US-China spat could affect fast-growing Asian trade, but it’s also an opportunity for some economies

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Trade volume and activities have been going up within Asia, but that could soon change depending on which way trade tensions between the U.S. and China swing.

In the past year, growth in Asian trade corridors has increased, according to data derived from Citi’s support of clients’ trading activities.

The bank’s client business between South Korea and India went up by 55 percent between April 2017 and March 2018. Between China and the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) region, it shot up by 66 percent in the same period. Overall, its growth in Asia has gone up by 26 percent year on year, the bank said.

Increasingly, Asia “is relying more on Asia” as consumption goes up, Munir Nanji, Citi Global Subsidiaries Group’s head for Asia Pacific, told CNBC.

According to statistics from the World Trade Organization, world trade volume for goods went up by 4.7 percent in 2017, the highest since 2011 and a leap from the 1.8 percent growth in 2016. The 2017 increase was driven by rising import demand from Asia, as well as increased investment and consumption expenditure. In fact, Asia had the fastest trade volume growth of any region in 2017 for both exports and imports — 6.7 percent and 9.6 percent, respectively, the WTO said.

However, the ongoing trade spat between the U.S. and China may soon start to have an impact on Asia, especially emerging markets, experts say.

The WTO acknowledged that risk in its outlook for 2018 and 2019: “Balanced against these broadly positive signs is a rising tide of anti-trade sentiment and the increased willingness of governments to employ restrictive trade measures.”

But it could also be a good thing for certain markets in Asia, as companies look for alternative supply sources beyond the U.S.

Trade-related growth between China and the ASEAN region is fueled mainly by infrastructure needs, while between South Korea and India, automotive and electronic goods are flourishing, according to Nanji.

A common theme is technology: Firms in China and South Korea are increasingly bringing their investments and tech into other parts of Asia.

“Generally, Asians are buying more from Asian companies. Both demand and supply is coming from Asia,” said Nanji, who noted that it used to be American and European companies providing the supply.

For instance, the components of most smartphones are mostly manufactured in Asia, he said.

Various countries’ initiatives are also helping to drive growth. That includes the Make in India initiative, which encourages companies to manufacture their goods in India, and the Shanghai Free-Trade Zone.

In recent weeks, both China and the U.S. have threatened to impose tariffs on each other’s products.

J.P. Morgan analysts wrote in a note that there would be knock-on effects for the rest of Asia if the various tariffs suggested by U.S. President Donald Trump were to come into effect and result in a fall in Chinese exports to the U.S.

Indirect links propagate shocks into the region, and could impact trade and growth … the product categories encompass mainly high-tech products, which would include electronics,” the note said.

“By its very nature, such products are highly reliant on tightly integrated supply chains. To that extent, this would propagate any trade shock into the region.”

The impact would be felt most in countries such as South Korea and Taiwan, the analysts said.

But it might spell good news for some markets. India, for example, would likely benefit from the spat — in the area of cotton exports.

The U.S., the world’s biggest exporter of the fiber, had cornered the bulk of Chinese demand. But China’s move to impose a 25 percent import tax on American farm commodities, including cotton, in retaliation for tariffs enacted by the U.S., may allow India to grab a bigger share of the Chinese market, according to a Reuters report.

In fact, India has already signed contracts to ship 500,000 bales (85,000 tonnes) of its new season harvest to China, in rare advance deals, officials said.

“If China decides not to buy agricultural products from the U.S., that could move to different parts of Asia to buy, to source it. The U.S., on the other hand, needs to export that somewhere else, so it would find another corridor,” Citi’s Nanji said.

“So when you have a trade war, the countries involved would have to go somewhere else. So other countries would benefit. Some of them could be in Asia, or Latin America. There will be shifts in trade corridors … the question is, where it shifts.”

— Reuters contributed to this report.

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