador to China, has said American brands don’t need to worry “too much” about similar strikes.
“Some major brands are not perceived as American anymore; they’re perceived as international brands in China,” he said. More importantly, Baucus noted that state media has so far only criticized U.S. policy makers and kept U.S. businesses out of focus. “China is trying to limit nationalism—using the nationalism tool—but limiting it a little bit so that it doesn’t go too far because China wants to do business with the United States.”
After last week’s talks ended with no resolution, both sides said that negotiations would continue. However, relations have soured since then. This week Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told Congress that talks would continue soon in Beijing, but China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman claims China is “not aware” of any such plans.
Meanwhile, the Trump Administration has ratcheted up pressure on Chinese telecom equipment giant Huawei—adding it to a list of “entities” prohibited from freely trading with U.S. companies—and Chinese importers cancelled a major order of U.S. pork, which hits the agricultural community that forms part of Trump’s political base.
President Xi Jinping and Trump are likely to meet at the G20 summit in Osaka at the end of June, but hopes that the two leaders will be able to hash out a deal are low. The trade war has been one of attrition and both sides are now too entrenched to simply dig their way out.
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