Middle East is potential final beneficiary in US-China trade war

The Middle East is emerging as a potential beneficiary of the brewing trade war between the US and China as the Asian nation strikes back with retaliatory import tariff rates on American petrochemical products.

If China goes ahead with its proposal to slap a 25 percent tariff rates on polyethylene and liquid propane, which were among 106 American goods targeted, buyers in the Asian nation may look elsewhere for alternatives to pricier US supplies. And the energy-rich Middle East with plenty of petrochemical supplies looks well-suited to meet the substitution requirements.

The region is already China’s biggest source for polyethylene — one of the most commonly used plastics in the world — and can further boost exports to the country along with another major seller South Korea, according to Goldman Sachs Group Inc. China may need to replace 2.3 million metric tons of PE next year if the tariffs are implemented, the bank said.

China imports 12.7 million tons of the product a year, of which the US currently accounts for only 600,000 tons, Goldman estimates. But purchases from the US have the potential to grow more than threefold over the next two years if the tariffs aren’t implemented, it said.

As for propane, China is the third-biggest export market for the US and has boosted purchases from there in recent years. Although the tariffs won’t hurt America as much as intended, the most likely alternative option is the Middle East as more supplies come on stream there, according to industry consultant Energy Aspects Ltd.

In particular, Iran stands out as a likely beneficiary as the Persian Gulf nation can sell the gas at a discount to regional contract prices, said FGE consultant Ong Han Wee. “Iran is an attractive alternative,” he said. “Chinese companies will have to diversify their supply sources more toward Iran.”