ChiMerica 1 10 July 2019.

There are real grounds for alarm over China.[1]  Many economists believe that the continuing growth of the Chinese economy will lead it to supplant that of the United States as the world’s largest by 2030 or 2035.  Moreover, China is a dictatorship with apparent ambitions to push the United States out of its dominating position in the Far East and perhaps to exert Chinese influence more broadly.  China has been imprisoning he numbers of Uighurs (Muslims) in Xinjiang province.  Some people suspect that, under Xi Jinping, China has chosen a new course.   Abandoning a “liberalizing” path, the Chinese want to spread modern authoritarianism to other countries in the same way that the United States has been trying to spread democratic capitalism.

The Obama Administration saw the challenge in China.  However, it became mired in peripheral issues (the Middle East, Ukraine).  It never managed to mount an effective response to the central problem of China.  The “Trans-Pacific [Trade] Partnership” treaty fell victim to the populism of the right and the left.  It would not have been implemented even if Hillary Clinton had won the election.

Since 2017, the Trump Administration has pursued a different course.  In December 2017, the White House issued a “National Security Strategy” paper that claimed that China and Russia “want to shape a world antithetical to U.S. values and interests.”  In June 2018, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that “China wants to be the dominant economic and military power of the world, spreading its authoritarian vision for society and its corrupt practices worldwide.”  The head of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff[2] said “This is a fight with a really different civilization and a different ideology, and the United States hasn’t had that before.  The Soviet Union and that competition, in a way, it was a fight within the Western family.”

So far, the struggle has been waged purely on the trade front.  For many years, China has been running a huge trade surplus in trade with the United States.  That is, it sells far more to the United States than it buys from the United States.  However, much of that production is done by American companies who have off-shored factories to cut costs.  If they have to charge higher prices to their American consumers because of the tariffs, then why make the stuff in China?  There’s Vietnam, the Philippines, and Indonesia.  In 2018, President Trump began slamming tariffs (taxes on imports) on Chinese exports to the United States.  Then, Trump tightened the screws with sanctions on the Chinese tech giant Huawei.  It has urged other countries to boycott Huawei and to refuse to participate in China’s “Belt and Road” infrastructure project.  Supply chains are going to start to move.

Because of the huge trade imbalance, China can’t exert much direct pressure on the United States by imposing tariffs of its own.  It can look for substitute suppliers for American exports, like soy.  It has started running lots of old Korean War movies (in black and white) in which China battles American aggression.

At the same time, neither side has pulled out all the stops.  For example, the U.S. has not made much of a deal about China imprisoning many Uighirs

However, we are in the early days of a huge struggle.  It is difficult to see yet how it will shake out.  Weak ending, I know, but true.

[1] Edward Wong, “U.S. vs. China: Why This Power Struggle Is Different,” NYT, 27 June 2019.

[2] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kiron_Skinner

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