Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin gave no ground on trade to policy makers from the world’s largest economies, saying America’s message was “loud and clear” on protecting its interests.
Finance ministers and central bankers from the Group of 20 nations finished talks in the Argentine capital on Tuesday with little to show for their efforts to convince Mnuchin to pare back protectionist steps, including new metal tariffs. Rather, the U.S. ended up co-opting allies, many of whom lobbied for exemptions at the gathering.
The March 19-20 meeting occurred at a pivotal time for world leaders, as Trump starts to make good on campaign pledges to rebalance global trade in America’s favor. The international response threatens to escalate trade tensions and undermine global economic growth, and is fueling uncertainty in markets that are already on edge as investors brace for higher U.S. interest rates.
“The United States is the largest trading market. We will continue to be. And this administration is going to make sure that we are treated fairly,” Mnuchin told reporters after the meeting. “That’s a message that the G-20 heard last year and they heard loud and clear again today.”
After two days of talks, the G-20 removed from the final statement language it previously had on fighting protectionism and inward-looking policies.
The meeting—the first of a series of ministerial-level events that will culminate with a leaders summit in Argentina in November—sought to find common ground on key economic developments and risks. The G-20 statement noted for the first time the rise of cryptocurrencies and the need for oversight.
But trade took center stage, with global finance chiefs unusually blunt in warning that the Americans are putting at risk the very international order that they helped create.
“From all the talks in Buenos Aires, one can draw the conclusion that most people have great concerns if an escalation would occur and trade wars would determine the future,” German Finance Minister Olaf Scholz told reporters on his return home.
In addition to this week’s steel and aluminum tariffs, Trump is considering plans to impose duties worth as much as $60 billion on Chinese products. The U.S. president has also singled out Germany, Europe’s largest economy, for running up a trade surplus with his country.
The European Union has threatened to retaliate against metal tariffs by raising barriers on iconic American products including motorcycles and bourbon.
Still, Mnuchin insisted he wanted to avoid a trade war and that protectionism was not the goal.
“We need to be prepared to act in the U.S.’s interest to defend free and fair reciprocal trade, and in doing that there’s always a risk that if we put tariffs on other people,” they will retaliate, Mnuchin said. “We are not looking to be protectionist,” he said, reiterating that while “we are not afraid” of a trade war, it’s not what the U.S. wants.
Bloomberg Economics estimates a full-blown trade war could cost the global economy $470 billion, which is roughly the size of Thailand’s output.
The potential for trade tensions is already impacting some economies. German investor sentiment slumped to its lowest level since September 2016 as concern intensified that the world’s third-largest exporter could be hurt by a trade war and a strengthening euro.
The tension was evident in the halls of the G-20 meetings in Buenos Aires, as many participants expressed frustration with the U.S. Delegates tried to finalize a communique that would please all nations.
But there are also signs that some countries are trying to circumvent U.S. import barriers by securing sweetheart exemptions from tariffs. While Germany’s Scholz was in close contact with Mnuchin in Buenos Aires, Chancellor Angela Merkel dispatched her economy minister to lobby Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in Washington.
And the U.S. may be finding some sympathy at the G-20 with its claims that China needs to do more to open its markets.
“There’s a general view amongst the G-20 that it is our desire to see China open their markets so we can participate in their markets in ways that they participate in ours,” Mnuchin said. “We’ve been very, very transparent from day one.”
The Trump administration is pressing countries to join the U.S. in pushing back against Chinese trade policies in exchange for relief from tariffs, a European official in Brussels said. But at least one EU member said it wouldn’t accept those terms.
“Let’s be clear, there can’t be conditions,” France’s Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire told reporters after the meeting. Unilateral decisions like those taken by the U.S. to address steel overcapacity “are inappropriate,” he said. “We think the right answer must be defined in the framework of the G-20, or the WTO or any multilateral framework.”
For his part, Mnuchin appeared happy with the results of his visit and said he held 15 formal and informal bilateral meetings. He highlighted consensus on addressing crypto assets as one of the major successes of the meeting.