China pledged to invest $250 billion in the United States. Now what?

Posted March 29, 2018 11:09 a.m. EDT

— In November, President Trump claimed a win when he returned from his Asia tour touting $250 billion in deals with China.

Now, those agreements - which span sectors like energy, aviation and tech - could be ammunition for Beijing as it spars with Washington over trade.

"The Chinese are going to see these things as bargaining chips," said Edward Chow, a global energy expert at the Center for Strategic & International Studies. "Clearly, Trump is a transactional guy."

Last week, Trump told the US trade representative to levy tariffs on about $50 billion worth of Chinese imports, after a seven-month investigation into intellectual property theft. The United States also intends to impose new restrictions on Chinese investment.

The moves, which follow new US tariffs on steel and aluminum imports, have sparked fears of a trade war. China is threatening to impose its own tariffs on US goods in retaliation.

China has said it could choose to target items like pork, nuts and steel pipes. But the deal package announced during Trump's state visit with President Xi Jinping could also come up - especially because it involves some big corporate names.

- Goldman Sachs said it would create a $5 billion fund with China Investment Corporation, the country's sovereign wealth fund, to invest in US companies.

- Qualcomm signed $12 billion in non-binding deals to supply semiconductors to Chinese smartphone brands Xiaomi, Oppo and Vivo.

-Sinopec, China's state-owned oil and gas company, said it would explore an investment of up to $43 billion in Alaska's energy sector.

- China Energy Investment Corp., which is also state-owned, signed a non-binding agreement with the state of West Virginia to invest nearly $84 billion in shale gas and chemical manufacturing projects.

- Boeing announced that it would sell about $37 billion worth of planes to a government holding company that buys jets for state-owned carriers such as Air China and China Southern Airlines.

It's not clear if all of the deals were new. And there's been plenty of skepticism about whether many will come to fruition, trade fight or not.

"The Alaska deal, in particular, was signed because it was politically expedient rather than commercially attractive," said Hugo Brennan, senior Asia analyst at consulting firm Verisk Maplecroft. The contract gives China "plenty of room to back out down the line," he added.

For its part, the Alaska group coordinating the project, the Alaska Gasline Development Corporation, said in a statement that it was not concerned that China would pull its support amid trade tensions.

The details may be murky, but these deals could be currency for China as it tries to convince the United States to back down on tariffs. That's especially true because many involve state-controlled entities.

"Whatever trading stock you have for bargaining purposes, you keep - whether [it's] real or phony," Chow said.

That doesn't mean China won't move forward with the investments it deems strategic.

For example, the plan to invest in shale gas production West Virginia could serve a real purpose. China has made reducing its reliance on coal a top priority, and it needs both the cleaner energy and the technological know-how that would come from such a project.

"[China is] the the largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world," said Jonathan Elkind, senior research scholar at Columbia University's Center on Global Energy Policy. "It is an economy that is still building very, very vigorously. That represents a lot of a opportunity for US companies that have world-leading technologies."

In the end, China is not going to do anything that it doesn't think is in its best interest, he added.

"You want to hope that after the shouting and screaming is over, some more sensible mutual accommodation will be found," Elkind said.