President Trump essentially told China to “bring it on” in the trade war fight. Now he doesn’t like how China has responded. So, what is the president doing? Whining about it on Twitter.
The problem with this is that Trump, not Beijing, started the trade war and that Trump, not Beijing, seems intent on ratcheting up tariffs. Ultimately, it must also be Trump, not Beijing, who decides to resolve the dispute.
The backdrop of the latest tweets is Trump’s announcement Monday that there would be additional tariffs on $200 billion in Chinese imports. Beijing has vowed retaliation as soon as those tariffs take effect. When that happens, Trump has pledged yet more tariffs. That would mean that pretty much everything that the United States purchases from China would face additional taxes, raising the cost of consumer goods across the board.
On Tuesday morning, Trump wrote on Twitter, “China has openly stated that they are actively trying to impact and change our election by attacking our farmers, ranchers and industrial workers because of their loyalty to me.” Adding, “There will be great and fast economic retaliation against China if our farmers, ranchers and/or industrial workers are targeted.”
Essentially what Trump is pointing out here is that China is unhappy with the trade war, and that their strategy to push back on the latest tariffs is to hit Trump where it hurts: his base. For China, that’s probably a good strategy.
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The goal of targeting Trump’s base, however, is not to “impact and change” the election, but the much more obvious goal of reaching a speedy resolution to the trade war, which is damaging both China’s economy and that of the U.S.
There are of course, legitimate grievances with China’s trade policy. Among them, however, is not Chinese influence over U.S. elections. And to be sure, tariffs are not the best approach for fixing what problems do exist.
What’s standing in the way of a resolution seems to be Trump’s own lack of a clear path forward. Indeed, when pushed for new talks with China, Trump rejected the idea and instead, went back to his favorite strategy of ramping up tariffs. Likely what Trump wants isn’t so much a better deal (even though that’s what he says), but a capitulation from Beijing — something that China, eager to prove itself on the world stage isn’t going to freely give. For his part, Chinese President Xi Jinping also needs to show his people that China isn’t going to be humiliated by Washington. Modern China's national myth is one of emerging from and overcoming the "century of humiliation" by western powers, a narrative that dates back to the opium war.
That means that as Trump’s anger towards China grows and winning for him increasingly seems to be linked to some sense of Beijing giving in — the one thing that the country and its leadership won’t do — the trade war seems to be headed for a stalemate. China already seems reluctant to participate in new talks it feels bullied into with the latest announcement of tariffs.
Given that reality, Trump’s Twitter pledge of a “great and fast” response to China’s latest tariffs isn’t comforting and seems to push the two countries even further away from a deal.
For all of his complaining and talk of the loyalty of the country’s farmers and workers, Trump seems to think that they will stay true to the president, likely because he believes that their loyalty can be bought with a bailout instead of lasting and real solutions. Trump risks doing additional damage to markets, adding to the national debt and providing no long-term solution.
The bottom line is that instead of complaining about how China is trying to deal with a poorly thought-out trade war, Trump needs to be looking for a workable way out of the mess he created, including a way that allows China to save face. Ideally, he must figure this out before it gets even worse.