Trade war with China: What led Trump to act

Hamid Dabashi

The headlines screamed last weekend: “Trump seeks $100 billion more tariffs on Chinese products”. But why is US President Donald Trump doing what he’s doing? Does he have a “cause of action”, which according to Black’s Law Dictionary “is a factual situation that entitles one person to obtain a remedy in court from another person”? Yes, prima facie, he does seem to have a case. If you remember what Mr Trump had been propounding emphatically in a monograph Crippled America written in 2015, things will become much clearer.
But to go back to the present, is there really a “cause of action” that the aggrieved US President has against another, that is the Chinese President? As there is no court here, the “cause of action” boils down to a direct bilateral, trilateral or multilateral issue between two sovereign nations in an open arena, with a potential free-for-all. In Hobbesian lingo, it could be referred to as a “war of all against all”.
Understandably, therefore, what follows is “Defiant Trump hails prospect of trade war”, deliberately not endearing himself to either the Occident (European Union) or Orient (China). Just look at the series of tweets he posted recently: “Trade wars are good”, “Easy to win”. “We must protect our country and our workers. Our steel industry is in bad shape. If you don’t have steel, you don’t have a country”.
What’s the outcome? Love him or hate him, you can’t ignore Mr Trump. He does what he’s he has to in order to “shake up the status quo” regarding US economics, trade, commerce, tariffs, employment generation, etc as he is “concerned about the 46.5 million people living in poverty (in US) and the great majority of middle-class Americans who can barely afford their homes (or have lost them)”. As he says: “It’s not just jobs that are being lost to other countries. We are seeing whole industries vanish overseas.”
Mr Trump’s solutions, some scripted at least two years before he entered the White House, sound too simple at times: “Start by negotiating better trade agreements with our ‘friendly’ countries”; “Bring jobs back from places like China”, and “I am fighting for America (as) I want our country to start winning again”. Can Mr Trump be faulted for what he emphatically believed to be true? Or can he be criticised for expressing grave concern for the deterioration and loss of economics, commerce and trade of his country? Not at all. In fact, counter-questions could be posed to, and answers sought from, successive predecessors of Mr Trump on what made them do what they did, to put the US in a disadvantageous position vis-a-vis China? Could they not see through the long-term planning and the possibility of clinical implementation thereof by Beijing to put the US in a difficult situation? Were they as myopic as Mikhail Gorbachev and his ilk, because of which the once-mighty USSR broke into 15 independent states in 1991? The icing on the cake is Mr Trump statement: “The Economic Policy Institute estimates we’ve lost more than five million jobs since 1997 because of the terrible trade deals we’ve made as we have created too many jobs in other countries”; and “We need to bring all kinds of businesses back to America, especially those that are America-owned”.
Given this background, does it need an astrologer to predict the advent of the historical inevitability of trade (or tariff?) war between the world’s major economic powerhouses? Constant and ceaseless propaganda that “the world is one village of interdependent economy” notwithstanding, that “village” has 223 independent, semi-independent, dependent and other types of autonomous territories, with varying polity, economy, society and ideology. Try what you want, the world can never be one small (or large) global village. That would always be in the realm of absurdity, not reality. It could be in the thoughts of poets and philosophers, but not in the field of diplomacy or in the life of sovereign nations, despite the existence of the multinational corporations.
It may be recalled here that the seeds of the contemporary US scenario were sown 47 years ago, in 1971, by Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger with then Pakistani dictator Yahya Khan, and later Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, midwifeing Dr Kissinger’s secret mission to Mao’s China.The American calculation then demanded the expansion of economics, trade and commerce in new areas like the mighty 96,97,000 sq km Chinese geography’s market of 600-plus billion. It was prelude to an era of Beijing-Washington “entente cordiale”. Both needed each other — Beijing for money and technology, and Washington to access to markets and to contain Moscow and Vietnam.Fast forward four-plus decades to 2017-2018. China turned the tables by seizing the US challenge to make it an opportunity. So much so that the US today finds it hard to know what and how has it been hit and hurt. A few examples will suffice to see the way things are happening. China has virtually penetrated Western aviation technology so deep that it’s doubtful if the US will be able to take any counter-action.
China’s AVIC Aircraft Corp (of Shaanxi) makes SAC Y-9 (special mission) aircraft. “Unofficially reported to have a similar role to the US Lockheed EP-3, with systems copied from an EP-3 which made an emergency landing in China in 2001”. The same AVIC Aircraft Corp is also manufacturing the “medium transport/multi-role” XZC Y-20 Kunpeng, on which a report said: “Recent images showed a design conforming more to current trends for such a type of aircraft, notably the Boeing C-17” (10 of which was bought by India from Boeing Corp for $4.1 billion in 2011-2012). In the US, meanwhile, in July 2009, a former Boeing employee was convicted of selling C-17 technical details to China, it had been reported.
There are instances galore of China grabbing high-end technology from the West through “beg, borrow, bribe, and steal” to disrupt every possible trade and technology system. This is what has compelled Mr Trump to resort to a trade war. Although what Mr Trump is doing may or may not be productive, the fact is that the US President (like India) has to fight a “war on two fronts”; an internal war with the “internationalist” US corporations and an external one with the so-called “nationalists” of China. One thing emerges very clearly — one can quibble with or challenge Mr Trump’s decision, but not his intentions, at least so far as the present trade war with China is concerned.