The trade war between the United States and China is showing no signs of coming to an end, judging by recent events. But is it a game worth playing for Donald Trump? Four factors to consider.
It is nothing new for China to occupy a place in the political debate in the United States. But, like many things, it has taken on a whole new complexion since the arrival of Donald Trump. The 45th president has made the “Red Giant” one of his main targets since the speech that launched his campaign in 2015. Four years on, the United States and China are in the middle of a trade war with no end in sight. Is it a game worth playing for Donald Trump? Here are four factors to take into account.
1. Political attacks on China in U.S. election campaigns are nothing new.
For example, during President Barack Obama’s first midterm election in 2010, it was mainly Democratic candidates who attacked their Republican counterparts throughout the country for being supporters of free-trade, which had led to a massive outsourcing of jobs to China. Two years later in 2012, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney made a campaign promise to target China by officially designating the country a “currency manipulator.” Where Trump has changed the game is by turning words into actions – becoming the first president since the “normalization” of trade relations with China two decades ago to label the country as such, and to hit them with multiple rounds of customs tariffs.
2. The economic impact of retaliatory measures from China may be overestimated.
In fact, this has already been happening widely for over a year, with journalists, analysts and other commentators speculating on the negative effects the trade war between the two countries is having on the U.S. economy. Despite many catastrophic predictions, throughout last year, the U.S. economy has remained in rare form, with record low unemployment, strong growth, a high level of consumer confidence and a stock market that is performing well. It’s true the economy is starting to show signs of slowing down, but, as I said myself in “Tout le Monde en Parle” or “Everyone’s Talking About It” last fall, the business cycle says we’re due for a recession sooner or later – the last one arising out of the 2007-2008 financial crisis – no matter what does or doesn’t happen with Beijing.
3. The political impact of China’s retaliatory measures may also be overestimated.
Yes, in its reprisals, China has clearly targeted parts of the U.S. which are important electorally to Trump, notably Midwestern states, where agriculture plays an important role. However, nothing really indicates that there is a clear drop in support in these states for the president, who has announced billions of dollars in government subsidies for American farmers who are affected. What’s more, a new poll by the Pew Research Center reveals a record 60% of Americans view China in a negative light. In other words, it’s possible there are more Americans – and more supporters of the president – who are prepared, as Trump suggests, to take a hit in the short term if it means standing up to China.
4. If there’s a harmful impact on America, there’ll be a harmful impact on China.
China’s economy, like all good economies built on cheap labor, depends largely on its exports. And its principal export market, by far, remains the United States. The American customs tariffs are bad for the Chinese economy, which has not stopped showing signs of weakness and slowing down. The recent demonstrations in Hong Kong have done nothing to ease the pressure currently being felt by the Chinese government.
Ultimately, no American president wants to play Russian roulette with the U.S. economy when heading into a reelection campaign. This is all the more true in a context where China owns a considerable chunk of America's huge – and growing – national debt, giving it important potential leverage.
For Trump, at least for the time being, the risk seems to be one worth taking. For China, its best hope is that Trump bites the dust in 2020 – because a second term of office, if it’s anything like the first, could be a long one.