China doesn’t want a trade war, but it is not afraid


Two eloquent commentaries[1] in the official Xinhua News Agency and Global Times (offspring of the very official People’s Daily) argued in recent days that China doesn’t want a trade war with the USA, but it is not afraid of one.

They wrote that America will not succeed in creating a broad coalition of countries backing the trade war, and that the U.S. will play the Taiwan and South China Sea cards, but there is not much it can do there, either. China hopes America will rein in the situation before the abyss and that it will not plunge the world into a new economic crisis.

In other words, in a situation pitting China against the U.S., Beijing thinks it could win the confrontation. Therefore the political drive of the two countries could be toward war: cold, hot, or of a new type. If China were to confront a U.S.-led broad alliance, Beijing knows it would not win and would try to get a settlement—thus, there could be peace.

What do we want, and what are the options? It seems unlikely that the U.S. at this point will back down. Even without the telling signal of appointing Ambassador John Bolton (a famous hardliner) as national security advisor, all Americans—whether for or against President Donald Trump—are clear that if the U.S. were to withdraw now, it would be tantamount to a major defeat by China.

It is also hard to believe that China, with no experience in alliances and simmering resentment at its borders and beyond for some of its mercantilist practices and assertive policies, will manage in a few months to build up a wide international consensus against the U.S. for its wave of tariffs against Beijing. Many countries may object to the American approach to China’s trade but are unlikely to oppose America on it.

That leaves one the last choice to avert an open clash. If the U.S. were to build a broad coalition on trade, et cetera, around China, Beijing could look for a settlement short of a war with the whole world. This new broad alliance could achieve the U.S. goal without losses and bring America a renewed sense of global leadership.

Some in Beijing and in the world may still be skeptical of an all-out confrontation between U.S. and China on trade, et cetera, but given the current situation and the present level of friction, it is hard to imagine that Washington will radically change its mind.

In 1990, after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and before the American war there in early 1991, many in China believed the U.S. would not attack. Allegedly only one young scholar, Zhang Xiaodong, argued there would be war, and so it was.

Perhaps similarly Beijing should consider the situation now, as the next few months could become very hot.

However in this very gloomy situation two recent developments may suggest that not all is lost. This week North Korean leader Kim Jong-un visited Beijing, thus signaling his intention to de-escalate tensions in the peninsula and come to an agreement with America in the forthcoming summit with U.S. president Donald Trump.

Moreover, there are growing signs that a framework agreement could be signed between China and the Holy See.

These all could be the first, tenuous beginning of a new atmosphere.


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  1. Ted C. Fishman 30 marzo 2018

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