No Winners in U.S.-China Trade War

Chinese Vice President and assumed-future President Xi Jinping visits Washington this week amid growing concern that the U.S.-China economic relationship is headed for a difficult stretch.  An emerging narrative in 2012 is that a proliferation of protectionist, treaty-violating, or otherwise illiberal Chinese policies is to blame for worsening U.S.-China relations.

Indeed, it is beyond doubt that certain Chinese policies have been provocative, discriminatory, protectionist and, in some cases, violative of the agreed rules of international trade.  But, as usual, the story is more nuanced that.  U.S. policies, politics, and attitudes have contributed importantly to the atmosphere of rising frictions, as have rabble-rousing politicians and a confrontation-thirsty media.  If the public’s passions are going to be inflamed with talk of a trade war, prudence demands that the war’s nature be properly characterized and its causes identified and accurately described.

Politicians, policymakers, and members of the media should put down their battle bugles and consider that trade wars are never won.  Instead, trade wars claim victims indiscriminately and leave significant damage in their wake.  Even if one concludes that China’s list of offenses is collectively more egregious than the U.S. list of offenses, the most sensible course of action – for the American public, if not campaigning politicians –is to avoid mutually destructive actions and to pursue constructive measures that will reduce frictions with China.

Let’s hope some of those constructive measures are explored this week with Mr. Xi.