Understanding the U.S.-China ‘Trade War’

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. China trade experts from across the ideological and political spectra have lent credibility to that story.  Business groups that once counseled against U.S. government actions that might be perceived by the Chinese as provocative have relented and changed their tunes.  Use of the term “trade war” is no longer considered taboo.

The media have portrayed the United States as a victim of myriad Chinese provocations, including currency manipulation, dumping, subsidization, intellectual property theft, forced technology transfer, discriminatory “indigenous innovation” policies, raw material export bans, industrial espionage, and other ad hoc restrictions on U.S. investment and exports.  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 than its early renditions allow.

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 for U.S. policymakers to avoid mutually destructive actions and to pursue constructive measures that will reduce frictions with China.

The full paper discussing this topic will be published sometime this week, but feel free to dikenson [at] cato [dot] org">contact me if you would like a preview of its contents.