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Foreign Policy

Reflecting on China-US Tensions

Jun 26, 2018
  • Su Jingxiang

    Fellow, China Institutes for Contemporary International Relations


The US government on June 15 announced the decision to impose a 25% tariff on $50 billion of imports from China, of which $34 billion will be subject to the new tariff beginning July 6, and the remaining $16 billion will be decided after further open consultations and hearings. The Chinese government responded immediately in kind. 

Many international media outlets assume a “China-US trade war” has already formally begun. According to Washington Post analysis, the trade barriers the Trump administration has erected mark historical changes in China-US relations. The “China-US trade war” is only the start of a China-US strategic game. For the long term, China-US conflict will go beyond the economic and technological realms, and evolve into a “new Cold War of all-round confrontation”.

The Chinese academia has different views about the current China-US trade spat. On the policy level, the US began to impose tariffs on Chinese goods, China took reciprocal retaliatory measures, and bilateral trade friction undoubtedly has escalated. Still, both sides remain restrained. So a trade war has not begun. They are at most on the brink of a trade war.

Of course there is a very high likelihood of an all-out trade war. The Chinese side had already promised to expand imports from the US in previous negotiations considering US concern about the trade deficit, yet the US side appears unmoved, insisting on applying punitive tariffs on Chinese goods. Besides, judging from the list of goods subject to such tariffs, the main targets are those related to “Made in China 2025”, involving such industries as aerospace, information and telecommunications, robots, industrial machinery, new materials and automobile, revealing an intention to not just reduce deficits, but to contain Chinese technological progress.

On trade, the US is taking on multiple targets at one time. In March, the US initiated tariffs of 25% and 10% on imported steel and aluminum, respectively. From June 1, the tariffs also began to apply to the EU, Mexico, and Canada. Besides China, the EU, Canada, Russia, India, even Japan, have come up with counter-measures. Despite universal opposition, the US has constantly issued tough warnings against China. President Trump declared that if China retaliates, the US will add even more tariffs; Peter Navarro, the White House trade adviser, said China will lose more than the US does.

For a long time, on the issue of China-US relations, the pacifist school has been the mainstream in China. With their eyes on peaceful development and preserving what they see as a period of strategic opportunities, they seek to prevent the process of reform and opening from being disrupted by a worsening international environment, strive to build a new type of major-country relationship with the US, further interweave Chinese and US interests, and realize common prosperity. The escalating trade tensions and the US’ tough stance are turning many in the pacifist camp into pessimists. More and more believe the conservative hawkish US politicians are dragging the two countries into the “Thucydides Trap”, and all-round US containment of China is not groundless worry; the US has begun to implement its latest “National Security Strategy” and “National Defense Strategy”, which identify China as the foremost threat to be contained. In addition to the trade war, the US “Indo-Pacific strategy”, the warming of US-Taiwan relations, and approval of the Taiwan Travel Act all indicate the US is covertly erecting a new battlefront to confront China.

Generally, documents and policy decisions the US government released are not the outcomes of whims of a small number of people, but have undergone prudent deliberation and meticulous calculation, and are based on clear judgments about the future. With a great number of strategists, US leaders seldom make decisions without taking all factors into consideration. In spite of President Trump’s peculiar way of doing things, which may appear impulsive, the important decisions he made must have been well thought out. The imminent trade war means the US is taking a step forward on the path toward containing China. Although there will be no winner in the trade war, the US will continue press ahead down that road.

The basic principles set in the Declaration of Independence and preamble of the U.S.  Constitution originated from the highest principles Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz put forward for human societies, i.e. the rights of the individual to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Those rights absolutely should not be limited to the Americans, or the minority US ruling elites. People in all counties are entitled to such rights. And they are worth fighting and sacrificing for. From the ethical perspective alone, even China and the US enter all-round confrontation, the US will absolutely not win. China-US confrontation will bring tremendous crisis to the world, ignite collapse of the US economy, and the ultimate outcome can only be the end of US hegemony and the “American Century”.


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