January 17, 2020

The US-China Trade War

Tobita Chow, Jake Werner

President Donald Trump started a trade war with China and is now using his supposed success in the trade war as a central theme in his 2020 reelection campaign. The recently concluded “Phase One” trade agreement with China marks a temporary truce. The US will now reduce some of its tariffs in exchange for China increasing its purchases of US goods. However, since this initial agreement leaves the deeper sources of tension untouched, renewed confrontation is likely after the 2020 elections—if not sooner.

In this new study, Tobita Chow and Jake Werner argue that by reorienting US foreign policy to confront China, US elites are creating a new and serious threat to progressive priorities both domestically and internationally. Their goals are to increase the power of US corporations, solidify US military hegemony, and cultivate exclusionary nationalism in the US. Accepting the nationalistic premise of a “China threat” cedes Trump a powerful electoral issue and risks solidifying the emergent rightwing political terrain.            

A genuinely progressive alternative to the trade war, on the other hand, would transform the China issue from a vulnerability into a strength for the left. The trade war has caused widespread suffering in the US and threatens the stability of the entire global economy. Trade warriors claim these are noble sacrifices that will pay off for US workers, but a closer look reveals that the trade war is designed to only benefit US corporations, not workers. Unfortunately, so far progressives have struggled to exploit this liability, lacking a clear critique of both anti-China nationalism and neoliberal “free trade.”