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A Victory for China in the Trade War Is a Victory for the International Order

Oct 09, 2018
  • Tian Feilong

    Associate Professor, the Law School of Beihang University

The trade war between China and the United States is evolving into a protracted one, and this reminds people of Chairman Mao Zedong’s works - On Protracted War. A protracted war will call for a different tactical mindset, it says, a strategic mentality that cares little about minor gains or losses but cherishes the structure and trends. Similar to the early years of the War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression when people had sharply different takes on the war, from “easy and quick” wins to calling for surrender, views among both academic circles and the general public about the escalating China-U.S. trade war are also different.

The protracted trade war is related to the power struggle between China and the U.S., and is also associated with the political will of their leaders. U.S. President Donald Trump is an anti-Federalist, an oligarch, and a western cowboy, but what he actually lacks is wisdom in the application of soft power. Therefore, his signature approach is to apply “maximum pressure”. The hawkish groups in the U.S., out of fear of China, hoped for a replay of the success stories in containing Japan and the Soviet Union. Trump borrowed the art of the deal from his business operations and applied it to the political arena. While it did produce some unexpected results, it also caused more political consequences, value displacement. Trump has made a political bet on the trade war, so it is impossible to offer any concessions under the circumstances. But the maximum pressure exercised through imposing tariffs has already had its full run and he will find himself with no further tricks to play. 

Compared with Trump, the Chinese top leadership seems to be sober, patient, and unaffected, and continues to carry out reform and opening-up according to schedule, implement the Belt and Road Initiative, and highlight China-Africa cooperation. In the strategic vision of the Chinese leadership, China must follow the road of opening-up and universalism, and it will have to build harmonious relations with the world to achieve its goal of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.

The world is witnessing the fast decline of an established power, and the trade war becomes increasingly  unfavorable to the U.S. Meanwhile, China becomes increasingly vibrant. All countries are free and equal, but the practice of politics is always a reflection of the world views of big powers. The free and equal rights enshrined in the 1648 Westphalian system were mostly idealistic, and did not shake the foundation of dominance by big powers. The colonial wars waged by Great Britain and France, the Vienna system formed by the Holy Alliance, and the First and Second World Wars, virtually destroyed the system of international law.

Trumpism, featuring anti-globalization and the “America First” doctrine, once again poses a threat to the system of international law. The United States not only exited several basic international law agreements, it also tried to exert its influence over the normal operation of international law. Trump believes that multilateralism, which is set to develop towards global democracy and to expand global governance rights to emerging economies, including China, will ultimately turn the U.S. from an unchallenged rule-maker into an ordinary participant. Therefore, in his mind, multilateralism runs counter to the maximization of American interests, at least for the time being, when American strength is on the wane. So, multiple bilateral relationships becomes the “new international law” under Trumpism. The U.S. wants to fix relations with all countries, one by one, and then establish a new system of international law under the “America First” principle.

This is a betrayal of the world order established after World War II. It’s speculated that Trump plans to withdraw from the World Trade Organization. Could the U.S.’ plan to turn back the clock succeed?

Trump recently claimed that the U.S. is also a “developing nation”. U.S. national security adviser John Bolton brazenly threatened the International Criminal Court and forbade it to investigate war crimes that might have committed by the United States in Afghanistan. The U.S. refused to honor its basic moral and legal obligations under international law. This is the biggest irony ever.

In the 20th century, driven by idealism for international law in the years of President Woodrow Wilson and further expanded by president Franklin Roosevelt, the international law system was established under the United Nations. Today, however, the U.S., for selfish political gains, began to oppose the international law system, delayed its payment of a huge amount dues to the UN, blocked the reappointment of WTO judges, withdrew from relevant global governance deals, threatened the international justice organization, and imposed unilateral tariffs measures in violation of the WTO rules. This constituted to a kind of self-betrayal, and indicated that the U.S. is quickly moving towards realism and isolationism. Former President Barack Obama and American intellectuals were right to criticize Trump. When the U.S. violates international law and abandons its global governance obligations, this could indicate an  end of an era.

Trump’s gambits could easily score wins against the European Union, Mexico, Canada, Australia, India, or even Japan, but China is a harder nut to crack. All countries are closely monitoring the China-U.S. trade war. If the U.S. wins, then it will mean a quick collapse of global multilateralism. It would mean a new type of U.S. hegemony and it would be a serious setback for globalization and free trade. If China turns out to be the winner or at least does not lose, then the multilateral system can be maintained. It’s important for China and other countries to coordinate to offset the effects of Trumpism, support the international system, and even to coax the U.S. to rejoin the order it originally built.

Under the threat of trade war, the world will have to choose between Trumpism and the international order. 

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