Liam Fox has told Sky News the US trade war with China risks wider “consequences” and should be settled at the World Trade Organisation (WTO).
Speaking to Ian King Live, the International Trade Secretary said that while he understood the frustrations felt by the Trump administration, including intellectual property theft, a rules-based system governing world trade was the way forward.
The White House plans to impose additional tariffs on $ 200bn of Chinese goods from Friday – accusing Beijing of reneging on a series of commitments it had given in trade negotiations.
Donald Trump announced the increase on Sunday – prompting a sharp fall in global stock markets at the start of the week – and kept up the pressure with a tweet on Wednesday saying that he would be happy to go ahead.
He added that Beijing was mistaken if it hoped to delay a trade deal until a Democrat controlled the White House.
China’s commerce ministry said that it would take retaliatory measures if Washington went ahead with the plan to raise tariffs.
A Chinese delegation, including vice premier Liu He, is due in Washington for further discussions on Thursday.
In his comments to Sky News, Dr Fox made the case for a WTO as opposed to a trade system governed by separate deals.
He said that only through the WTO, with the UK due to become an independent member after Brexit, could the world solve many of its current challenges.
Following a speech to a trade conference in London, he said: “The point I was making today is that trade is not an end in itself. It’s a means to an end.
“It’s a means by which we help spread prosperity and that prosperity underpins political cohesion and social cohesion which contributes to political stability and that political stability is part of the building block of our collective security.
“If you simply want to have the biggest players doing what they like, you will not contribute to that and in thinking of that continuum between prosperity to security you cannot interrupt it without having consequences… such as mass migration or radicalisation.”
Commenting specifically on the trade war, he said: “If we are simply all allowed to do what’s in our national interest, we’ll find that we get the re-emergence of the sort of barriers to trade that we’ve seen in previous times.”
Dr Fox told the programme he did not think there was too much space on Brexit between the government and Labour as they look to agree a way forward on EU withdrawal that would pass the House of Commons.
But in his speech, he strongly rejected the idea of the UK remaining in the customs union – a key demand of Jeremy Corbyn – saying it would leave access to the UK’s markets as a “commodity” to be traded by Brussels.
“The EU would be able to make access to the UK market part of their offer in any trade agreement and we would find ourselves in a unique position in our trading history in that we would be being traded.
“We would be a commodity in that particular agreement, where the EU would be able to offer access to the UK as part of their offer,” he said.
“It’s a situation that would leave the UK as a rule taker and in terms of our ability to shape trade policy would probably leave us in a worse situation than we are today, inside the EU.”