US-China trade war ‘just tip of iceberg’ hiding deeper problems in bilateral relationship, says Alibaba executive chairman Jack Ma

  • Ma says he had sensed trade frictions were looming during US presidential election in 2016
  • Alibaba founder was speaking at Belt and Road Initiative Forum organised by Hong Kong government
PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 12 December, 2018, 9:36pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 12 December, 2018, 11:15pm

The ongoing trade war between China and the United States is just the tip of the iceberg hiding deeper, underlying tensions between the world’s two largest economies and the real problem lies in their fraught bilateral relations, the executive chairman of e-commerce giant Alibaba said on Wednesday.

“Even if the trade war is over, the complicated relationship between China and the US will not be changed in the next 20 years,” Jack Ma said. “We need to bear in mind that China has emerged stronger after meeting every challenge.”

Ma said he had sensed trade frictions between the two countries were looming during the US presidential election in 2016.

“At that time I expected there would be trouble with trade relations between China and US,” he said.

He made his remarks during a question-and-answer session at a forum in Hong Kong on China’s “Belt and Road Initiative” – the central government’s trade initiative to link economies into a China-centred trading network. The forum was organised by the Hong Kong government.

“It’s impossible to change [US president] Donald Trump. It’s also impossible to change the situation in trade between China and the US overnight,” Ma said.

He said he hoped both sides would settle their differences through communication and dialogue.

I have been to many cities in the world but none is as good as Hong Kong at integrating the cultures of east and west
Jack Ma

Ma said as an e-trading company, Alibaba could only survive by creating value for the US and China, such as helping small and medium-sized companies as well as farmers sell their products.

Alibaba owns the South China Morning Post.

Ma gave the thumbs-up to Hong Kong’s strength, such as the rule of law and its professional services, adding the city enjoyed unique advantage in capitalising the opportunities from the belt and road strategy.

“I have been to many cities in the world but none is as good as Hong Kong at integrating the cultures of east and west,” he said.

The US-China trade war has involved punitive tariffs against US$250 billion worth of Chinese products and Trump has threatened to impose tariffs on all remaining Chinese imports if Beijing fails to address US demands over the course of the 90-day truce agreed in Argentina.

At Alibaba’s annual investor event in Hangzhou in September, Ma warned the trade friction between the US and China would be a protracted affair because it was about two countries competing with each other.

He said then it was “going to be a mess, maybe 20 years”.

When he left the venue in the Hong Kong government’s headquarters in Admiralty where the forum was held, Ma did not respond to questions about the arrest of Huawei chief financial officer Sabrina Meng Wanzhou at the request of the United States and whether it would affect the operation of Alibaba and other Chinese companies.

Delivering the opening remarks at the forum, Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor said Hong Kong professionals would be instrumental in infrastructure projects in the belt and road plan.

She also officiated the inauguration ceremony of a belt and road cross-professional advancement programme, funded by the government and spearheaded by Hong Kong Polytechnic University.

Lam said Hong Kong professionals and companies could share their experience with officials and experts from countries taking part in the trade initiative through the programme.