Don't call it a "trade war" but protectionist battles are cropping up with increased frequency, most notably with Russia and China.
"This is a war without bullets," says David Nelson, chief strategist at Belpointe Capital. "It's more than a skirmish...there's a wave of protectionism around the world."
Trade tensions with Russia are a fairly straightforward response to developments on the Ukraine border: The U.S. and its European allies launched a series of sanctions against Vladimir Putin's regime, which in turn slapped sanctions on America’s poultry industry. Other tit-for-tat sanctions may be in the offing: The Wall Street Journal reports that Boeing (BA) and United Technologies (UTX) are stockpiling titanium parts in case economic tensions between Russia and the West disrupt supplies.
China, meanwhile, is seemingly responding to the NSA putting "backdoor" surveillance technology in U.S.-based software, as revealed by Edward Snowden last year. China may also be seeking revenge on the U.S. for the indictment of five Chinese military officers for alleged industrial espionage.
This weekend, Reuters reports that China is looking to develop its own operating system, the latest step in the country's pushback against U.S. tech giants. In recent weeks, the Chinese government or its agents in the media have launched rhetorical assaults against big America tech companies, including Apple, IBM, Google, Cisco, and Qualcomm.
Microsoft has come under particular scrutiny in China, which banned government agencies from using Windows 8 in May and more recently raided several of the software giant's offices, citing anti-trust violations.
"China very much wants to have its own operating system" but has a lot to lose here if they really move away from Microsoft, Nelson says. "A lot of their infrastructure runs on U.S.-based software. I don't know if they want to put their air traffic control system at risk."
Similarly, Chinese consumers "want the best product so unless it meets the world standard, [Chinese firms] may find it rough going," he says.
In an effort to reduce the political heat, U.S. corporations are increasingly likely to partner with local Chinese companies, Nelson notes. "The risk is you partner with these guys, and they're notorious: You give up a lot of your intellectual property and a few years down the road they're going to say a few years from now,'we don't need you guys'. What the [U.S.] government does regarding the theft of intellectual property is going to be very important."
To be sure, being replaced by home-grown Chinese technologies isn't a big near-term risk for U.S. multinationals. But China has both national security and economic interests behind its "Buy China" campaign and investors ought to at least start paying more attention to these developments.